One evening when I lived in Bradenton I had a rather memorable conversation with a New College student. Although by “memorable” I really only mean I remembered one thing. He came from a P.C.U.S.A. background (if I remember correctly his father was a pastor) and learned I was a P.C.A. pastor. Upon hearing those three letters “P.C.A.,” he offered his condolences to me and any hopeful ministry one with such a background could have with colleges students at New College. “I don’t think the P.C.A could have much to say to such students as these.” Ironically we would soon have several New College students regularly attend our church.
What he meant was that a denomination as “conservative” (Jesus as only way of salvation, bible as final authority, male pastorate) as mine couldn’t have the same influence as one which was far less rigid on issues such as the aforementioned.
Or in other words, in order to reach a skeptical generation one must give a little before it can take any ground. One must accommodate in order to see any success or headway.
Well on the surface level, that would make sense. If you want to reach people who don’t believe in God, an institutional church, need for grace, regular corporate worship, tithing, bible study, then you should probably find some middle ground. On a purely pragmatic level I’ll admit this actually makes sense.
If the unique exclusive claims of Christ offend modern sensibilities, then let’s broaden them a bit. We don’t want to be a church that offends those who don’t believe in Jesus, so long as they are good people, we’re on the same page as Muslims, Jews, all really nice Americans. This way we will seem so much more loving than those mean conservative folks.
If Jesus’ sexual ethic seems a bit outdated, then let’s loosen that up a bit too. We think Jesus is okay with pre/extra-marital sex, all divorces when people feel unfulfilled, homosexual behavior when folks really love each other.
One would think by ridding one’s church from such “deal stoppers”that it would open the flood gates for all kinds of growth.
The problem, aside from the obvious abandonment of Jesus’ claims, is that actually doesn’t work. At all. In fact it does the exact opposite.
In his book Bad Religion, Russ Douthat writes:
The Episcopal Church (60’s-70’s), in particular, was fast becoming the Catholicism that reformers so earnestly desired-democratic, egalitarian, politicized, and sexually liberated….Liberal Protestants were selling exactly what the accommodationists claimed the public desperately wanted from religion, and nobody was buying it….”He who marries the spirit of the age is soon left a widower,” the Anglican Ralph Inge remarked, and so it was with the accommodationists.
Douthat says we’ve done that. It didn’t and doesn’t work, and is why mainline liberal denominations are falling fast and will keep falling.
He further gives us a clear sociological reason for why this doesn’t work.
The more firmly accomodationist Christianity defined itself by taking sides in this give-and-take, the more it came to be seen as just another faction, just another interest group, with nothing particularly transcendent to offer anyone.
If there is no longer anything distinct about Christianity, just stick with the rotary, Boy Scouts, social clubs and go fishing on Sunday morning. What’s the difference when you take away Jesus?
Or as Jesus so pertinently purports in his Sermon on the Mount:
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. Matt 5:13
For the sake of gaining ground (friendships, clout, church attendance), it may be tempting to accommodate, but remember Jesus’ words and how they have wrung true throughout church history.
Only in a grace-centered, gospel-saturated, truth-telling community will folks see Jesus for who He really is. The funny thing is that in a denomination far more “conservative” than mine, we see that even they had plenty of “stuff to say” to a professor of gay and lesbian studies. They didn’t accommodate, but took seriously the command to be “conservative” on truth but “liberal” in love.