The Church In The Negative World

As I previously noted, the neutral world church faces fundamental challenges as society transitions further into a negative world.  As society becomes much more implicitly or explicitly hostile to Christianity, and merely identifying as Christian degrades status, it will be progressively more difficult for them to synchronize with the culture without fatally compromising their beliefs, if they can pull it off at all.

How can the church respond to this? My favorite Tim Keller book is Center Church, which is essentially his handbook on how to start a church in the city. What’s distinctive about Keller is that he has both a methodology and a meta-methodology. His methodology is how Redeemer operates. His meta-methodology is how to create a methodology that is specific to and effective in a particular local context.  I use contextualization as a shorthand for his meta-methodology since it is one of his favorite terms.  People who just clone Redeemer miss the real secret sauce because they are taking a methodology that was developed for a specific context and trying to apply it to a different one.

Kathy Keller recently put up a blog post of lessons learned from her 30 years of ministry that illustrates both forms. Some of her lessons are clearly methodology. For example, she talks about how “You absolutely must comb out all of the Christian subcultural phrases that clutter up so much of the Christian church.” Why? “The cultural moment that we’re in now loathes evangelical Christians, and we don’t need to give them any more reasons to disrespect and dislike us.” We see here clearly that she a) expounding a methodology (“avoid piousbabble”) that is b) culturally anchored (they don’t like us) and c) neutral world in orientation (avoid offending the world).

She also talks about meta-methodology when she says, “Precedent means nothing” and talks about using “trial and error” to figure out what would work in NYC.  She noted, “Nothing could be done simply because it had been successful somewhere else, or because churches had always done it that way. We had to ask, ‘Did it fit New York?’” Redeemer did not spring forth fully formed from the brow of Tim Keller. He had to come in and figure it out. He not only did figure it out, but more impressively figured out how he figured it out. He was able to extract the lessons of Redeemer into a meta-methodology that others could use to establish churches in even contexts that are different from Redeemer’s. This is one reason he stands above your average successful pastor.

The challenge then is how to contextualize church for the negative world, something I noted I’ve seen little focus on apart from Dreher’s Benedict Option (itself a sort of proto-meta-methodology).  Let’s be honest that contextualization is hard, but re-contexualization is even more difficult. Keller focuses heavily on starting new churches because he observes that new churches are more effective than established ones at reaching new people. I believe part of reason is because churches are contextualized to the moment of their founding, but the world changes around them and their approach becomes gradually less effective over time. Hence it’s likely the negative world responses are being developed in smaller, newer churches and movements we don’t know about yet.

Like companies or even cities, churches seem to follow a maturity curve that ends in decline.  Why is a question worth pondering. I might suggest that the use of business strategy and management ideas in the world of the church imports all their weaknesses as well as their strengths, including inevitable methodological decay. But for our purposes, the key is that the church must contextualize or recontextualize for the negative world. I will talk about one possible avenue for this in terms of memetics.

Minority Religion Memetics

In the negative world, there’s an agonistic relationship between the church and the world, whether or not the church seeks it out. But unlike with positive worlder thinking, there’s no prospect in sight of dominating or even much influencing the direction of secular culture or potentially even thinking that’s not even something to aspire to. Christianity may get reduced to a relatively small minority.

This space requires masculine virtues because being a cultural minority requires being comfortable with something of low status or outlier memetic that is self-consciously different. But understanding that you are in that minority position opens up tremendous cultural space too. Historically Christianity, as a default national faith, had to ensure a relatively broad-based, mainstream appeal. That’s no longer a requirement. What does that give the church the freedom to do?

The memetics of other minority religions can help us understand what this future might look like. I am inspired by these guys:

Despite being a tiny minority, Hasidic Jews have immense confidence in being highly visibly distinct from mainstream society. Their very appearance (memetics) conveys that while they don’t care what you do, they are doing something different and are not ashamed of it.

Muslims are another group that figured it out. You’ve probably seen pictures of people observing the Muslim prayer times in the streets of various Western cities.  Islam, as a universalist religion, is more culturally aggressive than Judaism. The memetics of praying in the street make clear that they are not just broadcasting distinctiveness but symbolically occupying territory. Nevertheless, it’s a self-confident, attractional memetic for a minority religion in Western countries. There’s a lot to learn from Muslim communities.

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