If you have watched cable news networks for any length of time over the last 20-25 years, you have heard about the “culture wars” in America. These culture wars have affected many Christians and churches, generating much conflict and upheaval. However, I believe there is a greater, deeper conflict present in many churches that most have overlooked. The more imminent – and truthfully, already existent – threat to Christianity in America is not the culture war “out there” (American culture in general) but the war “in here” (in our churches), a battle between 20th century cultural Christianity and 21st century cultural Christianity.
Culture is defined as the shared or predominant “customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group” (Oxford Online Dictionary); thus a “culture war” is a conflict between two or more cultures. Perhaps more accurately, a culture is first defined by its ideals, values, convictions, and philosophies. The deepest conflict in any culture war is not what is different but, instead, why it is different.
On a quick sidenote, two books I read last year – Fault Lines by Voddie Baucham and Christianity and Wokeness by Owen Strachan – offer poignant insight into the growing divide among many evangelical Christians. Both are worth reading!
Perhaps the greatest reason for not viewing current intra-Church conflict as a “cultural Christian war” is because cultural Christianity itself has not been adequately diagnosed and exposed. (My string of posts over the last few months has been an attempt to do exactly that.) In the past, Christianity was woven into the fabric of broader American culture (albeit to varying degrees in different times and places). True believers and cultural Christians often shared cursory similarities: like-minded morality, attending worship regularly, participating in church functions, etc. Respect for the institutional Church, biblical morals (i.e. the Ten Commandments), traditional marriage and family structure – all of these things, broadly speaking, were once ingredients in the recipe of what it meant to be a good American citizen.
“God, family, and country” was the slogan of yesteryear’s cultural Christianity. If you need evidence of this, consider how commonly politicians of the 20th century made at least passing references to their (mostly Protestant) Christian beliefs and/or church membership. (It was only sixty-two years ago that many campaigned against John F. Kennedy because of his Roman Catholicism!) By no means am I claiming the United States was once a Christian nation (I am not!!!), but I am highlighting the widespread influence (popularity?) Protestant Christianity once enjoyed in the United States. And, in many ways, this type of cultural Christianity defined Baby Boomers and, to a lesser degree, Gen X.
But in the late 20th century, after the (counter)cultural revolution of the 1960’s, things changed. Changes were at first gradual, occurring more in certain areas (the East and West coasts) than others (the South and Midwest) but accelerated with each passing decade, becoming more and more part of American culture. In large part, this was due to the growing academic influence of 1960’s counterculture (the movement’s leaders, ideals, and values) and its goal to re-educate future generations away from traditional American values.
By the end of the 20th century / beginning of the 21st century, the “radical” counterculture of the 1960’s seemed relatively tame to most Gen X-ers and Millennials, who were dealing with their own ever-changing culture. (Consider music. The music of the Elvis and the Beatles, once labeled “the devil’s music,” is today considered overwhelmingly innocuous, “the oldies.” The same can now be said of 80’s hair bands and 90’s grunge.) Finding themselves stuck between the traditions of their parents and the innovations of the times, Gen X-ers and Millennials understandably developed a mishmash cultural Christianity, partially tethered to “traditional” cultural Christianity but largely reshaped by post-1960’s American culture. (Again, consider music. This group is familiar with “traditional” hymns but, both in corporate worship and private life, has moved increasingly toward “praise and worship” songs.)
While traditional values might have been taught at home to Gen X (1965-1985) and Millennials (1986-2000), those generations were immersed in an American culture that no longer harmonized with the cultural Christianity of the past. As the “Christian” part of American culture rapidly disintegrated, much (most?) of evangelical Christianity retreated from regular, everyday engagement with broader American culture, preferring to develop a distinct culture of its own. American culture’s shift away from “Christian America,” combined with the Church’s retreat, facilitated the rapid rise and exponential growth of new church activities (youth groups, fall festivals, small groups, couples’ retreats, etc.). In other words, it was no longer the case that Christianity should be lived out through normal parts of everyday life (because of the change in American culture) but increasingly should be lived out within the Church’s sphere of influence (its programs and activities).
Somewhat ironically, the American Church’s retreat from the cultural sphere was paralleled by more aggressive political involvement (the Moral Majority and Christian Right). Many Christians, opposed to the changes in American culture, sought to recover “Christian America” through elected officials and legislation. This political-mindedness, begun by the Baby Boomers, was and remains a hallmark of cultural Christianity for Gen X and some Millennials. Ultimately, this strange combination of an isolationist Christian (counter)culture and a more politicized spirituality only fast-tracked the decline of true, biblical Christianity’s influence in America.
With so many earth-shaking changes occurring, it should come as no surprise that the American Church changed too. What follows is a brief list of how much things have changed since the late 1940’s / early 1950’s, which does not even account for changes in American culture and church culture between the mid-1800’s (Second Great Awakening, Civil War, westward expansion, etc.) and the early 1900’s (Fundamentalism, the Social Gospel, prohibition, etc.):
Worship (then) – liturgically-based, with structured elements of worship, led by ordained officers; consecutive expository preaching, with few(er) topical sermons; morning and evening services; limited number of instruments (usually only a piano or organ); formal dress; seating in pews; use of a pulpit and hymnals
Worship (now) – non-liturgical, with few or no structured elements (mostly singing and a few prayers), led by pastor, worship leader, and/or someone “sharing a testimony”; topical “messages” (rather than preaching through books of the Bible); morning service but no evening service; plethora of instruments; casual dress; seating in chairs (sometimes even recliners at home!); use of lectern (or nothing) and projection screens
Other Church Characteristics (then) – small(er) local churches devoted to meeting family and/or community needs; emphasis upon local pastors; Sunday school; prayer meeting; occasional social gatherings
Other Church Characteristics (now) – large(r) churches devoted to church growth model (particularly mega-churches or “satellite” churches); emphasis upon celebrity pastors; Sunday school; small groups or community groups; few (or no) prayer meetings; age-and-stage social activities (e.g. men’s, women’s, youth, singles, etc.); community service projects
That list is by no means comprehensive; neither is it true in all cases; yet it does provide a general picture of how the American Church has changed in the last ~75 years. Furthermore, it does not even account for those who were caught in between the two time periods while such transitions were taking place. The point is this: The “culture” of the American Church has changed dramatically, and it is exactly these cultural changes (and a few others) that have fueled controversy and division among so many evangelical Christians. The “worship wars” of the 1990’s and early 2000’s were but a noticeable subset of the larger cultural Christian war.
Why is all of this important for us at CPC? We at CPC have engaged in the cultural Christian wars as well. Usually this is expressed as preference for traditional worship, contemporary worship, or some mix of the two. The problem, though, is that most of us have failed to consult Scripture. Rather than holding to the past, on the one hand, or keeping up with the times, on the other, we need to re-examine what we actually believe about the Church. What is the Church – its role, function, actions / activities, responsibilities, authority? More often than not, cultural Christianity has taught us to prefer a culturally conditioned version of the Church rather than to look to what Scripture actually teaches.
As this series progresses, I hope to strip away the extra cultural baggage so frequently attached to the word “church” and instead to see our Lord’s Church according to his vision, not our own. Next week, I will provide more concrete examples of how the cultural Christian wars are playing out among our churches right now.