“Personally, I think it is time the church gave up the illusion of a golden age. It is difficult to march forward with any conviction if you are always looking back over your shoulder.” -Nick Page, “The Church Invisible”
“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” -Hebrews 13:8
We hear it so often today, “When I was young…”, “Back in the day…”, “There was once a time when…”, and with each cliche we know that there is coming some reminiscence of a time when families ate dinners together, teenagers didn’t have sex, and Jesus was the master of every house. This is often said to contrast with our times now when the overwhelming push is to drive God out of politics, out of schools, and effectively out of any type of public observation. People weep and pine for a “return to traditional values.”
But what does that even mean? Wasn’t Hitler alive in the 1930’s? Doesn’t calling prostitution “the world’s oldest profession” necessarily imply that it existed before 1960? Didn’t Karl Marx, Marquis de Sade, and Nietzsche all write prior to the 20th century? Then why is it that we have this idealized view of the past? Why do we long to return to the “golden age” of black-and-white TV America?
Yes, things are bad. Abortion is now legal, teenage drug use is at tragic levels, and the American family is all but destroyed. Yes, church attendance is down and atheism and cult religions have more attraction than ever. But, at the end of the day we can’t be fooled by the illusion; we can’t go back to the 1950’s!
Instead, what we must do is devote ourselves to worshipping God in a way which is most appropriate for today. We must confront the problems of today, talk about the gritty details, and come face-to-face with the major issues which affect peoples lives in 21st century America. It is not sufficient to just try and escape back into an episode of Dennis the Menace, when the biggest concern in American neighborhoods was an errant baseball breaking your kitchen window. Today there is rape, drug abuse, and pregnancy, all before the age of 18, and if anybody is going to address these problems it must be the Church.
Don’t get me wrong, there were good things “back in the day”, but those things are still available; his name is Jesus, and he isn’t going anywhere. The apostle Paul constantly characterizes the Christian life as a race, but anyone who races will tell you that the surest way to lose is to spend the whole time looking behind you at where you’ve been instead of looking forward to best plan where you are going.
As well, I do not believe that this relevance needs to come at the cost of reverence. There are many popular leaders today, such as Rob Bell and Brian McLaren, who believe that the only way to be successful in today’s culture is to rewrite the inspired word of God. If the Bible says Jesus was born of a virgin, that must be wrong because we know better than that. If the Bible says homosexuality is a sin that is only because the Bible is not up-to-date with current moralities and sensitivities. These are the wrong attitudes to have. It is not God that has to change, in fact we know that he doesn’t, but it is the Church which must change. We must become more willing to live a revolutionary lifestyle, which at the same time reveres God and engages the culture.
At another place in the book I quoted above, the author tells a story about an elderly, once-glamorous actress who had been successful but was unwilling to change her image to keep in the business. He says that she spent the whole evening backing him into corners, remarking about how she had once ‘acted with Brando.’ He then comments that “[this] is how I feel about the church. It backs you into a corner at parties and tells you how it was once famous.” Yet, like the actress, too many congregations are so fixated on who they were to do what’s necessary to be famous again. We must be famous again!