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Missions and the antithesis

This entry is part 7 of 14 in the series

"Missions and Music"

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Last week, I spoke at the Preserving the Truth Conference in Troy, MI. Of the three points that I made in my presentation (notes, audio), one is especially relevant to the discussion of missions.

The antithesis, then, presents us a goal: to explore and articulate a Christianity that is Christian all the way down. The postmoderns have all made us self-aware enough that we recognize the impossibility of this goal; we cannot escape the assumptions of our inherited cultures. I maintain that we can frame the discussion in terms of tendencies: a right understanding of the antithesis compels us, as a matter of first priority, to develop a distinctively Christian answer to all questions. Those who mitigate the antithesis, by ignorance or by appeal to common grace, follow a different impulse: to articulate Christianity in a manner consistent with some element or another of unbelieving culture.

While we must reject as inconceivable a Christianity that is no way shaped to the concerns of people, I suggest that we go wrong to the degree that we allow concerns of common ground to dominate our approach to the faith.

This statement is foundational to any claim I make about music and missions. The common accusation, in any discussion of music and missions, is that the attempt to change the worship practices of those to which we are bringing the gospel is imperialism. And such a charge would be true, if I were advocating bringing a culture change to a group of people on the basis that we just like our culture better.

But that is not my claim. What I’m trying to do (and I am truly open to discussion on these points) is answer this question: if we were to develop a fully Christian approach to fill-in-the-blank, what would it be like? So, for instance, what would a worship service, based on as-fully-Christian-principles-as-we-can-possibly-determine, be like? That’s the question I’m seeking to ask as a matter of first priority.

This article on the problems at Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral has been circulating these past couple of days. The irony of it coming from Christianity Today is one that I won’t exploit now. Regardless, it offers a clear example of the problem of blurring the antithesis between belief and unbelief, of making the finding of common ground higher priority than developing a fully Christian approach to ministry.

Some are tempted to hit the man while he is down, but this is unwise. Robert Schuller is not the problem—contemporary evangelicalism is. Schuller was only leading the parade of those who believe they are responsible for making the gospel relevant. The lesson is not that Schuller got it wrong or that his theology is out-of-date; it is not that we just need to find a better, more current point of cultural contact. The lesson is that our attempts to find and exploit a point of cultural contact inevitably end in bankruptcy.

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About Michael Riley

Student of theology, apologetics, and Christian affections. Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Wakefield, Michigan.