Recently I read that on the 25th anniversary of the Barmen Declaration (1958), the words, spirit and vision of Barmen were a source of great encouragement, hope and celebration – not so much in the liberated ‘Christian’ West, but to the churches behind the Iron Curtain. Strangely, every red-blooded American could pinpoint the unchristian evils of Soviet-style totalitarianism while not batting an eye at their own cultural worldview that idolized the autonomy of the individual and the unbiblical fantasy of a religious identity free from all external determinants. How can one be self-critical or countercultural if you’ve got to sell what people are buying to keep the salvation shop open?Or you’ve got to give the partisans the red meat to keep the cause triumphant? Or you’ve got to keep up appearances to maintain the brand in the religious marketplace?
But perhaps one of main the reasons Reformed Presbyterian Christians are still around today is to offer a countercultural alternative to religious consumerist marketing and the larger political and cultural ideologies that strive to capture our ultimate allegiance. For Reformed Christians, the goal and purpose of the Christian life has never been our individual salvation, or our collective self-preservation, or the net benefits of faith or even the righteousness of our particular causes. Rather, to follow in the way of Jesus Christ is to pursue the less self-centered goal of glorifying and enjoying God forever and not wringing our hands over our ultimate destiny or about getting out what we put in or being on the right side of our brand of social justice. Perhaps a bit less sure of ourselves, we place our trust and hope and our lives in God’s gracious decision for us in Jesus Christ. In this time between Christ’s resurrection and Second Coming, we are free to celebrate and proclaim this gospel to others for the greater glory of God. We have a role to play, we have something important to contribute, we get to share in Christ’s life and ministry to the world; but the kingdom of God is about more than a fulfilled, saved and socially-just me. If God has a future use for the work and mission of the Presbyterian Church for the sake of Christ’s reign and kingdom, then God will preserve this portion of Christ’s body in the world. If not, then no amount of marketing strategy or brand management or special interest groups will preserve and save us.
A colleague who pastors in Hong Kong recently told me that the way a totalitarian government and culture exert greater control over its people is by eradicating the particular characteristics, virtues and identity markers that threaten and subvert the dominant culture. Might our greatest threat as Reformed Presbyterian Christians be our captivity to our larger culture’s political and retail consumerism? We allow our political commitments to drive our religious convictions (whether they be right or left wing), we grow silent when our theological and ethical convictions call into question our ideological allegiances whether it happens through the gun lobby or the Kermit Gosnell case, and we have accepted the premise that our particular theological and ethical tradition and identity is a no-sell or hard sell in the current religious marketplace. Less is more after all.
But rather than surrendering our distinct identity in favor of more utilitarian consumer-friendly practices or absolute political allegiances, perhaps our Reformed Presbyterian way of discipleship has the opportunity to embrace our distinct theological and ethical witness more deeply, to resist the easy ideological us-and-them of our host culture, and to strive for God’s kingdom by offering the larger world a bold Reformed witness quixotically unconcerned about the state of its ‘salvation,’ theological, ideological, political or otherwise. And almost counterintuitively, because we have become so lost in wonder, love and praise, because we are pursuing such a radical and countercultural witness in contrast to what is on offer across the vast majority of the American religious landscape, because we cannot be so easily co-opted by the conservative cause or the progressive cause or all our other causes, we might just find that new disciples are attracted and hungry for such a way of life together and common witness to the world.
CHRIS CURRIE is pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Shreveport, La.