Witness, Winsomeness and Winter image

Witness, Winsomeness and Winter

In Tim Keller’s Center Church, he identifies four “seasons” in the cycle of the church’s relation to the culture. In winter, the church faces hostility from the culture, is weak or even underground, and sees very limited evangelistic fruit (as in much of the Islamic world today). In spring, the church is embattled but growing, and signs of life are beginning to break through (as in China). In summer, the church is highly regarded in the public square, and Christians are involved at the centre of cultural production (as in parts of South America, sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific). And in autumn, the influence of the church is declining, and believers are increasingly marginalised in a post-Christian context (as in Europe and North America). Though not biblical, I see Keller’s model, adapted from Niebuhr’s The Church Against the World, as an obviously helpful one.

Four things have happened recently which have made me realise how important, and how relevant, this is to the state of the contemporary church.

Firstly, as I’ve talked about before, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the way some churches, parachurches and individual Christians are trying (sometimes successfully!) to purchase a seat at the cultural table by staying quiet about things that might bother people. It’s not just sexuality, although that is the obvious one in the West today; the recent 20-week abortion debacle in the US was another good example, as some prominent Christians fudged the issue to maintain positions of “influence”, and there are probably plenty of others. In any case like this, the question always needs to be asked: who is actually influencing whom? If, in order to “influence” me, you have to keep quiet about anything I don’t like, whose foot is the boot actually on? And I wonder if this is a question that simply doesn’t get asked in “summer” – because the powers that be are so open to Christian values and ideas – but becomes huge as we approach “winter.” (Put another way: the difference between me and some of my corridors-of-power friends is that we disagree over what time it is.)

Secondly, I have been following the debate, which has featured frequently in First Things over the last year or so, concerning whether the church can be spoken of as in “exile”, and/or whether we are entering the new Dark Ages, and/or whether the best response to that is the so-called “Benedict Option” or its various alternatives. Though the very use of such imagery strikes me as terribly pessimistic and gloomy – which, as a fairly optimistic person, and a charismatic Calvinist, is just about the worst thing you can be – I’ve found some of the arguments quite persuasive. I first came across the idea in David Bentley Hart’s argument, at the end of Atheist Delusions, that the time had come for Christians to return to the desert, which presumably is easier to say for an Orthodox writer than a Protestant. Since then, the cultural analyses of people like Rod Dreher and Carl Trueman have struck me as fairly accurate, and their predictions as inherently plausible (unless counteracted by the more bullish postmillennial Calvinism that characterises Peter Leithart, Doug Wilson and co). The speed with which marginalisation in the public square is happening – contrast the experiences of Rick Warren (2008) and Louie Giglio (2012) for an obvious example – looks much more like November than September to me. I’ve no intention of forming a sectarian huddle in the desert just yet, but for those with eyes to see, winter is approaching.

Thirdly, I spent the weekend with my friend Andy McCullough, who leads a church in a large Middle Eastern city. Amidst all the exciting stories of church growth, baptisms and Muslims coming to faith through dreams, be brought a sombre perspective as well: where I come from, he said, we’ve gone through the whole cycle – winter (0-150), spring (150-300), summer (300-600), autumn (600-1400), winter (1400-2000), and we’re now (God willing) coming back into spring – whereas you guys are in autumn, and may need to start getting ready for winter. Are you ready for that? Or are you living as if an Indian summer will continue forever? [I should say that neither Andy nor I think that means we shouldn’t pray for summer, for revival, for breakthrough, for a speedy winter, or whatever. Nor does it mean we should give up on seeking the common good, as if that was just a summertime hobby; may it never be! But if the Middle East is anything to go by, we might need to prepare for winter anyway.]

And fourthly, there is the question which one of the trainees on the Catalyst Leadership Training programme put to me a few days ago: what does preparing for winter look like? Practically, if this is broadly right, what does it mean for us to be ready for winter? For all my interest in the insights of Manhattan apologists, Middle Eastern church planters, Orthodox philosophers and Church historians, for most pastors it is the practical response which matters. What, in the real world, is the equivalent of turning on your heating, getting your hats and gloves down from the attic, and buying snow boots?

I’m thinking out loud here, so bear with me, but my response included the following.

Rethinking success. Measuring success by numerical growth is fine for summer, or even autumn – how good was the harvest this year? – but it might not be right for winter, where a huge amount of growing and working is done underground. (I can preach to more unbelievers in a week than a Moroccan missionary can in a lifetime, but that doesn’t mean that I’m a better evangelist; there are more Christians at HTB than in Turkey, but that doesn’t mean the missionaries there are more successful; etc.) Similarly, appraising how well you’re doing by how well you’re attracting young, energetic, dynamic people is dangerous, let alone by nebulous metrics like the “buzz”, “vibe”, “atmosphere”, or whatever. This is something I’ve been thinking about a bit recently, so I’ll probably write more on it shortly.

Rethinking leadership. This is a point I’ve touched on before, via the comments of David Starling and Greg Beale, but it’s worth repeating: an awful lot of what is said and done about “leadership” in the contemporary church is at best theologically fluffy, and at worst indefensible. Starling makes the case that “leadership” isn’t even the best word for what pastors do, and reflects a secular business model more than a biblical one; Beale argues that eldership is integrally bound up with protecting the church during the end-time tribulation. If they’re right, and I think they are, then we may find that winter requires leaders for whom courage matters more than caution, theological clarity matters more than affability, and fight more than finesse. Shepherds, not game-show hosts. You get the idea.

Rethinking parenting. Most of us, nervous of the sectarianism of doily-wearing oddballs, have been part of a pendulum swing towards “active engagement” in culture, and away from “nervous retreat”. Many of us are probably so committed to that end of the spectrum that we would baulk at the idea of anything else. But I wonder if the pendulum needs to swing back somewhat, from a summertime to a more wintery setting. Many of the best parents I know have deliberately taught, and shown, their teenagers how to distance themselves from all sorts of cultural slurry that other (more naive?) parents have happily allowed their children to embrace. Like it or not, a lot of culturally engaged parents end up with hip children who don’t really care about the gospel, and a lot of more conservative types end up with kids characterised by resilience and fidelity. We don’t need to be weird, of course, but we do need to be faithful.

Rethinking liturgy. Summertime churches may be able to assume that their people know the gospel, because it’s all around them. But as the days get shorter, and the gap between Christianity and the culture widens, it becomes increasingly important to be explicit about it. I’ve been reading The Book of Common Prayer a bit recently, and it’s hard to get through more than a few pages without being reminded again and again of the gospel. How much of the Christian message could someone deduce from hearing what people in my church say or sing each week? (I know they hear the gospel regularly, of course, but saying/singing something has much more power to embed an idea than hearing it.) Again, I expect I’ll be writing a bit more about this in due course.

If all that sounds a bit heavy, even gloomy, then consider two more things. One: of far more importance than any of these seasonal adjustments, obviously, are the things we do “in season and out of season”: pray, preach, break bread, sing, teach, serve the poor, baptise, love. Although the means of doing these things may change from season to season – sowing is easier in April than in December – the requirement to do them does not. So it’s not as if we’re supposed to run away into our holes in the ground and hide. And two: winter is when Christmas happens. No matter what month it is, Aslan is on the move.

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