Officially, summer does not end until 1:50 am CDT on September 23, 2023. Unofficially, most people, when they reach the early weeks of August, say to themselves, “Well, another summer behind us!” Summer break is nearly over. Summer vacations have passed. Routines and schedules, especially for those with children at home, return to “normal.” And while summer heat will last a couple more months, a return to school and the looming college football season both remind us that cooler weather is closer than it was at the start of summer. (As someone who prefers cooler weather, I enjoy summer for what it is but am not sad to see it go…though I’m sure my younger self would disagree!) Our cultural calendar, more than weather or astronomical data, shapes our perception of times and seasons.
The cultural calendar affects me as a pastor too. I always look forward to the end of summer because a sense of rhythm and regularity typically returns in mid-August. Think attendance! Likewise, a sense of hope returns as well. “Now we can begin [this activity] and/or [that program]… Now that people have settled in for another school year, surely we will have more chances for outreach and growth… Maybe this year will be the year that…”
But even as those arbitrary expectations took root in me again this year and even as the “cultural calendar” began to influence my hopes and perceptions of our church, I ran across an article that hit me with a helpful dose of reality. Before reading the rest of this post, I urge you to read that article too:
If nothing else, I hope you take away from Dr. Benton’s article the simple truth that the Church, at least the Western Church, has changed quite dramatically over the last 50-100 years. As culture has altered the definition of seasons, so too has it altered the understanding of “church.” The word “church” is now defined more by the surrounding culture than (1) by what is revealed in Scripture and (2) by the facts of church history.
As I wrote earlier, the cultural calendar has superseded astronomy in our understanding of times and seasons. Cultural events, more than the earth’s orbit around the sun, tell us when one season ends and another begins. For thousands of years, the changing of seasons was vitally important to the everyday lives of people around the world. Equinoxes and solstices informed people when to plant and when to harvest. God established the natural order and rhythms of creation, and people – even those outside the Church – paid attention. Only rarely in history have people become so disconnected from the true changing of seasons that they forgot their importance. We live in one of those times! Yes, we have gained unprecedented conveniences in the modern Western world, for which we should be thankful! But let us not forget what we have lost – most of our orientation with the natural orders and rhythms instituted by God at creation.
Likewise, just as modern Western culture has lost its orientation regarding times and seasons, so too has modern Western Christianity lost its orientation regarding God’s kingdom. For nearly 2,000 years, the local church was foundational to the spiritual rhythms of God’s people. Only rarely in church history did believers become so disconnected from the influence of local churches that they forgot their importance. We live in one of those times!
We live in a “season” when the marketplace of churches, broadcasts, and podcasts has disconnected too many people from the local church and, as a result, has left them disoriented in God’s kingdom. Too often professing Christians would rather indulge in streamed content than engage in shared community, seek out celebrity preachers rather than submit to faithful elders. “The teachers I can pick-and-choose according to my likes and dislikes so I can improve my Christian walk” are assigned greater value than “the teachers God has called and appointed by and through the means appointed in his word.” For better or worse, this is the “season” of Christianity in which we live.
To be fair, this “season” does provide many excellent benefits. Anyone who has an internet connection can draw upon 2,000 years of Christian literature, preaching, and teaching. Anyone who has a smartphone can listen to podcasts and sermons 24/7, set alarms as reminders to pray, and utilize countless apps for Scripture memorization and study. For all these things, and more, let us be grateful for the modern “Christian marketplace.”
At the same time, the immeasurable amount of information available inevitably forces believers to pick-and-choose what information to consume. One person prizes the Puritans; another savors Spurgeon or Sproul; another adores the Ancient Church; another loves Luther; and yet another pursues Pentecostalism. Which people are true Christians? Which are right or wrong? What is the “best” resource, theological school, etc.? And so on… Even as I write, my head is swimming with the questions you and I face daily – disorienting, isn’t it?
Though we have indeed gained much in this season of the Church, let us not forget what we have lost – most of our orientation with the natural orders and rhythms instituted by God in his word, as experienced through the local church. Is what we have gained on seven days each week truly worth what we have largely lost on one day each week? Is the convenience of on-demand information more valuable than the weekly rhythm of anticipating spiritual nourishment?
Truthfully, I don’t know and am certainly not wise enough to answer such questions. Nevertheless, I do know that all of us today have become so disconnected from the Church’s times and seasons (its orders and rhythms as established by God in Scripture) and so enmeshed in the marketplace of Christianity that we find ourselves utterly disoriented as to where we exist in the grander scope of God’s eternal kingdom. Just as culture has confused us about the true changing of times and seasons in this physical world, so too culture has confused us about the true significance of the local church in the spiritual realm.
Later this month, when we resume our congregational activities, begin leadership training, and discuss new opportunities for outreach and growth, let us – as a local church – let us seek to live according to what God has revealed in Scripture rather than by what is dictated by the current marketplace of Christianity. May we seek to disentangle ourselves from the ways of this world and to reorient ourselves – and our local church – according to those things God has revealed to us in his word.