Yes thats a word.
This semester I’m taking a fascinating course on the sociology of American Evangelicalisms. Yep you heard me right. I’m taking a sociology class. In discussions, I’m finding it really hard not to use theology or scriptural evidence to support and argue my point, but am beginning to understand how to interpret religion and (more importantly) religious vitality from the social science perspective. At first, I thought that explaining religion as a reaction to social, cultural, or economic factors subversive to the the power of God or the workings of the Holy Spirit. I still think that sometimes, but Jesus did interact with the Jewish and Roman culture of the first century. We are called to be fishers of men. The Church today exists in the 21st century of modernity, mass media, and pluralism. So lets face the facts.
One of the main themes of the class is how various denomanations react to what one sociologist calls “the quandary of modernity.” Some retreat into fundamentalist, puritainist, or monastic cultures that isolate themselves in attempt to keep ‘orthodox’ faith alive. Others (like 21st century American Evangelicalism) dive into the marketplace of religion, and compete amidst a slew of other voices by offering meaning and substance for the man on the street. While some theories apply better to contemporary evangelicalism, here’s something i’ve noticed regarding the cyclical and evolutionary nature of church growth and decline:
Orthodoxy –> Relevance –> Accommodation –> Decline –> Crisis –> Revival
That is to say, as churches move to become relevant, they must sacrifice some original orthodox beliefs and practices (for shocking and slightly nauseating instances, see the museum of idolatry). This in turn allows greater flexibility among a churches membership, which, if left un attended to, can result in vague luke-warmness and spiritual “feelings.” If this does happen, not all hope is lost. Many church movements have been born out of a reaction to declining theology, and revivals can reinvigorate a church body to newfound sacramentality and orthodoxy. I strongly agree with the concept that the reformation was not a one time event, but a process that must always be happening within churches to stay orthodox without loosing relevance (or stay relevant without loosing orthodoxy). I want to read Roger Olsen’s book about that. One sociologist calls for an engaged orthodoxy. Perhaps this is what Jesus is talking about in John 17 when he speaks of being in the world but not of the world?