The crisis of the church’s ahistoricity

by Kim on May 30, 2011

The attributes of being historical and multigenerational go together as a response to the crisis of the church’s ahistoricity. By this, I mean that the church, like the consumerist culture that pervades it, has a very limited vision of itself in time. Such limitation is natural to consumer culture, because the consumer’s being, as a consumer, does not transcend death….

The church seems to have fallen prey to this trend, with all sorts of alarmist proclamations about the need to do this or that immediately. The hyperbolic outcries proclaim the death of the American church in a generation unless drastic measures are taken, And the conviction that we must be living in the end time … is simply another aspect of an overall disposition toward viewing one’s own existence as historically exceptional.

To refuse consumerism’s dictates in this respect, the church needs to remember both its eternal ordination and its historical situation. For the former, this is simply the recognition that Jesus Christ himself has ordained the church’s existence, and God has secured its future. If the church were ever to pass away, then onlookers might rightly conclude that the story it had told was all wrong. Fortunately, the church’s continued existence does not depend on us. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be good stewards. But it does mean that we should back off from acting as if the patriarch is dead and we are the inheritors of the family business. No, the head of the church is very much alive.

…. Yes, we live in a period of unique challenges. Everyone who has ever lived, however, can claim the same thing. Whether we occupy an epochal turning point at the twilight of modernity, or a set of years that will appear historically unremarkable, we need to live as just another generation of the body of Christ.

Doing this runs counter to all our tendencies toward American exceptionalism…. A historical sensibility would do a great deal to restore a humility that the American church sorely lacks.

If we are to live out this historical sensibility, it must at least take the form of churches that are consciously multigenerational. Think about how we describe churches with aging congregations: dead, dying, unexciting. Why is it that the church, like the prevailing culture, seems primarily interested in those individuals in their prime earning (and spending) years? We’re as fixated on youth ministry as advertisers are with the youth market. It makes us feel vibrant, alive.

There’s nothing wrong with the discipleship of the young, of course. But our undue focus on youth and young families means that the church does little to challenge the cultural sensibility that one’s value as a human is linked to one’s capacity to produce and consume. Our cultural interest in diversity stops short of age. But if we cannot even recognize the value of the elderly among us, how can we possibly claim communion with the cloud of witnesses that are the holy of God in all ages? And, denied that communion, how can we imagine that our discipleship is anything but crippled?

Tyler Wigg Stevenson, Brand Jesus: Christianity in a Consumerist Age (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), pp. 216-18.

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05.30.11 at 10:40 am

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Stuart 05.30.11 at 10:49 am

Excellent sentiments. Spot on.

Coincidently, Bishop Nick Baines has a post up that taps into a similar vein, and he concludes:

So, survival of the church is not our task. Shaping the church to better be able to serve our communities in the name (that is, according to the character of) Jesus Christ is the challenge. It isn’t an easy one, but it is more interesting and exciting than simply trying to keep an institution afloat.


PamBG 05.30.11 at 1:45 pm

And the conviction that we must be living in the end time … is simply another aspect of an overall disposition toward viewing one’s own existence as historically exceptional.

A friend of mine who comes from a church background that believes in Rapture says “All those old people decide Jesus is just about to come again so that they don’t have to die.” Yours was a far more eloquent way of putting it, but as a Baby Boom Generation (of which I am one) gets older, I do wonder if this part of the whole pessimistic Zeitgeist. Although my friend’s comment is amusing, I don’t think it’s a joke and I think she has a point.


Kim 05.30.11 at 2:43 pm

The irony, of course, is that those who are trying try to “save” the church on the basis of the strategies of consumerism, while thinking that they are cunningly spoiling the Egyptians, are, in fact, contributing their jewellery to the mould of the golden calf. For example, niche-branding may pull in and keep in the punters, but only at the cost of “institutionalizing fragmentation” (James Wilhoit), thus turning the body of Christ into an assemblage of uncoordinated organs and limbs. And note well, as Stevenson observes: “The danger here is to imagine that such ministry marketing is simply bad church technique, when it is really bad theology that we’re talking about” (106).

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