The jet above, actually one like it, would have been my bird. Back in college, I signed up for the Navy ROTC, to fly as the backseat RIO in an F-4. They approved my app, sent the paperwork to DC for final signatures, and somehow lost it. By the time they discovered their mistake and asked me to resubmit, life changed and I declined. But I toured the Palm Springs Air Museum last week, and seeing this jet resurrected some memories, along with a lesson for the church in a now secular society.
In a recent discussion, Dave, his wife Jan, and I discussed the changes, good and bad, in the church and our society. Decades back, although some churches too often were legalistic, rigid, judgmental, and authoritarian, they played a popular role in society. Church attendance had benefits for unbelievers—business connections, creating a solid reputation, gaining social relationships. Church attendance was often viewed as normative.
Our culture has likewise changed, moving from having the Judaeo-Christian heritage as the basis of ethics to a secular society where relativism reigns, where individuals make their own morals. No need to document all this, but many in today’s culture view the church with suspicion, mistrust, or antagonism.
Seeing that F-4, the warhorse of the Vietnam era, and remembering the conversation, connected some dots that suggest Vietnam provides a lesson for the American church. Not particularly for the institution, but for the body of Christ. While this analysis can’t completely cover the complexities of that war, some facts remain. We lost. From the top down to the society at large, we had a lukewarm commitment to the fight. North Vietnam was far smaller, had less technology, but wanted it more than we did. They got it.
Follow the metaphor—the American church in the 50s was big, but diluted with many who attended for social or business reasons. Sound a little like America’s role in Vietnam to you? And, in many ways, we lost the culture. Like we lost Vietnam. To a smaller group who wanted it more. That may be our church today. Few attend for social or business or relational reasons. But those there tend to give more value to their connections with God and fellow followers of Jesus. Sound like North Vietnam to you? At least a bit? We tend to be smaller. We tend to be marginalized. We tend to be there for better reasons.
So, these changes may be good for the church. IF we can become a lean, mean fighting machine. A group willing to accept God’s mission, to place it above our desires and comfort, to sacrifice for it. We need not fear a secularized society. We need not succumb to its allures, nor accept its values. Historically, God’s church tends to succeed the most in a culture that opposes it. Like Rome. Like China. Like America?
Kick Starting the Application
Do you feel some distress over the growing secularization of our nation? For you, what is the main cause of that cultural change? How does your view of God influence your response?
Do you tend to agree with the comparison of Vietnam and the church? Why or why not? Do you see the church as more committed now than earlier? Where do you stand on Jesus? On sharing his mission? Your willingness to sacrifice? If you’re not as open as you would like to be, how can you make some changes?