The Devil Is a Good Sociologist by David Mills

The Devil Is a Good Sociologist

While a tall, thin, almost gaunt young man with a close-cropped beard and mystic expression strummed his guitar and sang “How Great Thou Art,” a pretty young woman in a thin white leotard and short blue skirt swirled around in front of the altar. Such was the meditation, as it was called, at the closing service of the Gospel and Our Culture Network’s annual meeting in mid-February.

The Gospel and Our Culture Network (GOCN) originated in England among people stimulated by the books of Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, who has written quite helpfully on the Church’s relation to an increasingly secular Western culture in books like The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. The American branch, which is independent of the English, was formed a few years ago. The membership mostly is Reformed and Presbyterian, with a few Mennonites and non-denominational Christians, and a smattering of Episcopalians, Lutherans, and so on.

Its published writings have been uniformly good, which made the meeting’s worship so surprising. Because of the worship, I had to conclude to my disappointment that what had seemed an important movement to analyze and engage Western culture had conceded too much to “our culture” and was thus far too vague about “the Gospel.”

The Worship

The Network’s worship disturbed me so greatly because a people’s worship and prayer express their real beliefs more deeply and accurately than statements and articles. It is when someone talks to you in the kitchen that you know what he thinks and feels about you, not when he stands at a lectern reading from a prepared text. So in worship, when we come to talk intimately with God. Whether Baptist or Roman Catholic, the “ecumenically orthodox” would have found the worship at the five services deeply troublesome.

And it was not, I should say, a worship imposed on the meeting and therefore of little significance. At the end, the director of the GOCN commended the worship leaders to appreciative applause, and no one I spoke with––except the English observers, who seemed quite disturbed––found it at all problematic. The most critical remark I heard was that it was a bit trendy, but the leaders meant well. The “working group” or small group discussions indicated that the worship expressed what most of the leaders and articulate members really thought.

In the worship, except for one recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and a few classic hymns, God was never addressed as “Father” or referred to as “he.” Jesus, on the relatively infrequent occasions he was mentioned, was never “the Son” and his status in the divine economy was never made clear. Except for the Lord’s Prayer and the classic hymns, I do not think anything was said in worship that could not be said enthusiastically by a Unitarian, and little that could not be said by a Hindu.

The only explicit doctrinal confession was a “Statement of Faith” said at the opening service and not repeated thereafter. It went, in its entirety:

We are the people of God.
We are a sign of the new world.
We are the sisters and brothers of Jesus.

We believe in God. We believe in the Goodness of God, the presence of God in human history, and the nearness of God’s love.
We believe that the world can change, that peace and wholeness can come, and that the New World can arrive.

We are the people of God.
We are the sign of the New World.
We are the brothers and sisters of Jesus.

David Mills has been editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things.

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