As I continue to think about the church in society, I have these thoughts. The church finds itself in a new situation and has for the last decade or so – but it seems that it does not know how to respond or react.
In the past the church has had two polar opposite relationships with the state. First, the state was opposed to the church, to the point of persecution. This was for the first few centuries of the church’s existence. The church understood it’s identity as being in opposition – opposition to the state and all that it stood for. The focus was on the community of believers. This is a generalization of course, but on average pretty accurate.
Then the situation shifted to the church being enveloped within the state. In some ways the church came to be used by the state to carry out the state’s wishes and be an assistant to the power struggles of the state and men’s desires. The church became a willing companion and supporter of the state and the state returned the favor by giving the church a favored place in society – government influence and power, positions, and influence on the culture and norms. The church changed it identity, but was clear as to what it was – it was an organization. Again, a generalization, but still pretty accurate over all.
At the early stages of the 21st century the church is now experiencing a new situation – one where the situation has changed again. The church and state are no longer in partnership in many places in Western civilization, but neither are they in direct opposition either. They are rather almost more like an acquaintance – neither friends nor enemies.
An appropriate analogy might be that church and state are like two people who ride the same bus, see each other on the bus every day, recognize each other, might even give a friendly hello to the person. In some cases, they may have even struck up a conversation about the weather or something else that would be non-confrontational in the way that people who don’t know each other do. But they really don’t know each other – their interaction ends when one gets off the bus to carry on the rest of their life. Of course all analogies break down at some point. And this analogy isn’t totally accurate, but I hope you get the idea I am trying to express here.
The church is at a unique point in history – it has the opportunity to adjust it’s definition of why it exists and its role in society. This has happened in the past, but it has always been in relationship to the state – friend or foe. What is unique this time is that the church has an opportunity to redefine itself without regard to the relationship to the state – apart from the state. It can define itself from within itself, not by defining what it is not in relation to something external from itself – namely the state.
These are exciting times and a true blessing. So church, how will you define yourself? Will you adopt business ideas and language? Will you seek out some other kind of external structure for your definition? Will you seek out and listen to what God is calling you to be? Will you become another social service organization? Will you focus on deeds that people need to do? What you end up with will determine the next stage in the life of the church.