One of my longstanding soapboxes here on the blog has been that modern (or postmodern, if you will) Christianity seems to be more sociologically driven than theologically driven. In other words, we tend to stick our finger into the wind of social trends to see which way the culture is going and adapt our doctrine and practice to fit.
There are some pluses to this. One of the main pluses is that Christians often answer questions no one is asking and this helps us to see what is really on the minds and hearts of those we seek to reach.
Also, through the centuries we have built up a technical vocabulary related to Christian doctrine and practice which is unfamiliar to many. At its best, this sociologically driven mindset reminds us that it is ok to find new words and expressions to communicate old truths. This is a good thing
Further, we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves and one part of loving our neighbors is learning to empathize with them. Our sociologically driven friends often do a great service to the church in helping us understand and empathize with the people around us.
I would also say that sociology and theology don't necessarily have to be in conflict. The two can serve each other. But I would say that theology must drive the bus, and sociology, to be most helpful, must trail behind and be directed by theology. This is where I think we often go wrong. And I want to address one example of this.
When I think of sociologically driven ministries I think of prominent ministries which survey communities and then tailor their ministries to fit. I also think of the reliance so many of us have on demographics in church planting and growth.
Again, in their place these are good things - I have done surveys and read demographic reports (in fact, I'm going to a meeting in a couple of weeks with some city planners to learn more about local demographics). They are helpful in so many ways.
But I am not sure we analyze these surveys and demographics in the most helpful ways. Sociological analysis of demographics not only shows us trends and the like, they alsoo show us needs, desires, and values of a community.
However, if we analyzed these things through a theological grid we would begin with the assumption that man is, at root, a worshipping being. Thus, the surveys and other demographic analyses will not only reveal needs, desires and values, but the idols that are worshipped in our communities.
This line of thought occurred to me recently when reading someone's blog as they spoke about the upcoming DaVinci Code movie. They said that Christians need to not merely defend orthodox Christianity against the DaVinci Code but to listen and learn exactly why it is that the DaVinci Code is so appealing to so many.
In other words, this blogger was suggesting that there are reasons behind the interest we might not be aware of. I couldn't agree more and wholeheartedly endorse this advice. If you find yourself in a discussion with someone who is interested in the DaVinci Code I suggest a lot of listening before you start speaking. There are all kinds of reasons people may be interested in this that go beyond the purported "evidence."
But as I read these words another thought occurred to me. As we are listening to our friends and acquaintances who are interested in the DaVinci Code we must be courteous, but at the same time not take their responses at face value. They are not neutral in evaluating the DaVinci Code or anything else (neither are we). Their reasons for accepting this stuff are driven by the idols they worship. Thus, if we just treat them as neutral observers in this whole thing we are missing the heart of worship that drives them.
It was these ruminations about the DaVinci Code that drew me back to the whole sociological/theological paradigm and the subject of idol worship. We often treat the unregenerate as if they are sinless and pure (I understand we don't intend to, but the effect is similar). Hence, the myth of the sinless sinner.
We listen to the rationale of our friends who accept the DaVinci Code and accept them at face value and tailor our responses accordingly. We survey our community, find out what that community needs and values and plant a church which reflects those needs and values. Again, the listening and surveying are good things if they can foster further communication.
But the rub is that we are often catering to their idols. How do I reconcile my desire to tailor a church to the needs and values of a particular community when in fact the essence of idolatry is to have a church which is tailored to meet my needs.
If I am in an upscale community that values family, success and financial freedom I might decide that the way to reach these folks is to build a family friendly church with classes and seminars on marriage and parenting, money management and a biblical view of success, or how to use your success in a godly way. There are many good aspects to all of these emphases, but we can miss the fact that people often value family, money and success for idolatrous reasons. In other words, it may be helpful to give someone biblical principles for budgeting, but it may be that their interest in budgeting is driven by an idol of greed.
And so I am suggesting that we not treat sinners as if they are sinless. For some time now it has been en vogue to listen to the unregenerate and tailor our ministries to their stated needs, desires and values. This has been the case with the church growth movement, the seeker sensitive movement, and in many cases with postmodern and emerging movements. In doing so we often fail to get behind the sinless and idolatrous motives that are driving the needs, desires and values.