In Emmanuel Katongole’s book The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa, he has a passage on the way the church in Africa engages in what he calls “frantic activism.” I think it also has something to say about much of mainstream church life in America. Katongole writes:
In terms of responding to the pressing needs, whether of reconstruction, development, or the search for democracy in Africa, the church is caught between a rock and a hard place. It must get involved lest it appear to be irrelevant. But for its contribution to be considered relevant, it must not require Christian convictions, stories, or beliefs. In other words, the more active and relevant the church might appear to be, the less distinctively Christian its contribution must be.
From a practical point of view, once the urgent task has already been defined as one of ‘development,’ or ‘democracy,’ or ‘poverty,’ then what counts as a relevant response significantly gets narrowed down to a question of skills and techniques, for example, to fight poverty or ensure democracy. And of course the more the challenge becomes one of skills and techniques, and the more the churches position themselves to respond relevantly through the skills and techniques of mediation, micro-finance, development studies, project management, human rights advocacy or peace studies, the less clear it is that there is anything unique or distinctive about the Christian contribution. The church becomes just another NGO.
So it is not simply that the churches’ responses are inadequate, but that the unyielding pressure for relevancy is a distraction to Christian social engagement. For the narrow limits of what constitutes relevancy within a social sphere that is already framed and very tightly controlled pushes the churches into a posture of activism, which at the same time obscures the most determinative contribution Christianity can offer, namely, that of imagining the social frame of reference in new and fresh ways grounded in her unique story and calling.
Katongole offers this critique in the context of his larger argument that, despite the frantic activism of the church, the situation in Africa has gotten worse rather than better. Hence, his attempt to offer a new approach to Christian social engagement. I rather think what he says may have some lessons for the mainstream church in America as well.