THE THREE GREATEST CHALLENGES FACING THE CHURCH AT THE BEGINNING OF THE 21ST CENTURY
The most pressing concerns for the church are seldom the most important and the most important concerns are seldom the most pressing. The three greatest challenges we face may not be pressing, but they are important:
1. What is the church?
In the coming years we have to work out what the church is and what it is for–our ecclesiology. Is the church essentially a locker room where we train members for their “real job” of transforming the world or will we be the “called out ones” who reject culture and set up an alternative community? Will we integrate and embrace culture, or separate and isolate from it? Will we try to reform society as James Dobson and Jerry Falwell would have us do, or will we try to reform ourselves and our neighbors? Leo Tolstoy once said, “Everybody thinks of changing the world; nobody thinks of changing themselves.” Where will we spend the greater energy: reforming culture or reforming ourselves and our neighbors one-by-one. Choose one emphasis: cultural transformation or personal conversion?
While trying to change the culture the last few decades, it returned the favor–changing us more than we changed it. Now our own marriages crumble and pastors fall in moral collapse. We exchanged sanctification of the individual for sanctification of the state and ultimately got neither. Now we must choose: will we continue to attempt social reform or will we re-emphasize personal conversion? The easy answer, “both,” will be inadequate in the future. We will have to serve one of these masters more than the other.
2. What is sanctification?
I am not speaking exclusively about “entire sanctification” as John Wesley taught, but sanctification in the larger sense as everything God does in us to make us more like Christ. In this larger sense sanctification is about God’s inner work changing a believer’s thoughts, words, deeds and attitudes. Why is this a major challenge to the church of the future? Because sanctification it is increasingly dominated by science not religion. The church’s domain has been shrinking through history. First we shrunk our work related to demons or sickness, largely surrendering these fields to science. But we jealously kept for ourselves sanctification. Can’t control your anger? Come to Jesus and he will set you free. Need deliverance from alcohol? Come to the altar and God can deliver you. Got your marriage in a tangled mess? Come to church– God can make your marriage whole again. While we surrendered mental and medical maladies to science, we clung to inner spiritual healing of temperament and character.
We are about to lose this arena now. Some of you reading the above list were saying under your breath, “but when someone is angry, or an alcoholic, or has a tangled marriage we don’t send them to the altar, we send them to counseling!” Here lies the first stage of a massive shift we face. Sanctification will be increasingly the role of science not religion. Modern behavioral science has moved in to do the sanctification God used to do directly through “spiritual” means.
But the church has long since adapted to the modern science of psychology, counseling, and “Twelve steps” groups. These changes are mostly over and finished. Now we are facing loss of territory to chemical sanctification. Face it, the testimonies to Prozac’s effectiveness at making people into new creatures is far more impressive any testimony to an altar experience today’s young people have ever heard. This is just the beginning. Drugs will increasingly be available to control conditions and propensities we have formerly called sin. As a parent would you encourage your teen son to take a pill which banished lust with no side effects? Is this a new way to overcome sin, and will we embrace it as we have other scientific advances as “tools God uses?”
But the really big one is coming soon: genetic sanctification. We will live in a future where it will actually be possible to correct certain genetic propensities to sin. Holiness theologians who have wriggled about for decades to teach us that depravity is not a “thing” will have to recant. Advances in bio-genetics may prove just the opposite that some (all?) sinful propensities are genetic. And as science learns how to adapt and “fix” these genetic tendencies we may be taking our children to a genetic clinic instead of youth camp to get them straightened out.
I know all this sounds far-fetched and more like a science fiction movie than a “challenge to the church.” So this issue like the other one will likely be dismissed by the church while we focus on “more pressing” concerns. But just because they are more pressing does not mean they are more important. Will we adapt to these coming changes purposely and thoughtfully… or will we adapt without thinking about them as we focus on the more pressing concerns that are more temporary?
3. What is a person an when do you become one?
This issue is the really big one. When does a person come into existence? In our battle against abortion we have rejected birth/breathing as the moment when “man became a living soul.” We’ve backed up the creation of personhood to conception. That is, we do not believe that the “genetic material” of a sperm cell, or of an egg is a person. But once you put them together–once the egg is fertilized–it becomes a living person and God now “knits the person in the inward parts.” We have theologically stated that these few cells are now a living soul–an “unborn child” for whom Christ died.
This concept will be tested again in the future. Somewhere around to world scientists are right now working on cloning a human being. The cloning process starts with an egg in which the DNA of the mother-donor is destroyed. Into this sans-DNA egg the scientist then inserts DNA from another person’s cell. This single cell with a single “parent’s” DNA is then implanted in the womb of a carrier who brings the person to full term. Once born this new person will be a delayed identical twin of the original person. Like it or not we will have human cloning sooner or later in the future.
So when does this cloned person “become a living soul?” And, who created it? Will we redefine a person as the egg? Or will we decide life begins at the first cell division? Or perhaps we’ll move personhood later in the process –maybe when the “potential life” is implanted in the wall of the uterus, or “becomes viable.” Or will some say cloned people aren’t really persons at all which will simplify harvesting kidneys or other needed body parts for us older folk. It will also make it easier to know what to do with the uncompleted clones–it took 277 attempts to create the first cloned sheep, Dolly.
Just think, using Michael Jordan’s DNA we’d could create his identical twin, to be born some 50 years later. Indeed we could keep on making Michael Jordans (or John Wesleys, Billy Grahams or Mother Teresas) every fifty years through eternity. Or maybe you would like a Mother Teresa, or an Albert Einstein as your very own child to raise. You could name him or her whatever you wanted but your child would be an exact genetic copy of the original–a twin born later. Or maybe you’ll want to raise your own twin. It is conceivable that you will be able to create your identical twin as a 60 th birthday present for yourself, then pass on to your twin all your wisdom and values as he or she grows up. Your twin-child wouldn’t be you, but it would be the closest thing to you as could be created. So far at least.
Will it be OK for you to do this? Or is it wrong? Will we expel church members who clone themselves? What is the “pro-life stance” on human cloning? Will we come to eventually accept cloning as a wholesome means of progress? Or will we reject it as evil? I am only raising the issues here, not indicating answers to these challenges. But there are two thoughts I’d offer as we look to the future.
I predict we will accept cloning. Right now Catholics, Protestants, Moslems and Jews are generally opposed to human cloning–arguing that it is not just unadvisable but evil. And many in the scientific community agree. Dr Lee Silver, the Princeton molecular biologist says, “no ethical doctor would do human cloning.” But someone will. He or she may or may be “ethical” or not but they will be successful. Eventually. They will be a pioneer and eventually achieve as much fame and honor as Dr. Christian Barnard, who first transplanted a human heart to the dismay of many religious folk. What we initially reject as evil we come to reluctantly accept then finally embrace. That is the way most of us Christians work with scientific progress.
Physical healing was the domain of the church until medical science competed, then prevailed. We now say “God uses medical science” to heal, and pray as much for God to guide the doctors as we do for direct healing that would bypass the medical community. Face it, only fringe groups who go to God alone for supernatural healing, the rest of us ask God to use the sanctified scientific process.
We accommodated to scientific mental health solutions as well. We once invited people to receive the sacraments, or to come to the altar and “let God touch you” to bring healing to a marriage or for depression. At one point in our Christian history we served up exorcisms to heal mental infirmities. But scientific counseling came along and competed (with much opposition at first) and finally prevailed. We now fully embrace scientific counseling techniques (or, at least “Christian counseling”) and now believe this is the method God uses to heal mental maladies. Sure, we still seek God’s help for emotional and mental problems, but more likely we believe that the way God helps us is through a counseling clinic. When someone has a marriage problem, or uncontrollable rage, we send them to a counseling clinic, just like we’d send a person with a toothache to a dentist, we don’t send either person to the altar. “This is how God heals such things.” Same with chemicals. While the church once sought to serve spiritual prescriptions to people with rage, lust and bitterness, we have come to accept that “God can use Prozac” just like He can use supernatural deliverance at an altar to bring about life change.
So, how about genetic sanctification? I suspect if we discover how to actually alter the genes of our children to make them less inclined to certain sins we will at first reject it, then grudgingly accept it, but finally embrace it as “the way God works.” Why not? Why would we draw a line at this point in the progress of scientific sanctification? I suspect we will be delighted to free our children of genetic inclinations we ourselves fought so long. We’ll easily shift our thinking from supernatural-spiritual solutions to scientific solutions in the genetic arena just as we have in other areas.
So, what about creating a person a new way–by cloning? I suspect we will at first reject it as evil (as we have all done to date). But it will happen anyway. Then slowly we will accept its benefits. Not just the creation of duplicate genetic twins of ourselves for the future, but creating “superior people” with superior genetic material, and I bet we’ll even come to embrace growing-harvesting body parts to extend our own lives in the future. We will come to say, “Tis is how God works.” Why not? What evidence would you offer that we would do otherwise? We’ll make a lot of noise at first as we have done with most issues, but we will not be able to compete so we will adapt and accept cloning in stages, finally sanctifying it as a God-given process.
Which brings me to my second thought. If we are likely to accommodate this sort of scientific progress we need good theological thinking in the coming years as we do so. While I have little doubt that we will come to accept scientific remedies for what we once had only spiritual-supernatural means, we must never do so thoughtlessly. All scientific process is not automatically the work of God, even though we tend to pronounce it such. We must do some serious critical thinking during these coming years–especially theological thinking. There is a kind of thinking prevalent in the evangelical church today that will not serve us adequately in the next century. These difficult issues cannot be settled by bumper-sticker theologizing. They can’t be settled in a half-hour radio show primarily designed to raise money to pay for the airtime. They won’t be settled by conservative proof-texting to support the status quo as if the Bible directly addressed these issues–it doesn’t. They won’t be dealt with by deciding where we stand based on whatever the Republicans tell us to believe. These complicated issues will be intensely practical–they will be the ethical choices our members make in the future–like they now try to decide if it is OK to use alcohol or to abort a malformed fetus. God grant us a seriousness of mind and clarity of thought… and give us theologians to guide us. For these issues, while not demanding, are important.
So what do you think?
Reference: Salt & Light: Mt. 5:13-16 — Leaven: Mt. 13
To contribute to the thinking on this issue e-mail your response to Tuesday@indwes.edu
© Keith Drury, 2005. You are free to transmit, duplicate or distribute this article for non-profit use without permission.
Keith Drury served The Wesleyan Church headquarters in Christian Education and Youth leadership for 24 years before becoming a professor of religion at Indiana Wesleyan University. He is the author of more than a dozen books of practical spirituality, including Holiness for Ordinary People, Common Ground and Ageless Faith. Keith Drury wrote the Tuesday Column for 17 years (1995-2012), and many articles can be found on his blog “Drury Writing.”
Keith Drury retired from full time teaching in 2012. Keith is married to Sharon and has two adult sons and several grandchildren. He is retired in Florida with Sharon and enjoys cycling.