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Gregory Thornbury: The World Needs the Church to Be the Church

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In recent years, the church has tried to become more “scientific, urbane and sophisticated.” In so doing, though, have we lost our true distinctiveness? Gregory Thornbury, President of The King’s College in New York City, addresses this topic in this Page Lecture at Southeastern Seminary.

Here are a few relevant excerpts:

On the rise of “soft thought.”

“We busy ourselves with trying to be increasingly scientific and urbane and sophisticated, and there are advantages to that. But in the meantime what happens to the people who attend our churches and go to our colleges and universities is that they have now succumbed to what the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo calls ‘soft thought.’ In this world of great credulousness, where do traditional Christians stand? They may quietly say, ‘I believe in God the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,’ but they will do so quietly in the shadows.

“But what they will lead with is something along the lines of what I saw in a Buzzfeed video last year, which had a parade of young people aged 18 to 25. And the title of the video (you can go look it up) is, ‘I’m a Christian, But [I’m Not].’

“‘I’m a Christian, but I believe in science. I’m a Christian, but I’m not hung up on homosexuality. I’m a Christian but –‘

“And it’s this series of caveats of, ‘I’m a Christian, but I’m really at the end of the day just like you.’ It’s what Gianni Vattimo calls, ‘Soft thought.'”

What people want to see from us is a pillar of fire by night, and a pillar of cloud by day.

How the church is like The Giving Tree.

“If I don’t miss my guess, what we’re seeing in our culture right now is a vast array of experiments against reality. Experiments against reality can last for a time. But experiments against reality are also an exhausting enterprise. Where will the church be when all of the experiments have played themselves out and have exhausted themselves? Will there be the place to rest — that generative, gift-bearing Christian worldview and church, that is there standing in a sea of threats to its own existence?

“In this exchange between Vattimo and [René] Girard, one of the things that came to my mind as Vattimo talks about how much he loves the idea of care for the weak, the defenseless and the poor is the fact that until the Parable of the Good Samaritan, you did not have anything like the concept of charity on the world stage. Never before the Parable of the Good Samaritan was it ever said that you had an obligation to anybody outside of your tribe. When everyone is your brother, it’s a complete game-changer. That is ‘the Giving Tree’ of Christianity. And it is the gift that keeps on giving and giving, over and over, from generation to generation.

“But what people expect to find when they actually arrive at the location of the church, is not simply more arguments, is not simply an institutionalized structure and not just a liturgy, as important as those things are. They actually expect to find a pre-modern world in which God actually speaks and shows, as Carl Henry said, stands and stays with his people in the midst of his people. What people want to see from us is a pillar of fire by night, and a pillar of cloud by day.”

People who think their job is to save the Bride are doing no such thing.

Why the church will prevail.

“Everywhere we go, people are saying the sky is falling. Chicken little theology. The decline of religion in America. And the truth is that the gates of hell will not prevail against Christ’s Bride. Our job is to realize that people who think their job is to save the Bride are doing no such thing. We all are pilgrimers, travelers and refugees who need to find the celestial city of the church. Embattled, yes. In places weak. But loved by Christ.”

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Center for Faith and Culture

The L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture seeks to engage culture as salt and light, presenting the Christian faith and demonstrating its implications for all areas of human existence.

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