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Equipping the Church to Engage Culture
Our Colossian Moment View as a PDF
The body of Christ has been entrusted with a profound mystery: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:26-27). We have been deputized as heralds of the good news of reconciliation—with God and with one another (Col. 1:22). Indeed, we are commissioned to both show and tell the world that all things hold together in Christ (Col. 1:17).That is precisely why the church, the body of Christ, is that peculiar people who are marked by peace: because we are members of one body we are called to peace, to let the peace of Christ rule our hearts (Col. 3:15).
We can thus understand anew why, in his prayer during the Passion, Jesus prayed for the church’s unity: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23). According to our Lord, the church’s witness is linked to our unity. It is by our oneness that the world will know that God sent his Son for the world. In sum, the body of Christ has something to offer the world: that peace which only Christ can give (John 14:27). And in a world of increased fragmentation and isolation, this vision of peace and unity will have a special attraction precisely because of its peculiarity. We can hope and pray that a generation will see that the peace of Christ is precisely what the world is longing for—a longing that will never be satisfied by the diminishing enchantments and distracting entertainments of a consumerist culture. The peace of Christ is simply more interesting than what the culture wars have to offer.
However, if the church’s witness is pegged to our unity, then our mission is clearly weakened by the fragmentation of the church. And yet some of the most strident polemics are sometimes within the body of Christ. Such fragmentation is often manifested when Christians try to address issues of wider cultural concern such as the relationship between faith and science, questions of political policy and strategy, or the church’s response to Islam.
If the world will know Christ through the unity of his people, why has there been so much division and animosity within the body of Christ over cultural issues like science, politics, or the arts? If the body of Christ is called to reflect the peace of Christ, why is some of our most vitriolic rhetoric hurled at other Christians who might disagree with us about creation, evolution, and questions of human origins? Or about taxation and economic policy? Or about Christian responses to the “war on terror” and portrayals of Islam?Granted, as Christians, we always find ourselves between two worlds, as it were. We live in the now and the not yet; we look to a kingdom that is coming but not yet here. We are citizens of a heavenly commonwealth but sojourn among the nations. So in some sense, the church has always been “cross-pressured” (as Charles Taylor puts it), navigating a way to be faithful in a variety of contexts across the globe and through time. Such challenges are not themselves the problem. Tensions and challenges are always part of the faith as the people of God seek the truth that reflects the way to life—as we follow the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Tensions need not be feared if they are engaged with vulnerability in the hope of new showings of God’s grace. Our differences can become gifts to one another.
However, in recent decades Christians in the United States have become increasingly polarized. In a significant way, the church has been affected by what Bill Bishop describes as “the big sort”—a fragmentation that sifts the church into enclaves and polarized positions defined by various political and cultural issues.
Is this perhaps because Christians have staked their identity on ideologies and positions outside of Christ—so that our allegiance to those dividing positions trumps our common identity in Christ? Might it be the case that Christians have unwittingly pledged their primary allegiance to “human tradition and the basic principles of the world rather than Christ” (Col. 2:8)? Paul’s letter to the Colossians spoke into a very similar scenario: Christians in Colossae had compromised their unity in Christ because they had let their identities and allegiances become captive to “the basic principles of the world” rather than to Christ.Paul’s letter is a prophetic call from God for the church to subject all things to Christ’s lordship and thus find our common identity in Christ.
We believe that we find ourselves in a kind of “Colossian moment” on a number of different fronts. Consider the case of science, for example, since science and technology play an increasingly defining role in our wider culture. It comes as no surprise that our present age exhibits a great deal of ferment at the intersection of science and religion. Many forces have tended to foster a perceived disharmony, even conflict, between science and faith—a tension often fanned by the combative rhetoric of the new atheists (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris). Yet sadly, Christian discourse is sometimes equally combative and dishonoring to Christ. The church seems to have bought into various false dichotomies and thus forgotten that in Christ “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). As a result, we see some disheartening trends:
1) Young people who reject Christ: One of our primary concerns is that, because both Christians and non-Christians often foster the perception that faith and science are in conflict, Christians—especially younger Christians—think that they have to choose between Christ and science. Offered only a Christianity that seems backward, anti-intellectual, and aggressively hostile, we can see young people who simply think, “If that’s Christ, then I’ll take science.” This heartbreaking scenario is a consequence of the false dichotomy between science and Christianity purveyed by both friends and foes of Christian faith. Science and religion no longer “hold together.”
2) Christians who reject science: Others, faced with this same perceived dichotomy, choose the other side of the dilemma. Out of concern to be faithful to Christ, many avoid science and thus unwittingly end up avoiding the richness of God’s many-splendored creation in all its richness and intricate detail. In doing so, they repress their God-given gifts and curiosity about the natural world and turn away from vocations in the sciences. They also miss out on the opportunity to engage in science in a redemptive way, seeing science as one of the cultural labors by which we can foster shalom. By feeling they must avoid science as “dangerous,” such Christians miss out on the opportunity to participate in the missio Dei, using science to advance God’s concerns for justice and mercy.
The problem, we believe, does not rest primarily with science; the issue is the fact that the church underestimates its common heritage in Christ. Sometimes operating out of fear, and thus easily swayed by every wind of alarmism, the church fails to remember that all things hold together in Christ.The way in which Christians might constructively engage science serves as a case study of a faithful engagement and response to the cultural context. We believe the church already has what it needs—in Christ, in the power of the Spirit, and in the wisdom of Christian worship—to face these challenges with both courage and grace, boldly engaging God’s world without either fear or triumphalism.
We are encouraged that Christians in North America are beginning to address this fragmentation of the body of Christ over cultural issues like science. For example, recognizing the hostile environment and the detrimental impact of the perceived conflict between faith and science, Christians have begun developing strategies for addressing this challenge; but these strategies also have limitations. As a result, sometimes our solutions contribute to further confusion, in a couple of ways.
On the one hand, we can end up confusing essentials and non-essentials: Some individuals and organizations, burdened by the problems above, have rightly begun to address the perceived conflict between Christianity and science by showing that this is only a perceived conflict—that Christian faith need not be opposed to careful empirical attention to God’s creation, and that “science” does not conflict with the essentials of Christian faith. The problem, however, is that such approaches can quickly become hampered by a very narrow agenda, fixated on demonstrating and proving one particular scientific position as if it were the necessary and only viable Christian position on faith & science (particularly on issues of creation and evolution). Indeed, some confuse their particular position on scientific matters as orthodoxy—as a matter essential to salvation. Others, desiring intellectual respectability, are too deferent to regnant paradigms in science. They make hasty concessions to the supposed authority of “what science says” and thus treat rather flippantly the historic commitments to Christian orthodoxy, thereby trivializing the deeply held faith of the church and alienating believers. The result has been hostility between Christians in the name of minimizing the perceived hostility between science and Christianity.On the other hand, Christians concerned about these issues can fall into culture-war agendas. Because issues of science and religion have become political footballs of both the left and right in American politics, Christians engaged in these discussions have sometimes fallen prey to partisan agendas. Thus, for example, the project of scientifically establishing “design” has been seen as a way of securing a particular moral agenda which could then be legislated. The perhaps unintentional result of such culture-war approaches to science and faith has been to advance particular political (and partisan) agendas rather than to serve the church. The result, in fact, is that the particularity of Christ tends to disappear from view and instead we get the more deistic “creator” of natural law which seems more universally palatable. In such invocations of creation, we lose the cross.
The Colossian Forum is specifically envisioned as an initiative that addresses the need for a faithful, unified Christian engagement while hopefully avoiding these pitfalls. In particular, we believe that it is crucial to locate the center of gravity for these conversations in the nature and mission of the church as the body of Christ, rather than letting the center of gravity shift to the cultural issues and various “positions” associated with them. If the church has been unable to carry out constructive internal conversations about these hot-button cultural issues, it’s not simply because we lack correct beliefs or adequate information, it’s also and more importantly because the church lacks an adequate ecclesiology. The issue isn’t whether there can be a dialogue between faith and science; the issue is whether the body of Christ has the requisite virtues to sustain such a conversation.
For example, we firmly believe that Christians need to think through issues of science and Christian faith, but not for the sake of “intellectual respectability” or academic turf wars or advancing a particular partisan agenda. Rather, Christians need to reflect on issues at the intersection of faith and science for the sake of the church’s mission and witness. As Mark Noll has recently argued in Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, the proper place for Christians to begin serious intellectual labor “is the same place where we begin all other serious human enterprises. That place is the heart of our religion, which is the revelation of God in Christ.” That which holds together in Christ ought not be divided by either science or theology. In addition, we are concerned that Christians not be discouraged from taking up the good work of science to which God has called them and for which the Spirit has gifted them.
Unity Takes Practice
In an age of increased public animosity, including deep divisions between Christians over challenging cultural issues like science and politics, The Colossian Forum seeks to transform conversations on faith, science and culture by rooting them more deeply in the hospitality of Christ, locating our primary identity in our allegiance to Christ. That identity is formed through our participation in the body of Christ. We are not talking about an abstract Christianity as a set of ideas and beliefs that answer merely intellectual questions; instead, we are talking about the church as that people who are in Christ, and thus invited into a way of life. Concretely, that means locating our socialization in the practices of the church of which Christ is the head. Our primary cultural identity is to be found in the ecclesia, the body of Christ—that commonwealth or city in which we find our primary citizenship (Phil. 1:27, 3:20). The church, in this sense, is not just an invisible, spiritual reality but rather a concrete way of life that leads to truth. Through the practices of the church (worship, discipleship, and spiritual formation) we are enculturated to the body of Christ. Indeed, this is how we live out the reality of being “in Christ.” So if the church is going to engage the broader culture from a Christological foundation, it needs to first attend to the culture that is the ecclesia, the church.
As a reflection of this, the mission of The Colossian Forum is rooted in three convictions:
- In Christ “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). Every aspect of God’s many-splendored creation—both nature and culture—is sustained and nourished by God who has already reconciled all things through Christ’s work on the cross (Col. 1:20).
- If Christians are going to be reconciled to one another, and if we are going to reconcile things that seem in tension—such as faith and science—then what we need is not primarily more information but rather the formation of Christ-like virtues that foster wisdom, charity, patience, compassion, and reconciliation. In short, the people of God will only be able to tackle difficult issues if we first “clothe” ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and above all, love (Col. 3:12-14). These virtues are essential for enabling us to pursue truth.
- We believe that acquiring these virtues takes practice, and one of the primary ways to clothe ourselves with the virtues is through worship—exactly what Paul describes in his letter to the Colossians: letting the Word dwell in us richly, immersing ourselves in prayers, singing hymns and psalms and spiritual songs, being transformed by the meal Christ gave us (Col. 3:15-17).
The Colossian Forum is not primarily a conduit of more information. This is because we believe that the church doesn’t need to know more, it needs to be differently, act differently. And we believe our actions flow from our character, from those habits and dispositions that we acquire.This is why the center of The Colossian Forum’s vision is an ethical conviction: we don’t need more information deposited in our heads that will help us come up with the answers; rather, we need to first undergo the formation of the Spirit who, by grace and through practice, makes us the kind of people who are characterized by Christ-like virtue—including the intellectual virtues that enable us to pursue the truth. And we believe it is primarily in the community of practice which is the church that the Spirit forms us in this way.
Rooted in these convictions, The Colossian Forum aims to come alongside the church—as the wider body of Christ, but also as it takes concrete shape in denominations, congregations and church-based institutions such as colleges and universities—by helping the church to remember its identity in Christ and renew its allegiance to his kingdom, thereby centering its energy and love in “the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col. 1:13). We aim to serve the body of Christ not only by providing information for reflection, but by catalyzing spiritual formation by providing training in those practices which foster the virtues needed to sustain difficult conversations. The role of The Colossian Forum is to help the church remember who she is (and Whose she is), to revitalize reflection on ecclesiology, and to provide spaces for “trying on” those practices that, over time, foster virtue. We believe that this is the best strategy for helping the church engage culture with a witness that is both wise and winsome—to embody belief that is becoming.
Fostering a Church that Can Host These Conversations
As noted above, the mission of The Colossian Forum is rooted in the conviction that in Christ “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). Science, then, is not an autonomous sphere that has to be correlated to faith; rather, Christ is Lord of creation just as he is the head of the church. Christ is “firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created.” Indeed, “all things were created by him and for him” (Col. 1:15-16). So the stuff of scientific investigation—the earth below us and the starry heavens above, the intricacies of our nervous system and the regularity of the water cycle—are features of Christ’s creation. As Lord of creation, Christ is also Lord of the world that science seeks to investigate.
In the same context as this claim, the Apostle Paul immediately points out that Christ “is the head of the body, the church” (Col. 1:18). Church and creation are not two separate realms; indeed, it is not the case that Christ rules over the church while nature is an independent reality.Both subsist or hold together in Christ. And this is why God’s work of redemption also aims at a kind of unity—a reconciliation that reflects the unity of all things “in Christ.” The Gospel announced by Paul is the message that God, in Christ, has reconciled all things to himself (Col. 1:17; 2 Cor. 5:19).
This animates the core conviction of The Colossian Forum: any constructive dialogue about science and Christian faith needs to be rooted in and formed by this “holding together.” In other words, the dialogue does not need to bring together (or integrate) Christianity and science. Instead, we need to begin with the unity that already exists in the Lordship of Christ—which is incarnate in the church as the body of Christ. We will only begin to reconcile faith and science when we recognize that church and creation are already one in Christ. Based on this core conviction, the work of the Colossian Forum is governed by several principles that animate our strategies:
- Our core virtue is charity or love: We believe that the people of God are to be marked and distinguished by the love and friendship between one another and with God (John 13:33-34; John 15:15; 1 John 4:7-5:5). We are called to be friends of God and friends with God’s friends. And it is in the church, the body of Christ, where we are recipients of charity as God extends his hospitality to us. When we receive and extend God’s charity as embodied in God’s own hospitality, meeting us in worship, then we learn to discern what’s essential in seeking the truth. It is when our love abounds more and more that we acquire knowledge and depth of insight (Phil. 1:9-11).
- This is why our basic practice is hospitality rooted in common worship and the practice of prayer: We believe that we “put on Christ” and Christ’s love (Rom. 13:14; Gal. 3:27)—we “put on” the virtue of love (Col. 3:14)—precisely by “letting the Word dwell in us richly, singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:16). One could say that love takes practice, and Christian worship is not merely an experience of God’s presence but also the central formative practice that trains our love.
- Our primary goal is reconciliation: We do not think we need to reconcile science and Christian faith. We believe that creation and church already “hold together” in Christ. However, we do need to overcome the perceived animosity between the two. Even more importantly, we need to address the animosity between Christians that these issues have created. This doesn’t mean just deferring to “what science says;” nor does it mean ignoring the challenges. It means finding our intellectual center in Christ and the resources of the Christian tradition, and then leaning out from that anchor and shared commitment to consider the challenges and opportunities posed by science and technology.
- Our central focus is ecclesial: We believe that if the conversation between Christian faith and science is going to have a constructive future, we actually need to attend to the renewal of the church, intentionally reflecting on the shape of our worship and practices, considering how they do or do not shape us in such a way as to allow us to hold together in Christ. We will only be able to live into difficult questions, such as those generated by science and culture, if we are properly formed as the body of Christ, the church. Thus a central task of The Colossian Forum is to help the church remember the resources it has in its own heritage of worship—treasures that equip us to be rooted in Christ and thus unafraid to lean out into difficult questions as we together seek the truth.
- Our key concern is to discern what’s essential: Paul’s prayer for the Christians in Philippi is also our prayer: “that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best” (Phil. 1:9-10; cp. Col. 1:9-10)—or, as it could be translated, “…so that you can discern what really matters” or “what’s really important.” We believe it is crucial that Christians recognize those beliefs and doctrines which are essential to Christian faith (for our salvation and sanctification), but also carefully distinguish those from secondary matters (adiaphora) about which Christians may legitimately disagree. In short, we seek to follow the ancient dictum: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” But we also believe that learning to live this way will take practice; we need to live into this way of life.
Worship Renewal for Cultural Engagement
If the church is going to constructively and faithfully engage questions of cultural import, it is crucial that we remember that the church is already a culture—it is a unique social body, called together by the grace of God, sustained by the Son who is the head of his body. The church is not merely something spiritual, invisible or ethereal: it is the concrete presence of God’s people in and for the world. It is also not a-cultural: it is a unique culture, with its own history and heritage, its own language and story, its own symbols and practices. So Christians don’t need to get “out” of the church in order to get “into” culture; rather, they need to be adequately socialized in the body of Christ in order to then be able to pursue cross-cultural engagement with the world.
Indeed, the New Testament sometimes describes the church as its own “state” of sorts—a sort of “country” that transcends national boundaries. Paul emphasizes that to be in Christ is to have a citizenship in the heavenly commonwealth that is the church (Phil. 3:20). Peter uses similar political and cultural language to describe the church as a unique social body: “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet. 2:9). Hence the challenge for the Christians in Colossae: would they find their primary allegiance in Christ?If we run with this “political” metaphor for the church, then we might suggest that the practices of Christian worship constitute the church’s “civics” class. Of course worship is primarily the place in which we encounter God—and within which we are educated and formed by our interaction with him, transformed by the power of the Spirt. Precisely because worship is this sort of charged space of encounter and presence, it is also one of the most formative experiences of Christian discipleship. Worship trains us in our rights and duties as citizens of the city of God. Civics class is intended to socialize people to a particular way of seeing the world; in a similar manner, Christian worship fundamentally shapes how we see and inhabit the world. As Stanley Hauerwas and Sam Wells have put it, “Through worship God trains his people to take the right things for granted.” This is precisely why Christian worship is central to our task of equipping the church for cultural engagement: it is in and through the practices of intentional Christian worship that our imaginations are “trained” to see the world as the realm of God’s kingship, to see “nature” as God’s creation. If the church is going to adequately address divisive issues such as science or politics, we don’t require knowledge and information alone; above all, we need imaginations that have been calibrated to the shape of God’s love. Only then will we be differently oriented to God and one another, and thus able to have a charitable conversation about contentious issues.
So through Christian worship the Spirit shapes the church as a unique culture—a foretaste of the coming kingdom. Worship is where we are educated, not primarily by acquiring more information but rather by the formation of our love and desires. But this isn’t true for just any experience that calls itself worship. By worship we don’t just mean events where we express our praise or adoration; rather, by “worship” we mean intentional practices by which we are formed and shaped by the grace of God. Thus a crucial aspect of the worship renewal undergirding our vision for Christian cultural engagement is remembering the riches and heritages of historic Christian worship—appreciating the accrued wisdom of the church over time, led by the Spirit. We believe that nothing could be more important for cultural engagement in our postmodern world than remembering the ancient wisdom of the church fathers. These historic practices of Christian worship are a heritage that we receive as a gift, precisely because they are habit-forming practices that, over time, inscribe in us the virtues of Christ. It is in the incarnational space of worship that we meet Christ, the desire of the nations and the lover of our souls.As we mentioned at the outset: the question isn’t whether the church can have conversations about faith and culture; the issue is whether the church possesses the virtues required to do this well, in a way that reflects the love of God and neighbor. The language of “virtues” is just meant as a shorthand to describe the dynamics of how we begin to reflect the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) or what Paul describes as those characteristics that we are to “put on” when we “put on” Christ (Col. 3:12-14). These are not acquired by magic or sheer will-power. Rather, these are habits that we acquire by participating in the life of God as made manifest in Christ and available to us through the Spirit in the church. Good habits are what can be described as virtues, or learned abilities. And the acquisition of virtue takes practice—we need to consistently be put through rhythms and routines that inscribe these dispositions and inclinations into our character, such that they become second nature. Just as one learns how to play the piano or hit a golf ball by constantly practicing—going through the rituals and routines that automate this behavior—so virtue formation requires immersion in practices that train us, even at an unconscious level, to be disposed toward the good. When we are caught up into the beauty of the music we play or captured by that “ting” of a golf club hitting the “sweet spot,” our passions are powerfully formed by participating in these particular practices. Likewise in worship, our disposition and orientation are not forced or mechanical. It is precisely because our love is transformed by our participation in the life of God through the practices of worship that desire for God and his kingdom becomes “second nature” for us. Thus it becomes our delight and joy to move with the grain of God’s universe. We are attracted to this way of life – it is our “sweet spot.”
Christian worship and other spiritual disciplines are these sorts of formative practices: rhythms and routines that, over time, inscribe in us virtues of compassion, kindness, patience, forgiveness, and above all, love. Thus insofar as the aim of The Colossian Forum is to equip the church to engage culture in a way that does not fragment the body of Christ, we believe is it necessary to ground ourselves in worship. Our goal is nothing less than animating participation in that love which is the very pinnacle and form of the virtues—the love which is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:8). While we are interested in what science has to say, we are more fundamentally interested in how we’ll engage it.
What We Do: Serving the Church to Engage the World
The Colossian Forum is not the church. We are not a congregation, we represent no particular denomination, and while we constantly emphasize the importance of the church, we are not trying to be a substitute for the church. As noted above, we aim to serve the body of Christ not only by providing information and reflection, but by provide training in those practices which foster the virtues needed to sustain difficult conversations. The Colossian Forum is a “parachurch” organization in a very specific sense: we truly aim to come alongside (para-) the church for the sake of the church.So we are the sort of parachurch organization that is not trying to take over some of the church’s responsibility or operate as a functional substitute for the church’s failures. Rather, we are a pro-church organization: Our goal is to help the church remember that God has already given it everything it needs to be faithful. So The Colossian Forum is not meant to be a supplement to the church, but rather a servant of the church: slowly but surely, we aim at nothing less than the renewal of the church as the means by which to generate a faithful response to cultural challenges.
However, as it stands, we are concerned that the church has forgotten her primary identity and allegiance. We believe that, in important ways, the church has given up her identity as a unique culture, as the body of the risen Christ and foretaste of his coming kingdom. As a result, Christians have unwittingly ceded their primary identity and allegiance to movements and positions and ideologies outside of Christ and the church—then smuggled those back into the church as if they were matters of Christian orthodoxy.
So The Colossian Forum aims to help the church be the church. But we also don’t want to displace or raze the church: we are looking to strengthen and renew it. To that end, we will focus our time and resources on strategic ways of helping equip the church—especially leaders within the church—to appreciate the importance of our common identity in Christ as expressed in a common heritage of worship. In this sense, one might see The Colossian Forum as akin to the renewal movements in late medieval Christianity that gave rise to the mendicant orders—founded out of love for the church with the goal of reinvigorating her witness through intentional focus on Christian practices. Or one could think of The Colossian Forum as a late modern “Methodism”—a renewal movement deeply concerned with practices of piety, with a view to remembering and restoring historic Christian faith.
With an initial focus on faith and science as a particular case of cultural engagement, The Colossian Forum will undertake this apostolate in a number of ways.
- The Colossian Forum is devoted to prayer for the renewal of the church for the sake of its witness to our culture. In this sense, the staff and partners of The Colossian Forum commit themselves to regular practices of intentional prayer for the church.
- The Colossian Forum aims to resource the body of Christ in the areas of ecclesiology and worship renewal with a view to cultural engagement. In short, we hope to communicate a robust ecclesiology and understanding of spiritual and moral formation to pastors, worship leaders, and educators, providing space and opportunity for reflection on these matters.
- The Colossian Forum seeks to provide opportunities to “try on” those practices that “clothe” us in Christ-like virtues, sponsoring retreats and forums that are framed by and centered in historic Christian worship practices as a way to “taste and see” the power of the Spirit in worship.
- The Colossian Forum is committed to fostering friendships within the body of Christ that will cross the polemical lines that have been drawn within the church. We will do this by creating safe spaces for Christians across the church to discuss challenging, often divisive, issues in an environment framed by this vision. In these efforts, The Colossian Forum aims to create a formative, Christ-centered environment that will provide hospitable space for Christians to charitably think together. We will engage the challenges of contemporary science and culture in ways that invite us to receive each other’s differences as surprising gifts for up-building the body rather than as threats that could divide it.