Wineskins Archive

February 5, 2014

Religious Pluralism in a Post-Denominational Age (May-Aug 2004)

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by Ken Johnson
May – August, 2004

The nature of preaching has changed dramatically in the last twenty years. Sermons are shorter and less frequent. Style and content have changed. Many older Christians wonder about the wisdom of such change, yet many others recognize that a major shift in the emphasis of preaching is now necessary to effectively carry out responsibilities in the Kingdom. Emerging religious pluralism is one of the reasons for this change.

Demise of Pluralism in the West
The vast majority of American Christians are the products of Western culture. Over a period of two thousand years, as the center of Western culture moved from Athens (Greece) to Rome and then to London and New York, the religious face of this culture changed from religious diversity to religious similarity. Most American adults have lived their entire life, until the last twenty years, in a culture that generally lacked religious diversity. “Not so,” some would say, “there are hundreds of denominations!”

Yes, we grew up in a world with hundreds of denominations – but virtually all of them professed Christianity. Today’s adults were born in an overwhelmingly Christianized Western culture. In Europe, for centuries under both the Catholics and the Protestants, Christians kept other religions out. Then, as Europeans crossed the Atlantic, their strong Christian culture effectively converted the westward-bound pioneers, as well as African slaves, while simultaneously overwhelming native Indian religions in colonized regions of the Americas.

The virtual disappearance of religious pluralism in Western culture has identifiable causes. For hundreds of years, Islamic military power crushed every religion in its path around the Mediterranean. Thus, America and Europe were boxed in on the east by Islam and protected on the west by the Pacific Ocean, isolating Western culture from extraneous religious influences until the late twentieth century.

So what does this have to do with change in preaching? Much, in the following way: preaching for a number of centuries after Christ was designed to win people to Christ, from non-Christian religions including Judaism, but as Christianity became dominant in Western culture without religious pluralism, preaching increasingly was directed to a population immersed in the Christianized Western culture.

Five Divisive Centuries
Perhaps the most shaping influence on preaching in Western culture occurred shortly after the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. As both clergy and laity freshly examined scripture, within two generations the Protestant rebellion was born. Preaching was sharp, positions were strongly held, religious war broke out all over Europe, and the denominational era emerged. During the denominational era, scripture was frequently examined to engage in public debate about “correct” doctrine.

Today, religious historians say we have entered a post-denominational era. Most Christians do not use that vocabulary, yet they have an accurate sense that the religious landscape is changing, including change in the content of preaching. Our increasingly interconnected world is bringing to an end a five-hundred-year period of religious isolation during which preachers routinely used the Bible as a weapon against fellow believers in Christ.

Rethinking our direction
I am confident that a good understanding of scripture is important to the formation of Christian faith. I am equally confident that some doctrines held by some believers in Christ cannot be consistent with the best reading of scripture. So Bible study is vital in the Christian community. Yet, we must not ignore the words of Jesus himself, recorded in John 5:39-40: “You pour over the scriptures, for you imagine that in them you will find eternal life” (The New Testament in Modern English, J. B. Phillips, slightly rearranged). Jesus spoke of Old Testament scriptures, but His message is clear: “You are not willing to come to me to have real life.”

Re-emerging religious pluralism
Today, we are experiencing the most significant shift in Western religious culture in five centuries, and Western culture is emerging from a religious cocoon that lasted those five hundred years. The primary cause of this earth-shaking change is the twentieth century’s rapid economic linkage of the diverse cultures of the world. During those centuries, Western Christianity was introspective—we were concentrating on ourselves—five hundred years of Christians scrutinizing Christians (Exceptions are notable, such as Nineteeth century outreach to Asia and Africa, and American frontier evangelism. The former had no significant impact on Western culture, and the latter only reinforced the culture). Consequently, our knowledge of non-Christian religions was seldom first-hand or deep.

This is all changing. In today’s world, Buddhists outnumber Baptists. In America, Muslims outnumber Methodists. New Age religion has revived international interest in the horoscope and in super-natural psychic revelations. Steadily, new and foreign religious views are reshaping society. Western culture is becoming confused about the existence of the true God. In terms of religious pluralism, our Western world today increasingly reflects the apostolic experience.

Impact on preaching
Religious pluralism in Western culture is radically impacting today’s preaching. Increasingly, Christian leaders in all denominations are recognizing that Christianity was originally introduced for persons (and nations) enslaved by religion that did not know the True God of Israel. As Christian leaders recover that perspective, they are seeing anew that God did not intend for believers to fight each other (John 17:20-23, Mark 9:38-42, Matt 13:47-50, I Cor 3:12-13). This post-denominational-age spirit among Christians is in remarkable contrast to the denominational age.

Insights from history
Today, opponents of Christianity are determined to eliminate Christian influence from Western culture. Likely, their success or failure will lie in the unity or the fragmentation of the Christian community. Two contrasting situations from history provide insights into possible outcomes of this current assault.

Insight 1 – victory from unity. Half a century ago, Germany and her Axis friends were hell-bent on taking over the world. Axis military machines were rolling across Europe, penetrating Africa, raising havoc in the Far East, pressing into Russia, and attacking Pearl Harbor. Recognizing their common foe, Russia and America became allies. With other nations also committed against the common enemy, in lengthy battle the Allies prevailed.

Insight 2 – defeat from fragmentation. For centuries Constantinople was the headquarters of virtually all Christianity east of Rome. In the year 1453, a brutal Islamic army with 150,000 troops laid siege. With only 8,000 troops, Constantinople was desperate. The Eastern Emperor pleaded for help from the vast Christian territories to the West, but because of a bitter rift with the Eastern Church the nations of the Roman dominated West sent only a token of help.

On the night before Constantinople fell, with sobs, wailings, and cries of “Lord have mercy,” hundreds gathered for the last Christian service at the Church of the Holy Wisdom. On that night many Orthodox Christians and a few Roman Catholic Christians worshiped together notwithstanding centuries of division.

The next day Constantinople fell, and the Turkish Sultan celebrated his victory with a great banquet where the table decorations were the heads of the executed Christian leaders. At the point of the sword, all of the Palestinian Holy Land and all of Asia Minor became Muslim. But in reality, these traveled territories of Jesus and the Apostle Paul were given over to Islam because of division in the Christian church [those nations are Muslim to this day. The few pockets of people in the region who still follow Jesus have experienced severe persecution. As recent as ninety years ago (1915-1916), Islamic Turks killed 1.5 million of the two million Armenian Christians in the Turkish Empire].

Today, we face a reality never experienced in Western culture: Christianity is at risk of being overwhelmed by non-Christian religions. That reality is driving change throughout the Christian community.

The first change is a recognizable focus on Christian unity, reversing the five-hundred-year experience of intentional separatism during the denominational era. Increasingly, lines of denominational fellowship are being crossed, particularly in non-denominational mega-churches. Rather than hurling theological artillery at each other, many in the Christian community are focusing on the common foe, namely, those who deny Christ.

A second change is an increasing emphasis on what some call Core Gospel, that is, doctrines that are foundational to the Christian faith, including the atoning death, the physical burial and third-day resurrection, and the essential personal choice to submit to the Lordship of Jesus, Savior, Son of God (The Christian community is presently wrestling for a definition of Core Gospel). Certainly, many other doctrinal positions are dear, and every Christian group should hold to its biblically-based doctrine. But when Christianity is at philosophical war with non-Christian religions for control of Western culture, at the battlefront, issues like musical style, women’s roles, and the millennial reign fade rapidly into the background.

A third change is a whole range of new experiences in worship. These are sometimes congregational and sometimes in small groups. All are designed to connect Christianity with the culture of a new generation to produce faith that is strong and relevant in their New World.

What now?
During the last five hundred years, the Christian community has been visibly divided. We cannot escape noting that preaching is at the root of much division. If we are going to keep the heads of our loved ones off of the platter at a victory banquet of the enemy, preachers must take the lead to encourage a united Christian community where vibrant Christian faith overcomes alternative religious influences in the world.

Let’s stake our primary claim in the core of the Gospel; let’s remain open on matters of opinion; let’s not be dogmatic on difficult texts; let’s put logic on a lower tier than scripture; let’s accommodate new and old worship styles when needed and where possible. Let’s appeal to the power of God to change hearts and thereby change the world. He did it globally once, using preachers. He can do it again.New Wineskins

Ken Johnson is President Emeritus of Rochester College.

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