The Church in Western Culture

Walter Wink, in The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium writes: “American culture is presently in the first stages of a spiritual renaissance. To the degree that this renaissance is Christian at all, it will be the human figure of Jesus that galvanizes hearts to belief and action, not the Christ of the creeds . . . An in the teaching of Jesus, the sayings on nonviolence and love of enemies will hold a central place. Not because they are more true than any others, but because they are crucial in the struggle to overcome domination without creating new forms of domination.”

It’s interesting how Wink frames his hope in a spiritual renaissance: “to the degree that this renaissance is Christian at all . . .” He doesn’t seem very optimistic that Christians will be leading the way in helping to create God’s beloved community on earth; to help bring in God’s peaceable kingdom. The teachings of Jesus on non-violence and love of enemies will surely serve as a divine lure, a catalyst for change, but will Christians be the ones taking Jesus’ life and teachings seriously?

I believe Christians will be in the forefront of this renaissance; but I doubt if the church will be there. Let me clarify. The church as an institution, that is. Look around at the average church in western culture. What do you see? A force for change? Welcoming, accepting, grace-filled communities? Communities working for justice and peace? Communities that invite questions and dialogue? Communities that cooperate and collaborate with all groups of people, people of other faiths or no faith at all, working for the good of others and our planet? Some churches are, thank God, but these are the exceptions.

Most churches are closed systems; little corporations that exist for their own benefit. Fortresses of dogma; they have their doctrine, policies, and institutional life all carefully regulated and controlled, and they don’t need the help from anyone outside the system. Oh, they will accept people—on their terms; as long as they conform to their beliefs and practices. And this is why most churches have become completely useless and ineffective in partnering with Christ in the realization of God’s peaceable kingdom on earth. Longing for an afterlife, they have given up on this life. Preaching a gospel of escape to heaven, they are quite content in letting the earth go to hell.

When Christ called out a group of disciples, who would later reproduce and organize into churches, he called these disciples to walk in his way (the first disciples were known as followers of “the way”). The way is not the way to heaven. The way is the way to a transformed world pervaded by goodness and grace; it is the way to communities of love, to redeemed and reconciled relationships, to careful stewardship and care for the planet. The way of Jesus is the way of humility, forgiveness, inclusion, and unconditional love.

In some ways the average church has become one of the greatest obstacles to transformation, caught up in its own petty squabbles over doctrine and policy. Mission projects are simply that—mission projects. They ease the conscience without having to take seriously Jesus’ call to take up our cross, die to our egocentricity, and live self-giving, missional lives. Most churches would rather hunker down and protect what they have, than dare to live the risky adventure of breaking boundaries, extending forgiveness, and reaching out to people very different than themselves to help redeem and transform this world. If the church is the bride of Christ, then she has failed to keep her vows over and over and over again.

I believe that the human Jesus, who is also the living Christ, will indeed, galvanize hearts and empower feet and hands in the service of a great cause, creating a spiritual renaissance. But I agree with Wink; it will not be the Christ of the creeds, the Christ of the institutional church, the Christ of western Christians, either conservative or liberal.


  1. So where does this leave those of us who want it all; that is, the fellowship and loving support of the organized church, opportunities to be missional home and abroad; opportunites to promote peace and justice; and unconditional inclusiveness? What does our culture need the church for?

  2. Great question. Our culture needs the church to be the church. Not the one it has become in western culture, but the one that recaptures the inclusive vision and practice of Jesus. The church that functions as a lighted city on a hill, directing ancient pilgrims. How does the institutional church reshape itself to become a dynamic witness to unconditional love and grace. I wish I knew!


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