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July 1972 · Vol. 1 No. 3 · pp. 85–91 

The Church and Changing Culture

Vern Ratzlaff

The agenda of a would-be problem-solver is not exactly going begging for lack of entries. Look at a possible listing: women’s liberation, ecology, genetic engineering, pornography, spiritism-occultism, sex education, drugs, leisure, funerals, economic inequities, space exploration, taxation (and church exemption), euthanasia, art forms, alcoholism, violence, abortion, civil disobedience, technology, organ transplants, dress style (where “anything goes” is now defined as “anything goes off”), patriotism, music, family, profanity, crime, generation gap, labour, corrections. And in the church we add to this our own particular agenda items of doctrine and practice. And each of these items on the agenda represents agitation for change NOW.


What is happening in society is an unbelievably rapid acceleration of change produced by the geometrically-multiplied effects of multiple technologies, what Brezezinski terms “the technetronic era.” 1 What makes the change difficult to absorb is that any given set of factors produces a given life-style, and a change in the factors necessitates a change in life style. To the extent that deeply conflicting life styles may be called on to exist side by side, the stage is prepared for a conflict-drama that will have to be resolved. For previous centuries and generations, change was slow enough and took place at sufficiently few levels that there could be an orderly transfer from one life style to another. We had several millennia to get used to the impact of the wheel, three lifetimes (using Toffler’s scale of 62 years to a lifetime 2) to get used to the external combustion engine, slightly over one to the internal combustion engine, and now, in the past one-third lifetime, the jet engine, with its impact on travel, commerce, service industries, etc.

The geometrically-multiplied effects of multiple technologies make our society virtually incapable of absorbing all these changes. Nor can their attendant new life styles exist side by side with the old life styles. Violence is seen by an increasing number of thinkers as the only possible fuel or the engine of change, since we no longer have the time for the orderly change which in lifetimes past was able to span technological innovations.

One of the basic issues confronting the world community today is violence, thought necessary both to effect change and to ensure its acceptance.


One of the most articulate critics of western society is Herbert Marcuse, 3 professor of philosophy at the University of California (San Diego), who sees the increasing need for people to protest against the technetronic era’s consumer-product-consumer cycle. He sees the present system transforming essential human needs (food, clothing, shelter) into media-manipulated pseudo-needs for the products of affluence, whereby vast numbers of highly-educated technicians are chained to meaningless, alienated jobs to create and to market inherently unneeded products. By these the consumer is manipulated via psychic processes (e.g. subliminal {86} advertising) and sexual phantasies (where the female figure—the type, not the individual—is used to sell everything from automobiles to phosphate fertilizers). To be a member of the successful society, the manipulators say, drive a Cadillac. So, (a) most people can’t afford to buy one (let alone drive one), or (b) those who do find they still are not accepted by the society (per capita, more Negroes than whites drive Cadillacs). The manipulation thus produces a people even more frustrated in its unfulfilled expectations. The resultant frustration works itself out either externally (where it is directed against imagined or relatively impotent foreign enemies, its young, its dissident minorities) or internally (high speed vehicles, death-dealing drugs, suicide). For Marcuse, then, the fundamental cause of frustration is the conflict between man’s “life instincts” and the repressive structures. For him, the future of our technological society does not necessarily lie in the direction of conformity and the emergence of a new dynasty of pharaohs, but in a new level of humanity, a new consciousness where man, when freed from scarcity and stuporous work, can become playful and gentle. 4 Marcuse sees in the young such an emerging consciousness which is rejecting the producer-consumer society and which needs to work with technology’s new working classes (those in electronics, chemicals, mass media, education) to effect a revolution—a revolution with violence, if necessary.

An example of the change in consciousness taking place in society is the present college-age generation, the first generation which can fairly accurately be termed the television generation, i.e., the generation for whom television has been a major source of information input throughout their lives. The shift in terms of hot and cold information-transfer media for North America is significant: from 1960-66, an absolute increase of 393 radios per 1000 population and 66 TV sets per 1000 population was recorded. At the same time, there was a drop of 14 daily-newspaper readers per thousand population. 5 What does this shift in terms of viewing/ listening (hot media) mean where there is an expanding immediate awareness of society, of models of behaviours? where those models of behaviour—whether on the news or in “dramas”—focus on the violent?

Having grown up with these impressions, how is the individual to react in Latin America where no change short of violent revolution appears possible? (For example, in Brazil religious and political prisoners are being tortured.)

How is the student to react in a church-funded school where administration is preoccupied with getting funds from its constituency and forgetting in the process its responsibilities to the students for whose benefit, at least in part, it exists?

How is the individual to react in a society where attempts to be politically involved end up in licking postage stamps, and when the political bosses make the final decisions and nothing changes after all (except for proliferation of the problem)?

How is the individual to react in a society that is seemingly oblivious to economic inequities within itself, and between itself and the world community?


What is required, in addition to our attitude to change, is a closely-related attitude to affluence, an attitude which has been probed in significant literature. 6 The techetronic era is based on a new concept of {87} virtue: the virtue of machines, of efficiency, of schedules, of division of labor. (The latter has not always been so assumed; while Adam Smith saw it as the basis of industry, Karl Marx viewed it as the source of human alienation, and the Christian concept of community might also question its assumed sanctity.) At the same time, these virtues have been accompanied by an astounding fact: 20% of the North American’s income is used for food; it is unprecedented that only one-fifth of total income should be required for the most pressing of human needs, when some Asian earners spend in excess of 80% of their income for food. At the same time, Americans spend an estimated $20 billion on gambling and some $25 million each day on aspirins (perhaps the two are related). One of the characteristics of affluence is illustrated by the latter figure—that one has money to buy the unnecessary. In east European countries where aspirins are outlawed it is obviously possible to live without them.

Affluence in our technetronic society brings to the fore two inescapable facts: a) the persistence of intolerable poverty at home (in Canada, over 27% of our households have an income of under $4000 annually), and b) the persistence of desperately poor nations in the presence of the better-off. 7 The disparity is occasioned, in part, by the individual’s desire to be slightly better off than his neighbour, and so far no method has been devised whereby the majority can be better off than most people.


Affluence is focusing challenges to, and pressures on, our society. Some of these might be briefly enumerated since they bear directly on the technetronic era,

  1. Affluence appeals to the worst motives of people, who are persuaded and pressured into buying and to consuming regardless of actual need. Thus two-thirds of Bayer’s total budget is used for advertising, i.e. to manipulate a want for a product that isn’t really needed.
  2. Affluence changes values and attitudes. The new virtues of high productivity, high consumption, and low survival-rate of the products bought have replaced the virtues of an earlier time: hard work, frugality, avoiding waste, emphasizing saving, avoiding debt. Now the affluent countries consciously build planned obsolescence into the refrigerator and pay farmers not to produce. The greatest ambivalence, of course, comes in relation to leisure, where the old virtue of looking askance at “unearned” rest makes it hard for people to adjust to the idea that shorter work weeks are needed to keep the work force at optimum levels.
  3. Affluent society must make choices and select priorities: Are its activities to be carried on through the public sector or the private sector? (Reich’s Consciousness H, with its notion of the corporate state, makes that question largely academic.) But because the public in general resents too much intrusion into the private sector, the government gets money more easily for emergencies than to prevent future emergencies. i.e., there is more money to hire police than to help defuse ugly situations, more money for social welfare than for “social engineering.” And we prefer to tolerate pollution and substandard schools to seeing the tax bill raised.
  4. A society is affluent because its technology is flexible and highly adaptable, but one result of this is that even highly trained people increasingly find themselves out of a job. The space industry is a good example of this. {88}
  5. The affluent society creates differences in the way we think of ourselves and of our neighbours. The individual today is needed more as a consumer than as a producer, for the economy drags when spending stops. This change in view of man results in dehumanization. Someone somewhere has acutely pointed out that Copernicus’ discovery, while denying man the centre of the universe, still left him unique; Darwin denied man’s uniqueness but left him rational; Freud denied his rationality but declared him useful. Today’s consumer-oriented society is now denying him even that.

What do we see emerging out of the welter of data and models that the instant prophets of our time have been giving? Roszak points out the rejection by the counter culture of the new virtues of the technetronic era; Reich believes that emphasis on personhood (Consciousness III) will bring about the revolution Marcuse is predicting; some feel that a rapprochement has been made already because of the quiet on the campuses; 8 others feel that Consciousness III is not the base from which change can come. 9


What, more specifically, do we see as part of the church’s response to the incredibly heady mixture of spirit and movement?

Not Violence

First, that in spite of the propensity for violence which desperation and frustration bring with them, violence is not a desirable solution. Romans 13, written during a stable bureaucracy, points out that the state is “ordered” by God; i.e. it is set within limits, to regulate activities of fallen man—to prevent anarchy and to limit evil. The state thus exists to establish conditions under which normal living can be carried out. Paul and Peter remind their readers to pray for the rulers; Paul reminds his also to submit “for conscience sake” (Rom 13:5) rather than from prudential motives. But what if we have a different state, the beast of Revelation 13? Yet here also the words of Jesus are echoed: “Who takes up the sword will die by the sword.” In neither state, then, is armed insurrection seen as a viable option, unlike Locke for whom any revolution was justified if the ruler were no longer protecting life and property (especially property).

The New Testament not only fails to recognize the legitimacy of armed resistance, it warns against its inevitable consequences—reprisals and death. And when the state (“ordained outside the perfection of Christ,” as the first Anabaptist Confession states it 10) institutes force, it falls under the same judgment that the states of the prophets’ time fell under—they were being used to punish evil and to keep it within limits, but they themselves were judged later and also felt the sword. And isn’t this what we see in history: those nations which look on themselves as the policeman of the world, who arrogate to themselves protector-status, who emerge to put down the haughty, themselves end in the dust as God’s intervention metes out judgment on the egoism of each. This is the biblical interpretation of the state: it is ordered by God-instituted, placed within bounds—but as it displays aspects of fallen activity, it too comes under judgment. And lest we be presumptuous enough to feel that we may be the ones to administer this judgment, remember the words about Judas, “It was necessary that for my mission to be accomplished that there must be a traitor, but woe to the one who has taken it on himself to fill that position!” That the temptation to violence, especially in Latin America, is a real option for {89} Christians is obvious, and we must speak to that temptation. The situation is doubly meaningful for Canadians who saw their own government overreact in panic in the fall of 1970 in instituting the War Measures Act, a reaction which showed dramatically how close to the surface of any so-called liberal government the totalitarian propensities lurk.

Accept Pluralism

Second, we must recognize the complexity of the problem. It is virtually impossible to assimilate technological change in less than a decade—and total changes are coming faster than that. Our time will involve us in a pluralism that we haven’t even dreamt of; it will require understanding of others, of other value systems, of other life styles 11 infinitely more flexible and shifting than conceived before. We cannot return to a homogeneous society where there was virtual unanimity on social and ethical issues. We are faced with the problem of finding a minimum level of commonality, the bare essential for hanging together in society rather than drifting into an open anarchy. The myth of a monolithic society has been permanently exploded.

Active God

Third, to meet this we will need to develop a consistent Christian, theistic world view which will appreciate God’s concern for society and which will recognize that it is His nature to always break loose, refusing to be tied within our formulations of science and philosophy and social structure. We have been too conditioned to a Greek way of looking at things, of static Forms and matter conditioned by Form. The Hebrew concept of God is of the one who “is what he will become,” who—in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ phrase—is “forever breaking out,” who refuses to be emasculated in order to serve as mascot of any given social/ cultural/ economic /ideological sphere. “I will do a new thing which will make your ears tingle,” he promised, and in today’s ferment we see the Great Eartingler Untingled at work. The church, too, is often more Greek than Hebrew. For example, we have been keeping the same basic order of worship Sunday mornings for over 400 years. Is there really no other valid way to jointly worship God and celebrate life? One of the biggest traumas in a congregation appears to be whether the sermon shall precede or follow the Sunday School! Little wonder that the church is seen as largely irrelevant by a society in which the concept of time itself has drastically altered. As we see the new pressure-cracks in society’s structures, can we see God innovating there, or are we still conditioned by a Platonic God who remains immutable and static in a world of flux? We need to see the restless God of Creation going about a task which did not end on October 27, 4004 B.C.

Christian Community

Fourth, we need to appreciate the impact of the church, i.e. the group of God’s people among whom we find true community. As we seek—in the bewildering array of tensions—to find God’s way, members of the community of faith need to move more closely together. Most of the problems are simply too complex for a single answer; they may, in fact be incapable of solution because of their complexity and our shortsightedness. We will need to seek, then, in the Community of God for common understanding and support in this search, and to accept each other and each other’s decisions {90} even if we cannot agree. This need for community will be focused more sharply as the Christian lifestyle will be placed under increasing tension by the life styles of an increasingly pluralistic society. The need for a place to stand together will become overwhelming. 12

Decision Making

Fifth, patterns of decision making in the Christian community are shifting drastically. One of the differences being felt already is the erosion of authority. No longer does the counter-culture ask the leader to prove himself: an individual is no longer listened to in virtue of his office but in virtue of his charisma, his capability. This is, after all, nothing but a return to the prophetic role and to New Testament patterns. There a person was not listened to because of the position he held but by the merits of his words and actions. Thus at the university the undergraduate and the president meet in assembly on equal terms: truth is decided not by office but by content of information given. Another, and more far-reaching effect, is that of participation in the decision-making processes. Many of the concerns debated on our conference floors are irrelevant to an increasing number of our members. During the 1971 Canadian Conference I stayed with some of the “younger” delegates and they gave their impressions freely. Christian education is basically a local concern, and what was being talked about at the Canadian level had virtually no relevance for their work in witness in the local community. They failed to see any rationale in debating for an hour as to whether the GCs and MBs should sell Bibles together in a merged bookstore. In short, unless our conference agendas pick up issue-content soon, the gap between decisions and constituency will widen beyond repair.

Participation in the old structures is also not the answer. One church recently appointed a teenager and two other young people to its pulpit committee to aid in searching for a pastor. This completely begged the question as to whether, in fact, a pastor was required. The worst thing we can do is to appoint young people to most of our committees—they will be bored to death with the trivia of outmoded decision-making processes. What is required for our time is far greater use of the ad hoc situation, when in response to a need a few people are involved in speaking to the need and then disband until a new situation requires reassessment. While some permanent structures are probably essential for community continuity, there are far more standing committees in existence than can be functionally justified. It is in the area of decision-making processes that society (government as well as church) still lags several lifetimes behind events. 13

We are, then, in a decision-making process, where our technetronic era is focusing for us issues which appear incapable of solution. It is ours to remember, particularly now, that this is still “our Father’s world,” and to take captive every thought pattern and ideology which raises itself against our Christ, for our God is continually doing a new thing. {91}


  1. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Between Two Ages. New York: The Viking Press, 1970.
  2. Alvin Toffler, Future Shock. New York: Bantam Books, 1971, p. 140.
  3. His major books are Reason and Revolution (1941), One Dimensional Man (1964) and Eros and Civilization (1966), all by Beacon Press, Boston. He draws heavily both on Marx and on Freud, especially the latter’s Civilization and Its Discontents.
  4. Reminiscent of Consciousness III in Charles Reich, The Greening of America. New York: Bantam, 1971, p. 233 ff.
  5. Brzezinski, pp. 20, 21.
  6. John Galbraith, The Affluent Society. New York: Mentor, 1968 (copy. 1958) : The New Industrial State. New York: Signet, 1967. Also, Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture. New York: Doubleday, 1969.
  7. See, for example, Barbara Ward’s The Rich Nations and the Poor Nations. New York: Norton, 1962; and Spaceship Earth. New York: Columbia UP, 1966.
  8. For a counter to this view see D. Warren’s “A State of Quiet Calamity,” Commonweal, March 3, 1972; he sees a “counter-theme of quiet calamity” developing.
  9. Joseph Walsh, “The Student Protest Movement,” Commonweal February 4, 1972.
  10. The Schleitheim Confession was prepared in 1527. For a partial text of it, see Hillerbrand’s The Reformation. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.
  11. For example, soft (and probably hard) drugs will become as much a part of our culture as tobacco and alcohol are now.
  12. Will we, for example, still remain a supportive community when actions of some are contrary to what we consider normative practice? I am not including here violations of explicit biblical teaching (e.g. murder, adultery, etc.) although the concept of repentance/forgiveness is not exhausted by these categories either.
  13. One other group that has been denied access to the direct decision-making processes of our society and of our congregations is just having its consciousness raised; I refer to women. For just one of a number of thoughtful, theologically-oriented articles on the question of women’s participation in the entire range of congregational activity, see William Holladay’s “Jeremiah and Women’s Liberation” in Andover Newton Quarterly, March, 1972. See also the article on “Women’s Freedom” in the present issue of DIRECTION.
Mr. Ratzlaff is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at MBBC.

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