Society and the Church after September 11

In late Summer 2001, I was 26 years old, and I was dealing with some wonderful ups and significant downs. I had traveled to Ireland in July, working at a center that sought religious reconciliation among youth.  I I was enrolled in one of my favorite classes during my Fuller MDiv years, “Faith and Human Development,” taught by James Loder (whose work I use extensively in my new book).

Meanwhile, I was getting more and more frustrated by church politics. In August, my car was stolen. By early September, I was deeply discouraged and depressed. My friend Peter did what only a really good friend would know to do, he invited me to go camping on a Channel Island and even paid my way. That was the balm I needed.  Then September 11th happened, and that was an even deeper wake-up call.

There’s much to be said, but what I’ve not seen too much about is how the church responded to this tragedy and wake-up call.  There was, of course, a lot of very appropriate mourning and commemoration over the years, but I wonder if the lessons of the aftermath have yet to be heard.

In December of 2001, I wrote a paper for my class on Mission to Modern and Post-Modern Society titled, “Society and the Church after September 11.” I re-read it again this morning after many years, and it got me thinking. Some of the issues I raise, I’ve recently addressed much more thoroughly in my new book Hope for the Oppressors, while other issues are still concerns I’m trying to work out as I continue in both church work and in the academy. So I thought I’d share it here (knowing it is not without its issues/weaknesses): 

Everyone has their own story.  What they were doing, who they were with, where they were when “they heard”.  I was getting coffee in the Fuller Seminary refectory.  As I walked in, a small crowd was gathered in the back of the room watching CNN.  While I poured some cream into my cup I overheard someone say that the Trade Centers had sustained major damage, the result of 2 planes flying into them.

Though I was only able to watch a few minutes of the coverage, it was very obvious how truly horrendous this event was.  I wandered down to my class, but ended up leaving early as the images and discussion left me rather incapable of any kind of other focus.  So I walked over to a friend’s nearby house.  There I found my friend, along with another friend who was sent home from work at JPL, watching the news.

Over the next two hours about six other people wandered in, their work also being closed down, not really planned, but simply because no one wanted to be alone.  So we watched the news, talked, and simply sat absorbing the unconscionable. This was unlike any other event in our lives.  What we had seen happen in the movies now was happening in reality.  A poignant moment came later in the day.  As night fell on the East Coast, the members of Congress gathered together for a press conference.  Seemingly spontaneously they, the leaders of our country, began to sing God Bless America.

The initial effect was to stir that cynicism that tends to dwell at some level in all of those in my generation, having grown up in baseless rhetoric and partisan politics (symbolized by the recent posturing during the Presidential crisis).  Politicians singing God Bless America?  They’re wanting votes.  This came up in our continuing commentary, but someone said, “This time though I think they really are sincere, they really are singing from their depths.”  Rhetoric was lost, sincerity was found.  The age of irony which had developed during the 1990s was if not over, certainly very wounded.

Although it is far too early to make any kind of definite statements, it may be worth looking at how the events of September 11, 2001 have impacted the culture in which we live, and thus how should the church respond and interact with this culture.  The goal of this brief paper is to look at basic underlying philosophies which were revealed or confirmed in the aftermath of this tragedy.

Having done this I will discuss how the church has responded, and how possibly the church should respond to this continuing crisis.  What was certain is that while the purposeful destruction was a surprise, it seems as though many cultural observers are just as surprised by our response and reactions, reactions which may in fact point to great areas of interest for those in the church to pursue.

In the light of this tragedy, insights have been revealed, I believe which show that the Christian witness has not been totally unsuccessful, though we may need to change how we understand this success, and understand new ways which would take advantage of the important cultural indicators.  The church must respond now by reexamining its own perspectives, by looking at its own faults and society’s qualities.

Prior to September 11 most of the discussions about postmodernism and this present culture involved what could be called less than endearing terms.  Tom Brokaw titled his best-selling book about WWII veterans The Greatest Generation, both as a reference to the exploits of the mid-20th century population and, less obviously, as a pointed commentary on what was seen as the present lackluster generation.[1]   Those who had gone before imagined they had continued to blaze a perfect path to follow, a path which had led generation after generation to achieve more than those who had gone before.

The cultural commentators pointed to the general low voting patterns of young adults, accentuating seemingly both disgruntledness and apathy.  “The idea of public life,” sociologist Todd Gitlin writes, “—whether party participation or military intervention fills them with weariness; the adventures that matter to them are the adventures of private life.”[2]  We were the generation of whiners who complained about all our parents gave to us.  A generation who put ourselves before the community, rejecting by indifference the institutions of society.

On September 11, however, an event happened which will cause those who reflect on such things to challenge their previous perspectives.  Assumptions were made which need now to be reexamined in the light of a new societal situation.  In the face of a real crisis what was seen?  A nation which went overboard in helping each other out, in giving, in volunteering.  A nation whose rallying cry for this time became “God bless America.”[3]

Churches were filled to overflowing, Bibles were being sold at almost double their previous numbers, famous evangelists were being asked about the problem of evil on national morning shows.  Blood banks were turning away people, military recruiters were finding their quotas met and more, for the first time in years, charities were counting their received contributions in the billions of dollars.  Rather than abandoning the public institutions, society was revealing itself as united, caring, giving. [4]

Society has changed, but not as radically as some may think.  While political activity was low, more than half of all 18 –24 year olds volunteer on a regular basis.[5]   As a leader of a community organization states, “They consider themselves civic-oriented, but don’t define that through political activity.”[6]  My assertion is that this present generation may not have been as “empty” and as “relative” as some may have thought.  Rather, the inability to question the institutions themselves brought on a critique of those for whom these institutions were no longer understood, or indeed were all that relevant.

This led to the attempt to change the perspectives of the postmoderns, rather than oftentimes looking at what was being rejected.  Understood missiologically, the previous generation was seeking to impose and restore a distinct cultural philosophy, looking at culture only in as far as needed to construct a critique or “approach.” Christiandom had no room for dissent.  Present apologetics, for the most part, seemingly first attempt to make hearers “moderns” and then Christians, mostly due to the fact that Christian thinkers have been successful in answering modernity’s issues.

So, while churches have continued to engage in evangelistic campaigns, developed new strategies for reaching “Gen-X”,[7] and created a large market for apologetic materials, the general expectation is that we are fighting a losing battle.

The recent seeming resurgence of religious interest in the this country gave the Church an enormous opportunity.  Rarely have religious leaders been given as much freedom in public venues as they have the last couple of months.  Churches responded with prayer services, with patriotic fervor,[8] with compassion and care.  Though some responded with apocalyptic paranoia,[9] most had messages of love and courage.

The church had an opportunity to be the Church to the world, to proclaim what it knew was truth, to offer hope in the face of loss.  In the light of this George Barna commissioned a survey of religious and moral beliefs in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.[10]  What he found was surprising and indeed disturbing.

It was expected that concern for the future would rise as his survey shows it indeed did, with 9 out of 10 people, 35 and younger, expressing concern, with substantial increases being found across the entire population.  The commitment level to the Christian faith remained statistically unchanged, except for those who are 55 and older, which rose 8 percentage points.  It is in the area of how society views moral truth where we find the most interesting insight.

Barna research asked similar questions in January of 2000 and compared the results to recent findings.  In January of 2000, about 40% of the adult population said there were absolute moral truths that do not change according to circumstances.  In the recent study only just over 20% agreed with this statement.  Those aged 18-35 dropped from a quarter of the population who agreed to 13%.[11]  Christian practice[12] has remained statistically unchanged as compared to the previous study.  There was a minor change in how people viewed God and the Devil, with 4% less people saying they believe in a “all-powerful, all-knowing perfect creator of the universe who still rules the world today.”

About 5% less people reject the idea that “Satan, or the devil, is not a living being but is just a symbol of evil.”  There was absolutely no change in the number of people who could be classified as being “born-again.”  Given the fact that church attendance increased as much as 25% in the weeks immediately following the attacks, this survey reveals a great deal about the state of the current church.

This is not an irreligious society, however.  This society believes in god, but the question is “which god?”.  This society prays, but to who?  Society is, it has been said, involved in a religious discussion, but the church has not been invited to participate.  John Douglas Hall identifies four areas which indicate this religious interest.[13]  The first is “the quest for moral authenticity” in which there is a distinct morality, a sense of right and wrong, but this is not necessarily grounded in traditional sources.[14]

There is also a “quest for meaningful community” in which the individualism of modernity is being replaced by the strong renewal of interest of true community.[15]  Hall maintains there is also a “quest for transcendence and mystery,” seen in the explosion of religious exploration which defies the Modernistic rejection of the supernatural.  Finally, there is the “quest for meaning”, the seeking after something more than simply seeking, there is a quest to answer what life really is for, in the face of nonbeing there are questions of being in general.  The church has been asked these questions, though maybe not in an obvious way, and has not answered them apparently in any helpful way, leading those who ask to look elsewhere.

No other nation in the history of the world has been as interested in human rights, and participated as actively, though certainly not perfectly, in shaping the world to respect all people.  This is a society whose monetary provision to the needy has helped countless people.  This is a society who rather than forcing reparations upon Germany and Japan after WWII it came alongside and helped rebuild their societies, making enemies into the most ardent of allies.  People fight for each other in this country more than they fight against each other.

Those who are sick are generally fed, clothed, cared for as Jesus commanded.  The problem with all this, though, is that the Church is not at the forefront of this societal care.  In the leprosy of our day, AIDS, churches tend to declaim the immorality of the homosexual rather than opening up hospices.  As those who believe God made the world, Christians are often the most ardent anti-environment activists rather than the most ardent protectors of God’s creation.  Our divorce rates are the same, our financial decisions seem to be no different,[16] our fear about crises seems to be indeed higher.[17]

While these are generalization to be sure, with many exceptions on both sides, the fact is that in looking at the church from an honest perspective, what exactly do we have to offer to this world? Society has become caring towards each other, indeed more Christ like in many ways, reflecting that the Gospel has been received in part,[18] but has done so without reference to the Christian Gospel as a whole.

We have, in the words of Orlando Costas offered “a gospel without demands” and made “demands without the Gospel.”[19]  The Church has become indeed not counter cultural, as much as simply culturally irrelevant.  The church preaches The Gospel, but as David Lowes Watson suggests, does not even know really how to answer the question of “What is the Gospel?”.[20]

George Barna, in response to his survey, writes:

After the attack, millions of nominally churched or generally unreligious Americans were desperately seeking something that would restore stability and a sense of meaning to life.  Fortunately, many of them turned to the church.  Unfortunately, few of them experienced anything that was sufficiently life-changing to capture their attention and their allegiance.  They tended to appreciate the moments of comfort they received, but were unaware of anything sufficiently unique or beneficial as to redesign their lifestyle to integrate a deeper level of spiritual involvement.  Our assessment is that churches succeeded at putting on a friendly face but failed at motivating the vast majority of spiritual explorers to connect with Christ in a more intimate or intense manner.[21]

Barna continues by stating that “The September 11 tragedy was another amazing opportunity to be the healing and transforming presence of God in people’s lives, but that, too, has now come and gone, with little before it.”[22]  He finishes by saying:

These situations, especially the terrorist attacks, bring to mind Jesus’ teaching that no one knows the time and day when God will return for His people, so we must always be ready.  These two events are a wake up call to church leaders, emphasizing the particular need to enhance their efforts in the areas of outreach and discipleship.  We may never again have such grand opportunities to reach the nation for Christ –but then, we may have an even greater opportunity tomorrow.  How many churches have leaders and believers who are poised to take advantage of such a pending opportunity.[23]

G.K. Chesterton once said that “Christianity hasn’t been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and not tried.”  In our context, however, I would suggest that indeed churches have been tried and have been found wanting.  In the absence of a societal expectation for religious expression, the population has been voting with their feet the quality of church life, and they have been voting that it is mostly irrelevant.

The task now is not to simply reject such people as having dismissed the Gospel.  Rather the task now is to take a look inward and ask whether we are preaching Good News in a way which is in fact vital to people’s lives, or even if we are preaching Good News at all. We need to ask whether we are answering the questions which are being asked of us.

I am not among those  who believe this religious decline is either inherent or irreversible.  It is we within the church, I believe, who have found Christianity too difficult, so we have resorted to technique, salesmanship, and shallowness while declaiming society for not responding to our anemic message.[24]

History has shown that the church loses as much territory as it gains.[25]  An army which can not hold onto territory is not winning a war.  The response to this, however, is not to simply continue on in the same pattern as has been previously useful simply out of tradition.

Modern ecclesiology and much popular missiology are equivalent to a cavalry charge in WWII, full of bluster and even courage, but shockingly irrelevant for actually making a difference.[26]  We are not a church simply to exist as an institution, but rather we exist as light for this world.  There has been a tendency to blame those in darkness for not seeing the light.  But maybe the problem is that we as the church are not very illuminating. The remainder of this essay will be an exploration into how we can turn the tide, how we can actually fight the trend which is seen throughout Europe and North America.  If we can change, as the church, maybe Africa and Asia will not have to deal with the same “post-Christian” issues with which we are now faced.[27]

We are not suffering from a dearth of voices seeking to turn this tide.  There are many whose passion has turned towards a renewal of the church, and sought direction and insight into a new overall strategy.  The difficulty for the most part is that just as in other areas of Christian scholarship there is an increasing divide between academic and popular theology.[28]

There is simply little dialogue which would spur actual change.  This is possibly one of the first areas of church life which needs to be addressed.  Academic work needs to be translated into approachable language, and popular authors need to regard academic sources.  Peter Stuhlmacher stated in a conference a few years ago his pessimism of much academic work by saying, “The renewal of the church will not come from academia.”  Those involved in leadership in church settings need to be reminded of their responsibility to teach, and continue to learn, truth in way which has oftentimes not been very evident.

The key to real renewal in the church is to first acknowledge we are not dealing with structural problems.  This crisis will not be solved by new hermeneutical techniques or multimedia presentations.  We are in the midst of a Spiritual crisis, in which the soul of the church is being attacked.  Traditional ecclesiology has a set form.  While the Reformers adapted much of the theology, the basic model of church was not very different.  For the most part, professional Christians facilitate an environment where the faithful can come and learn, worshipping together in a fixed setting.

While theologically attentive this pattern has encouraged a passive understanding of faith.  Rather than being an inspired dialogue, the choice is whether to accept what one person says is true, or to go with one’s own opinions.  When the clergy tended towards being the most educated people in town their authority was assured, but the combination of conservative Christian anti-intellectualism and the general higher state of education for society in general has all but erased that distinction.

The church must address those specific questions which Douglas Hall raised, but it can not do so by relying simply on a professional clergy, who are expected to fulfill the tasks of all the spiritual gifts, and whose passions are expected to shape, and limit, the whole direction of the church.  The tendency has been for too long that those within the ministry have been the guardians of the Spirit, saying how and how not the Spirit works.

It seems as though the interest is more in how the Spirit can not work,[29] then in working with how the Spirit is working.  The Church has seen itself as the arbiter of the Spirit, rather than a participator in what God is doing in this world.  Increasingly the church must be willing to acknowledge how the Spirit works in all Christians, and be a place which facilitates these gifts, rather than constricting and directing, understanding “diversity as God’s gift rather than as a problem to be solved.”[30]

We have been led to a situation in which Evangelical Christianity is simply about telling people about Jesus, so that they could eventually join in on the process of telling more people.  It is a club in which the only responsibility is to get others to join the club, prompting many to discover that “much of American evangelism is shown to be defective in content.”[31]

Lesslie Newbigin, however, rightly notes that “mission begins with an explosion of joy” with the “mission of the church in the pages of the New Testament more like the fallout from a vast explosion, a radioactive fallout which is not lethal but life-giving”[32]  When evangelism is a goal rather than a result the church gets so focused on answering specific questions that it loses the originality of its own message.[33]

It is not our mission to convert this world, it is the result of the Spirit of God in our midst, who seeks the salvation of the world with a passion we cannot begin to approach.  The Spirit has given the gifts to facilitate this growth, in size and maturity.  By resisting what the Spirit is doing, oftentimes with the excuse of seeking what the Spirit should be doing, we get in the way of this salvific work.

With this in mind, it seems as though one of the primary tasks of mission in our society, at this present time, should be to recover that depth of wisdom, insight, and compassion which should mark the Church of Jesus Christ.  Peter commissioned the church to always be prepared to give a response to the hope that is in us.[34] To do this we must again learn to both be prepared and to have hope.  Newbigin gives us some guidance on how a community should be shaped in order to facilitate this.

The first aspect is that the community will be one of praise, including reverence, thanksgiving, full of gratitude, grace and love rather than of judgment and moral crusading.[35]

It will be a community of Truth, a community that does not just proclaim truth, but also lives it. This community should be active in the wider community in which it exists, involved in the “concerns of the neighborhood,”[36] existing for the neighborhood.

There will be men and women being prepared to live out their Christian lives in the midst of the world, using their gifts not only in the specific church, but in all that they are involved in and with, letting the Spirit work through them to minister to the needs of those in and outside the church.

And finally, it will be a place of hope, recovering the distinction that the Spirit should be making in our lives, trusting and believing that God is active, working, and faithful.  By truly letting these characteristics become part of who we are we will lose the anxiousness which the burden of evangelism for its own sake raises.  We will become instinctual in our ministries, and we will find we are able to truly be a light to this present world. [37]

The events of September 11th were horrible and awful.  They were also a wake-up call, reminding us of our precarious existence.  Agencies throughout this country were charged with renewed diligence in their duties, understanding that this happened in part due to our own lax standards.  In this atmosphere of re-evaluation, the church must also participate in looking at its response and role.

Surprisingly to most people, society turned to the church at its moment of crisis, seeking wisdom and answers, hope and direction.  It did not take long, however, for society to turn away again, with the church again relegated to irrelevancy.  People have adopted certain aspects of the Gospel message, discarding much of  the shallow moralism which so often is the public face of the church.

Society showed itself to be more compassionate, more giving, more loving and involved than was expected throughout this crisis, showing that the Spirit is involved actively throughout our midst.  The church, however, in many cases, revealed the shallowness of its own being, not able to adequately respond to the deep questions which were being asked, unable to bring transformation to those who eagerly sought it out.

The church must learn to acknowledge the full work of the Spirit of God, becoming places of true hope and light, places where people become filled, truly filled, with the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus, becoming avenues through which the Spirit can work wonderful things, now and throughout eternity.

[1] Of course the fact that the so-called “greatest generation” created a society for their grand-children in which education and homeownership required lifelong debt as well as other present societal difficulties is not ever mentioned.

[2] Todd Gitlin,  “The Postmodern Predicament,” World Quarterly (Summer 1989): 75.

[3] It is highly doubtful any other country in the world would use such a religious phrase/song as its public motto.

[4] A fact which certainly shocked those who thought to terrify us.  This is in many ways reminiscent of Hitler’s disdain towards the flabby, rich American youth prior to WWII which gave him confidence in waging his own terror war.

[5] Sealey, Geraldine.  “A Transforming Moment,” http//


[6] ibid.

[7] Which mostly involved using a “grungy” look and popular culture like videos or music.

[8] God Bless America was not sung just at baseball games.

[9] It is always interesting how Christians oftentimes are the most fearful about the end of the world when they supposedly have the most to look forward to.

[10] The survey results are attached to the back of this essay.  The survey and its analysis are also found at  “How America’s Faith Has Changed Since 9-11”  Barna Research Group.


[11] Joining the young adults as least likely to believe in absolute moral truth were “adults who are not born again” at 15%, and Catholics at 16%.

[12] Including Sunday service, mid week participation in a religious setting, and personal devotional practice.

[13] John Douglas Hall,  “Ecclesia Crucis:  The Theologic of Christian Awkwardness,”  The Church Between Gospel & Culture,  edited by George R. Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1996), 206ff.

[14] the care and help given to the victims and the outrage towards not only Bin Laden, but also those who would take advantage of this tragedy are signs of this.

[15] not simply stated “community” as many churches have become.

[16] It is interesting that more investment and money related commercials are found on Christian radio stations than on any other “secular” stations.

[17] i.e. Christian broadcasters were some of the most vocal supporters of hoarding supplies for Y2K.  And every war or technological advance spurs fearful apocalyptic messages.

[18] For example, present society is more “Christian” as regards to racial equity, as well as other areas.

[19] Quoted in David Lowes Watson, “Christ All in All:  The Recovery of the Gospel for Evangelism in the United States,” The Church Between Gospel & Culture,  Edited by George R. Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1996), 179.

[20] Watson, 189

[21] Barna, 3.  Though the 8% change of religious increase found in those 55 and older may reveal exactly to whom the church is now currently philosophically directed.

[22] ibid.

[23] ibid.

[24] See Douglas D. Webster, Selling Jesus:  What’s Wrong with Marketing the Church (Downers Grove:  IVP, 1992); It is indeed sad when we, as those supposedly filled with the Spirit of the Almighty God, and thus led by Truth look to the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses as models for evangelistic technique and equate hamburgers and Jesus in our attempts to market the Gospel.  See George Ritzer, The McDonaldization of Society, revised edition (Thousand Oaks, CA:  Pine Forge Press,).

[25] i.e. our gains in Africa are belied by the situation in France.

[26] As the Polish Army found out when the Germans invaded.

[27] Craig Van Gelder .  “Defining the Center – Finding the Boundaries,”  The Church Between Gospel & Culture.  Edited by George R. Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1996), 28ff. identifies 3 main issues which are needing to be addressed: 1) globalization 2) postmodernism 3)radical modernity (defined as being a fundamentally changed condition of modernity).

[28] i.e. the difference between most seminarians’ view on Revelation and the Left Behind series (which has sold over 45 million copies).

[29] i.e. in women, in social issues, in married folk, in singles, in gentiles, in vernacular language, through miracles, in the poor, in the sick, in other ethnicities, in other denominations, in older denominations, through learning, without learning, etc.  Even the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement has suffered from this, signifying certain “traits” which are required, such as speaking in tongues, to show the presence of the Spirit.

[30] Van Gelder, “Defining the Center”, 30.

[31] Watson, 189.

[32] Lesslie Newbigin,  The Gospel in a Pluralist Society  (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1989), 116.

[33] Newbigin, 119ff.

[34] 1 Peter 3:15

[35] These are found in Newbigin, 227ff.

[36] Newbigin, 229.

[37] Craig Van Gelder expands on these characteristics of a “successful” church, giving 18 aspects as a response to our present ecclesiastical crisis in his article “Defining the Center”.  Briefly stated they are: 1) de-ideologizing the Gospel, 2) Developing a theology of unified diversity 3) building communities of faith, 4)addressing fragmentation and brokenness, 5) constructing communities with a historical consciousness [see also Robert E.  Webber, Ancient-Future Faith, (Grand Rapids:  Baker Books, 1999)],  6) creating relevant forms, 7) re-negotiating historic models of interpretation, 8)developing a theological method of process, 9) dealing with a multitude of stories, 10) rediscovering God’s narrative, 11) developing confidence in the wider rationality, 12) developing skills in the wider rationality, 13) accepting a changed status, 14) developing a public theology, 15) rethinking the principle of denominationalism, 16) practicing the principle of unity, 17) developing a kingdom-oriented ecclesiology, 18) developing alternative church styles.



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