The church in a position of cultural weakness

This is long.  But please read all of it slowly.  Chew the cud with me.   


I was cleaning up my office last Friday, going through the papers and magazines I had set aside months ago… and I found the February/March 2007 edition of byFaith magazine.  The cover caught my eye: Finding Strength Where We’re Culturally Weak.  Interesting, I thought. 

I have wrestled, written and preached so much about weakness as a theological concept, that I inadvertently have found myself considering weakness to be the position of strength in ministering to our weak culture.  But this article took a different tact: we must not simply think about the weakness of the culture, but about the fact that in today’s culture, the church is in a culturally weak position (as regards influence compared to yesteryear). 

The article was written by Sam Wheatley, pastor of New Song Salt Lake Church (PCA).  His thesis was poignant: “In most of the United States, the Christian church is in denial.  We played such a vibrant role for so long that it’s impossible now to believe that our respected position is eroding – and that a generation is growing up around us without even a basic understanding of our faith.  The reality is that North America is now a mission field, and this is a fact we can no longer ignore.”  In other words, the church is no longer in a position of cultural influence and prominence (except maybe in the Bible belt, but even that is questionable) – we are in a position of cultural weakness.  According to the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey: 30% of all regular churchgoers are over 65, while only 11.6% are between 18-30.  Yep, cultural weakness.

So, I guess we put it together like this: The church is called to minister to a weak culture enslaved to sin and pain, and we are to do so from the reality of our being in the position of cultural weakness.  This is money, and here’s why:  How in the world are we to show the culture its weakness and need of the gospel if we deliver our message from the angle of cultural superiority or influence?!  We can’t – not effectively anyway.  Try as we may, it won’t be as effective as our humbly being the beggars at the table (the positionally weak) who serve the culture of this world to expose its weakness. 

Here’s how Wheatley puts it for all of us (not just his missionfield in Utah): 

“Utah matters because it is a preview of America’s future – where historic Christianity exists as a minority faith – where our tried and true ministry approaches are suspect; where something more solid than pragmatism is needed; and where we must determine how to salvage the essentials, retool the important, and jettison what doesn’t matter.”  (Nice writing.)

“Being an outsider, the church regains its role as servant.  When Christianity is not the dominant faith – as in Utah – when it’s forced to take the lowest seat at the table, it renews its understanding of service, and rediscovers the promise that the greatest is least (Luke 22:@3-30).  From a position of cultural weakness, the church renews her dependence on the Lord.”

This has HUGE implications!  I told someone recently that I see myself as a missionary as much as a pastor (and I need more work at being a missionary than a pastor, to be true).  He responded almost inquisitively… So you actually see yourself as a missionary.  Yes I do.  I must, because times of have changed!  I cannot presume that my neighbor or grocery clerk thinks highly of God or the gospel or the church, let alone understands such things!  And then in THAT place, where there are no presumptions about my cultural influence, there is such ministry freedom!   I no longer try to minister the gospel with a ‘tried and true’ mentality.  Rather, it is a no holdsbar mentality – just engage the weak culture through my position of weakness!  Freedom.

According to Wheatley, here are the advantages for the church that is “culturally weak.”

The church becomes a praying congregation.  “Being an outsider drives us to pray, not as a duty to be checked off the list, but as a means of survival.  The church that grasps the human impossiblity of its task will become a praying congregation.”  “Prayer is not the icing for the ministry, it is the bread.”

The church becomes a listening congregation.  “Being an outsider gives us power in evangelism because it forces us to listen.  When we are not driving the cultural agenda, we have the luxury of being able to listen, and to do so with genuine curiosity.” [Why would we ever trade the privilege of listening to individuals in a broken culture for being the aloof drivers of some cultural/political agenda? Never!]

The church has to rethink its practices in light of Scripture alone.  “Because our worship and behaviors are not like those of the normative culture, we regularly have to explain and defend our positions.  The servant church finds only one source sufficient in guiding these interactions – the Word of God.”  In other words, from a position of cultural weakness, the fact that we have “always done it this way” doesn’t gain much creedance.  (This is not to say that church history and practice doesn’t matter.  Integrating history with redemptive cultural creativity is a whole other topic.)

Thank you Pastor Sam.  What truth.  What privilege.  What preference (for me).   We (the church) should not lament being in a culturally weak position!  

Because when we are in the position of weakness, we – as persons and churches – have to rely on the gospel. 

Because when we are in the position of weakness, we get to serve those who think they are strong (culturally, anyway) while we teach them about their weakness. 

For the sake of the gospel, could it be that it is a good thing that, in today’s culture, “our respected position is eroding”?  Well, maybe it’s not a good thing.  But if we are the missionaries we are called to be in this culture of weakness, it most certainly doesn’t have to be a bad thing.    


3 thoughts on “The church in a position of cultural weakness

  1. Nathanael says:

    I think it IS a good thing that our “respected position” is eroding. I say this because I believe a lot of our “respected position” was based on subtle wrongs that became the norm and would have taken a miracle for us to admit and rectify.

    That being said, all of the unclean things in our churches are not gone yet AND I believe in miracles, so with the Holy Spirit on one side and our hungering culture on the other, God wins!

  2. benzac says:

    I’m sure you ate up this article, Jim. It seems great. I’ll try to keep it on target and non-deleteable:)

    “we must determine how to salvage the essentials, retool the important, and jettison what doesn’t matter”

    what’s the greek for “oh snap?!?” because Jesus would have said that a lot, I think.

    I was talking with a friend last night and we discussed breaking down denominational boundries. One of his college students, a practicing catholic, actually goes to mass and a protestant church on sundays. His reasoning: Catholics get somethings better than Protestants and vice versa. I thought this was an amazing practice in destroying self-boundries.

    Imagine if more people did something like that? I wonder if which side would tend to gravitate to such a practice? I have a guess…you probably wouldn’t like it.

    What does that have to with a weak culture? well, it’s painfully obvious (to those who have ears to hear and eyes to see) that the church has become irrelevant to popular culture.

    Who’s going to pick up the pieces when the final pieces erode? my guess is those who find a way to bridge the cultural and denominational gaps that have segmentized (and hindered) the church.

    One last thought: should we be surprised by the cyclical state of culture/people and weakness/independence?

    weakness leads us to dependence on God – and leads to glory(tried to think of a better word…maybe satisfaction?) – which we misrepresent as self-assurance(strength?) – which results in Indendence from God – which leads to destruction – which leads us to weakness – rinse and repeat.

    At some point the house of cards has to come down…we’re weak ESPECIALLY when we think we’re strong.

  3. To me, this part just SCREAMS the Lehigh valley

    “The church is called to minister to a weak culture enslaved to sin and pain, and we are to do so from the reality of our being in the position of cultural weakness. ”

    I look forward to what Cornerstone can do in this culture and how God can use me in the area to do so,

    Every day just makes we want to get back to Desales sooner than ever!

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