As we work towards the renewal and revival of the church in accordance with Biblical orthodoxy, The Renewal Fellowship is focusing on two priorities in 2022: prayer and pastoral care. To be effective in those two things, we need to understand our church and the world in which we exist. The following essay is intended to shed light on cultural, political and economic trends in an effort to address our prayer and pastoral needs.
What in the world is going on?
Just when the pandemic appears to be over, and a sense of normalcy begins to return, protesters converge on our nation’s capital and refuse to end their occupation of the streets surrounding Parliament. Key border crossings have been blocked. Similar protests are now erupting in other nations. The federal cabinet grants itself unprecedented powers to intervene.
While it would be nice to dismiss these as the final acts of frustration from the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe they’re part of a larger malaise. Consider that it’s virtually impossible to find someone who does not have a strong opinion about these matters. Try having a calm discussion about this with someone who does not share your opinion. It’s almost impossible.
There’s something deeper going on.
So let’s widen our view.
Canadian politics: The rise of the People’s Party in 2021, whose supporters include many who have never voted, seldom vote, or those who believe the Conservative Party has moved too far towards the political centre. This mirrors the growth of right-wing parties in Europe  and in other nations.
U.S. politics: The world’s bastion of democracy elected a non-politician (anti-politician) as president who divided the nation and refused to accept his defeat four years later, resulting in a low-level attempt by a few of his most rabid supporters to overthrow the government. During all of this, the nation was torn apart over the reaction to the killing of an African-American man at the hands of a white police officer.
Culture: The emergence of those who refuse to accept the gender with which they were conceived and born, who create new identities, is tacitly encouraged by the public school system and wider culture.
Faith: The new federal law banning conversion therapy suggests that scriptural orthodoxy is a “myth.” Denominations are continuing to divide themselves over their responses to these issues. And every new poll on faith finds fewer people identify with a particular faith, let alone practice it.
This is just a sampling.
Our world is in the midst of a profound crisis. There is a growing body of thinkers, writers and academics – secular and church alike – who are convinced that the world is in the midst of changes seen only once every two or three generations.
Some observers downplay these issues, saying they’re nothing compared to the ravages of two world wars and a Great Depression which did arguably more damage. We need to grow up, they say. Wars and deprivation did produce more immediate human suffering. But those conflicts all had clear villains. We were united in our desire to go into battle. And we won. The difference with today’s challenges is that in many situations we don’t know who the enemy actually is. And when we are faced with adversaries, we discover to our horror that they are our friends and neighbours.
Lord, show us what we need to know.
I had the honour in December of sitting in on an online conference organized by Wycliffe College where the guest speaker was Ed Stetzer, a professor at Wheaton College and Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center in Chicago. He’s a leading thinker in the field of missiology, the study of mission and how the church might understand secular culture and respond.
Stetzer believes that the world is in the midst of a profound shift, something he calls a “cultural convulsion” which happens every 60 years. (Writer and critic David Brooks calls it a “moral convulsion.”) The theory was proposed by the late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, “who noticed that these convulsions seem to hit the United States every 60 years or so: the Revolutionary period of the 1760s and ’70s; the Jacksonian uprising of the 1820s and ’30s; the Progressive Era, which began in the 1890s; and the social-protest movements of the 1960s and early ’70s. These movements share certain features. People feel disgusted by the state of society. Trust in institutions plummets. Moral indignation is widespread. Contempt for established power is intense.”
While those eras appear to be centred on America, that nation does not operate in a vacuum. The French Revolution was happening at the same time as the American separation from Britain. Similar social and democratic reforms took place in Canada and in Western Europe during these periods.
Assuming the 60-year theory holds, we now find ourselves on the cusp, or in the midst of the next convulsion, with its own smorgasbord of troubles. In Stetzer’s view, we may see COVID-19 as the main issue, but he believes it’s only one of many forces. There are actually six pandemics going on – only one is associated with a virus. Stetzer labels each with a ‘D’ – Disease, Distrust of authority, Damage from technology, Disorientation or Disconnect from identity, Disruption to mental health and Division in the church.
I took his framework and filled it out.
- Disease. COVID-19 hit like a wave and no health authority was completely prepared. Authorities reacted with what they knew at the time, which was limited. Measures varied from place to place. We adapted as our knowledge grew. All lives were affected. We experienced suspension of liberties, mandates and limitations on movement.
- Distrust of authority. Pandemic regulations have provided fresh fodder for libertarians. A significant minority are skeptical of vaccine safety; the fact that this group includes nurses and people of profound faith does not escape my attention. Throughout the pandemic, announcements and rules were often changed. Leaders and elites were found to ignore travel restrictions. And when protests emerged after the George Floyd murder, the same government leaders who were admonishing people for gathering in groups were participating (and being photographed) in massive gatherings of solidarity for justice.
- Damage from technology. We are connected online like never before. But we are disconnected. Picture couples in a restaurant and families at the dinner table each buried in their devices. There’s the inability to behave ourselves online. Social media is an emotional hothouse. It’s not uncommon to see friends sign out for a period of time, making a solemn declarative post about the need to sign off for a time: there’s only so much vitriol a person can take. When I share or post on a hot-button issue, I’m much more likely to get responses. A recent share of an inconsequential Tweet from a rising politician slamming the leadership of the prime minister produced 23 reactions and 41 comments, some of which produced long tangents dimly connected to the original topic. Compare that with the Bible verse that really spoke to me one morning back in late October. I felt a Holy Spirit nudge to shout it in a mountain top post. It was Psalm 57:11 – “Be exalted, O God, above the highest heavens. May your glory shine over all the earth.” And yet only six reactions and a single comment. (“Amen” to you also, sir.) Social media has opened vast amounts of knowledge and platforms for sharing and debate like never seen in human history. Are we any smarter? Is our discourse any better? Is the world a better place?
- Disorientation or Disconnect from identity. Gender confusion and dysphoria is a perfect example. “People aren’t sure who they are,” Stetzer says. “This has multiple, multiple ramifications. Because when we hear identity in today’s conversation, gender identity, we’re seeing the conversation about gender dysphoria and gender identity in ways that we haven’t talked about in depth and just in ways we never expected to accelerate so quickly, but it’s more than just that, it’s the rise of nationalism. Nationalism is on the rise, all over.”
- Disruption to mental health. The mental health implications of the last few years will be generational. In Ontario, for example, a recent survey found one in four Ontario residents reached for mental health support last year – a significant increase from 17 per cent the year before.
- Division in the church. What’s happening here in the PCC is just one small example of what’s ripping apart other denominations and congregations. Deeply-held opinions on the issues of our times are causing ruptures in evangelicalism.
Stetzer predicts that the pandemic will end. I hope so. But the cultural convulsions will continue and the divisions will deepen. “The vitriol, in a way that has not happened since the 1960s, is seeping into churches and/or the denominations,” he said.
Churches are hardly monastic. We are fully integrated into our geographic and secular political, social, and economic systems. Jesus talked about His followers being different; He described it in John 17 as “belonging.”
“I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one. They do not belong to this world any more than I do. Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth. Just as you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world. And I give myself as a holy sacrifice for them so they can be made holy by your truth.” John 17:15-19, NLT
To whom we belong and to whom we answer is clear: it’s our God in Three Persons.
From that, I propose three questions.
How do we survive in (or adapt to) this culture? We saw a lightning-fast response from congregational leaders in the early weeks of the pandemic, scrambling to continue worship online. Most of us accept that some form of hybrid congregation will become a permanent feature of church life: there will be those who participate in person and those who take part online, with a migration back and forth between the two groups. Survival is a deeper issue. In the face of declining attendance and revenue, we simply have to make use of whatever the Lord has provided. It could mean selling the real estate and operating out of our homes and coffee shops. It could also mean more bivocational ministry.
A second question: How do we respond to the hot issues of the day? Take the pandemic measures and vaccination mandates for example. Some churches marched in line with health authorities, closing and reopening only when allowed, then mandating vaccination for in-person attendance. They were among those voicing support for mandatory vaccinations, citing the Christlike command to care for the vulnerable, be our brother’s keeper and Paul’s command to submit to government authority. Other churches brazenly defied restrictions and continued to gather in person, unmasked and unvaccinated in compliance with the divine command to refuse to allow anything to get in the way of worship. To them, it’s a fight for religious freedom and rights: if restaurants and liquor stores can remain open, so should we. Many churches find themselves somewhere between those two extremes.
Then there’s politics. The Ottawa and border protesters have plenty of church support – some right on the front lines. There are also many believers who see it as insurrection. One minister told me he’d have no problem if the military removed them by force.
With mental health, identity, technology, and culture, we can ask how to respond as the hands and feet of Christ. There are ways.
Regarding our inability to have civilized conversations over matters of public interest, the church could act as a model. We’d have to get our own house in order first. The Presbyterian Church of ours is deeply divided over how we view Scripture and see the role of the church – is our primary focus to spread the Gospel word for salvation or should we be focused on justice? I don’t believe we have ever had a concerted effort to have a national discussion on HOW to co-exist. Perhaps we need to start in our congregations and presbyteries. Anywhere.
But I wonder if a more important question might be: How do we become renewed via all these cultural shifts? Consider that the last “convulsions” birthed something new and lasting. The 1960s produced amazing music which had a lasting effect on the church. The impact of contemporary Christian music is powerful. Out of the hippie culture came the “Jesus movement.” Styles of worship and liturgy changed. We were no longer compelled to be the church of our grandparents.
Finally, I’m going to suggest that there is an even larger question. Huntington, the author of the 60-year theory, asked not which side you are on, rather “who are you?” We are increasingly identified not by race, culture, or nation but by gender, sexual orientation, religion, race, social background, social class, or political outlook. “I identify as …” is becoming the new introductory line in our bios.
Huntington’s question sent a Holy Spirit shiver down my side. It was a clear nudge from the Creator. Isn’t this the primary question asked by every believer: “Who am I?” So I ask: Who or what are we? According to our Scriptures and theology, we are beings created in the image of a perfect God, yet our souls are separated from our Creator by the presence of sin. Enter redemption through the sacrificial death of the Son of God. We are born again. We live, because Christ lives in us. That is who I am.
I’m going to invite every reader to ask that question of themselves. And then, in light of our answers, return to the earlier questions. We might need to churn this over prayerfully until we know how to act.
 https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-54895-7_14 accessed Feb. 16, 2022
 https://ctc.usma.edu/the-globalization-of-far-right-extremism-an-investigative-report/ accessed Feb. 16, 2022
 The preamble to Bill C-4, which passed into law in January, states: “Whereas conversion therapy causes harm to society because, among other things, it is based on and propagates myths and stereotypes about sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, including the myth that heterosexuality, cisgender gender identity, and gender expression that conforms to the sex assigned to a person at birth are to be preferred over other sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions. . .” https://www.parl.ca/DocumentViewer/en/44-1/bill/C-4/royal-assent
 https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/75-006-x/2021001/article/00010-eng.htm accessed Feb. 16, 2022
 Collapsing Levels of Trust Are Devastating America – The Atlantic accessed Feb. 16, 2022
 https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/04/opinion/evangelicalism-division-renewal.html?smid=fb-share&fbclid=IwAR17pH-zYAHkm7q8hVS5O3SMlMlhaYsHSGZRmx-p9NkeIYG0hnx2QMskjSk accessed Feb. 16, 2022 (may need subscription to access)