Saturday, April 21, 2012

Good Intentions and Work, Weak Collective Impact

"At one level, it is impossible to deny the extraordinary and genuine vitality in American Christianity today. Ministries of mercy, foreign missions, church planting, and ministries oriented to the care of souls, the needs of the poor, the elderly, and the disabled all flourish and as such, remarkable good is accomplished. But these achievements are largely rooted in and belong to the local church or parish. Para-church ministries have an important place but they are driven by the energy and passion of ordinary Christians and clergy of the local church community. This represents integrity with the best of the tradition. Yet for all of the reasons noted above, the collective impact of the Christian community on the nature and direction of the culture itself is negligible. There are other issues to consider as well.

Earlier I argued that the potential for world-changing is greatest when networks of elites in overlapping fields of culture and overlapping spheres of social life come together with their varied resources and act in common purpose. Is there the possibility of finding common purpose in American Christianity today?

Different people will have different opinions on the matter. Politics has been a realm that has generated some defensive unity among some parts of the Christian community. For example, family law and edge-of-life issues have been sources of political solidarity among conservative Catholics, Evangelicals, and the Reformed. Social justice issues have been the source of political solidarity among their progressive counterparts. Yet apart from politics in these areas, fragmentation seems to be much more prominent tendency. Clearly, there are ways in which the history of Christianity can be told through the history of its divisions and this has not abated in our time. Insofar as Christianity aspires to maintain certain continuities through time, fragmentation is as much of a challenge as it has ever been. The fragmentation of theology and confession has lessened among the Catholic, Reformed and, in some instances, the Evangelical, though it is as deep as it has ever been and probably more widespread among the conservative and liberal within various traditions. There is no question that Christians in their historic traditions want to be united by common core beliefs, even when their ecclesiology varies- agreement on the authority of Scripture, the sovereignty of God, the status of the unbeliever and the purposes of evangelism, and so on- yet when one goes below the surface, one sees very little agreement at all. Certainly the pressures toward denominational, doctrinal, and social fragmentation are significant. Within the traditions, the very meaning of the terms 'Catholic,' 'mainline,' 'Reformed,' and 'Evangelical' are contested. There are disagreements among all who call themselves by these terms as to what the terms mean in the first place.

Nowhere is this disarray more in evidence than among the leadership of the Evangelical movement. As a former president of the National Association of Evangelicals said when asked who the most influential people were giving leadership to the Evangelical movement, 'My answer, I think, is nobody. And that's part of the problem. It's amazing the lack of leadership. Evangelicalism is a bunch of personalities who either are so hung up on their own kingdoms . . . or are so anti-intellectual that [issues of vision and leadership] are just out of their purview.'

. . . even the most optimistic assessment would lead one to conclude that Christianity in America is not only marginalized as a culture but it is also a very weak culture. For all of the vitality and all the good intention among Christian believers, the whole (in terms of its influence in the larger political economy of cultural production) is significantly less than the sum of its parts. And thus the idea that American Christianity could influence the larger culture in ways that are healthy and humane is, for the time being, doubtful."

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