Back a few days ago, I asked a question about just how wrong is smoking? I got 23 comments! I don’t get 23 comments when we talk about women elders! Why such interest in a fairly mundane subject? I mean, we all agree that smoking is wrong and nasty. The question was how wrong.
I’ve pondered that quite a bit, as I was really surprised. Why is smoking even an interesting question? I mean, I’d never teach a class on it. Everyone already knows it kills.
It finally occurred to me that the controversy is a great exemplar of the shifting church culture that’s going on. The question is interesting because it demonstrates how the church is changing (and not changing). It gives us a concrete example of what’s going on. Indeed, our disagreements on such a mundane topic are symptomatic of the inevitable trauma of profoundly dramatic changes in how we perceive Christianity itself.
Until recently, American churches were Constantinian, that is, part of the prevailing culture. Everyone believed in Jesus. We considered our task as (1) getting people saved by converting Baptists and others in the “denominations” to the “one true church” and (2) encouraging moral living. Hence, the emphasis was on baptism and on the rules for how to live “faithfully until death.”
In that culture, smoking is not only a sin, it’s a big one, because it’s obvious to others that we’ve not yet obeyed God’s law regarding treating our bodies as the temple of the Holy Spirit. And the keeping of moral laws is central to how you live faithfully.
Kicking the habit in such a church is seen as “fruits of repentance” and honoring our commitment to live faithfully. It’s obedience, plain and simple.
More recently, we shifted more toward being “purpose driven,” with “purpose” defined as growing our congregations. The emphasis shifted to programmatic evangelism methods, seeker sensitivity, excellence in the worship service, and such.
Concurrently we moved toward a “therapeutic gospel,” that is, a gospel of being better parents and spouses, overcoming depression and addiction, and such like. Many of our ministers trained in counseling. One advantage of this slant on the gospel was that it made the gospel accessible to non-Christians, who often struggle with these very same issues.
Cigarette smoking in such an environment is thought of as an addiction to be overcome through prayer, group support, and such, rather than as sin to be preached against.
In that culture, smoking is an addiction to be overcome by the power of the gospel and the Spirit, with kicking the habit celebrated as a victory of Jesus over addiction.
Now, we see churches moving to become more “emerging” or “missional.” Emerging churches seek to preach the eternal gospel in language that communicates with the Postmodern unchurched. Missional churches realize they are on a mission to bring the Kingdom to ever greater fruition in this world — helping fulfill the Lord’s Prayer so that God’s will is done on earth as in heaven — and to be missionaries in a nation that is increasingly pagan.
In such a culture, cigarette smoking is considered a minor problem compared to the huge institutional problems our society is faced with — such as poverty, racism, and war. In this culture, kicking the habit is to be celebrated. It’s a victory for Jesus, but it’s nowhere near the center of what’s most important. In fact, if we were planting an emerging church in a community where smoking is accepted as perfectly fine behavior, such as Japan and much of Europe, we might be years getting around to such a sermon, if ever!
Notice, that in the Constantinian church, kicking the habit is highly individualistic. You’re a sinner and you need to stop.
In the purpose-driven church, kicking the habit is the community’s responsibility. The church provides support groups and counseling. When you succeed, it’s by the power of Jesus both through the Spirit and through his church.
In the emerging/missional church, kicking the habit is great but would rarely be preached on. If you want help, we’ll be there for you in any way possible. But no one’s going to bug you about cigarettes when there’s a lost world full of hurting people to help. If you want to smoke during breaks while serving at the food bank, well, serving at the food bank, being part of the redeemed community, and making a difference in the world is what really matters.
Now, even the most emerging church never gets entirely away from teaching personal morality. Nor does it entirely abandon the therapeutic aspects of the gospel. But the emphasis changes dramatically.
In this series, we’ll explore the different approaches to the gospel further. There are even more “gospels” out there to ponder.