Entitled Christian Syndrome
By Kurt Willems
June 26, 2012
I'm honored to begin a new column here at RELEVANTmagazine.com. Every other Monday, I will write from an anabaptist perspective on issues surrounding church, faith, and theology in post-Christian culture. We live in a day when many people are asking questions about the nature of following Jesus. My hope is to illuminate these questions and provoke hospitable conversation. I am committed to the way of Jesus, to a Spirit-empowered Church, and the mission our heavenly Father. My hope is to invite readers into a journey with this God as we discover what it means to be a missional and Kingdom-shaped people in the 21st-century.
There’s a song that has made its rounds in the evangelical church circuit called “Our God Is Greater.” This song is commendable on many levels. First, the melody is catchy. If you haven’t listened to or sung this worship tune, you can check it out here.
Second, it’s a song with lyrics that are all quite true. Here’s the chorus:
Our God is greater.
Our God is stronger.
God, you are higher than any other.*
Our God is a healer,
awesome in power.
Our God! Our God!
I agree with every line of this song. Nothing about it is theologically untrue in any way. But I think singing “Our God Is Greater” might make God seem less great.
Culture is evolving. Christianity no longer occupies the center of public discourse. The civil religion of the American empire used to be “Christian,” but the truth of the matter is that our society (like the rest of the West) is in the transition toward post-Christendom. Stuart Murray, Juliet Kilpin, and others at Urban Expression (a church-planting initiative that I’m connected to) say the following about post-Christendom:
“Post-Christendom is the culture that emerges as the Christian faith loses coherence within a society that has been definitively shaped by the Christian story and as the institutions that have been developed to express Christian convictions decline in influence.”
With that basic definition, here are some of the major transitions that take place culturally as post-Christendom takes root:
Our words, even when they are true, can damage our witness.
From the center to the margins: In Christendom, the Christian story and the churches were central, but in post-Christendom these are marginal.
From the majority to the minority: In Christendom, Christians comprised the (often overwhelming) majority, but in post-Christendom we are a minority.
From settlers to sojourners: In Christendom, Christians felt at home in a culture shaped by their story, but in post-Christendom we are aliens, exiles and pilgrims in a culture where we no longer feel at home.
From privilege to plurality: In Christendom, Christians enjoyed many privileges, but in post-Christendom we are one community among many in a plural society.
From control to witness: In Christendom, churches could exert control over society, but in post-Christendom we exercise influence only through witnessing to our story and its implications.
From maintenance to mission: In Christendom, the emphasis was on maintaining a supposedly Christian status quo, but in post-Christendom it is on mission within a contested environment.
From institution to movement: In Christendom, churches operated mainly in institutional mode, but in post-Christendom it must become again a Christian movement.
Among American evangelical leaders, push-back is common when confronted with a list like this. One need only to recognize that these things are beginning to happen in our context as they did in places like England to realize we are headed in a post-Christendom direction. Although we never had an “official” state church, we have had a cultural civil religion that uses Christian language to support imperialistic aims. This too fades, as America no longer is comprised of only Christian religions. Our country is pluralistic.
I personally welcome the transition that is happening. Christendom (as described above) resulted from the marriage of empire to faith in the fourth century. In a world where Christians are placed back into the margins, it will force us to move into a more authentically Christ-centered mode of humility, enemy-love and justice.
We can make power-claims of our God or we can demonstrate the power of God’s Spirit from the margins.
To call God “great” is more than appropriate, but calling God “greater” invites a competitive and confrontational tone. So, in this sort of cultural climate, I make the claim that singing songs about how “our God is greater” actually makes God less great.
Two reasons come to mind as to why this might be so.
First, for followers of Jesus who feel the real-world results of this shift from the “center to the margins,” singing about how our “cosmic dad” can beat up everyone else’s ideological parent reinforces the belief that the Christian story should be central in society. We must avoid any such perspective and find our voice from the margins, just as the earliest Christians did when they refused to bow down to the emperor or to carry the sword of nationalism.
A key difference here is that prior to Constantine, the Church didn’t have a violent past. Confrontation toward other faiths, especially oppressive ones, makes sense when your faith hasn’t abused power for generations. The situation of post-Christendom is slightly nuanced, then, because the Church’s place in the margins is a result of bullying society into our image.
If we look to history, any time a society attempted to place Christ in the center, they subtly turned the idea of Christ into an idol. Think of the “holy Roman Empire” and all of the resulting nations. A Christ who favors any nation besides the distinct Kingdom of God is not the Jesus of the New Testament. Christ forsook this temptation in the desert when Satan offered him all of the earthly kingdoms of the earth.
Uniting Christ and an earthly nation (besides the one that emerges after the resurrection/renewal of the cosmos) gives into the very temptation Jesus Himself resisted. When we sing “Our God Is Greater,” we might actually be trying to live out of a Christendom-shaped dream of yesteryear.
Second, for outsiders peering into our churches, whether as curious visitors or as skeptics believing we are a cancer to society, for us to sing “our God is greater” sounds coercive and arrogant. I’m not trying to say we shouldn’t believe our God is the greatest of all gods/ideologies. But I wonder if, in a pluralistic society, the path of loving humility might win others over more effectively.
For centuries, the Church used violence, power and a sense of entitlement to “get their way” in public discourse. What if we flipped the script, forsaking these power-clenching perceptions for washing people’s feet—especially feet that walk a differing religious or ideological path? Perhaps this would create space for skeptical folks (rightfully so) to reconsider a non-coercive Christ and the “new humanity” He came to establish.
Our words, even when they are true, can damage our witness. We can make power-claims of our God or we can demonstrate the power of God’s Spirit from the margins. One path attempts to place Christ where He Himself refused to go: at the center of earthly cultures/nations.
There are times when confrontational language is appropriate, of course. When a religious system brings harm to others, we should not be silent about “our God.” However, in our current situation, this is mostly true of issues of empire and not pluralism. Perhaps in post-post-Christendom, we will need to proclaim “our God is greater,” but in this transition, such an approach only reminds people of our entitled and coercive past.
Another route invites the people of God to embrace their place on the sidelines of society, not as separatists but as Jesus-followers creating a beautiful alternative culture for the sake of a post-Christendom world. This unconventional way forward embraces our alien status as sojourners, making the name of God great (not just greater, but the greatest) through living in our corners of the empire as a minority people, daily embodying the values of faith, hope and love.
When this happens, we won’t have to sing our God is greater because our Jesus-shaped, Spirit-empowered communities will give witness to the greatness of our heavenly Father without relying upon verbally combative claims.
*Although folks may have in mind that “Our God Is Greater” refers to Him being greater than our problems, trials, etc., the song clearly says that “Our God is higher than any other _____ (god).”