This excellent question was asked by a colleague and friend whom I went to college with and who serves in the same Synod I do. Even though I do not know the specifics of the question he is asking (i.e. is he talking about the Lutheran Church in North America? The church of which he is pastoring? Christianity in general in the cultural mileu that is North America?), I'm going to take a stab at this one. Because of the enormity of the question and the nature of the question, it might take more than a few posts.
I'd like to begin with taking a gander at some specific areas where the church works:
1. Do we stand out in helping others? Well, yes and no. Yes in that if you were to combine all the efforts of all the churches around the globe and all they have done it would be an amazing thing to behold. Can you even begin to fathom the amount of money and food distributed through church run and led ministeries geared toward feeding the hungry? Can you even begin to imagine the amount of clothing, low cost and otherwise provided for those who need it through thrift stores and donations? Can you fathom the amount of money given to aid people in paying their bills? We have done and do an awful lot. However, how does this set us apart from any other particular institution that does good things? Are there not other organizations that feed the hungry, care for the environment, and seek to make a difference in the lives of those who are hurting? Of course, these organizations are many, and oftentimes they do a better job than the church at addressing these needs. So does the church really stand out in helping others? No.
2. Do we stand out in addressing issues of social justice? See the answer to number 1.
3. Do we stand out in how we treat one another? Not a chance. The church globally and locally is full of conflict. We can't seem to agree on anything. Gossip, back-biting, and out and out name calling run rampant in the church just like in every other organization or group in society. We don't exactly carry out our Lord's wish, "Everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another."
4. Do we stand out in addressing moral issues? No. I am going to approach this from the basis of my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Most of our social statements regarding moral issues become very vague at points. It's understandable. There are many shades of gray in life, and in the church we are constantly reminded that we are sinners who constantly need forgiveness. Even in cases where it seems like something is expressly forbidden and wrong, we find exceptions. For instance, most folks agree that lying to another person is wrong. However, is it wrong to teach a child to lie when an stranger knocks on the door and says, "Are your mom and dad home?" when they are not--knowing that person knocking could be a predator looking for an opportunity? Such shades of gray do not allow us to make definitive moral judgements--that and we tend to have a strong reaction to legalism. And legalism is important in defining right and wrong.
5. Do we stand out with strong, core beliefs? Again, I will approach this from a denominational standepoint. Admittedly, we have a few in the ELCA:
I personally will not delve into all the areas point by point. There are many core convictions that we share, but do we have a unified sense of vision and mission based upon those core beliefs? Not so sure. For even with our core beliefs, many within my denomination have been persuaded by post-modern arguments about the irrelevancy of truth. Folks have rightly criticized that literal battles have been fought over who has the truth and who doesn't. This has led to making truth relative, i.e. "Christianity is true for me/us, but isn't true for Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Athiests, etc." Furthermore, some theologians within the ELCA and other Christian denominations have turned to universalism--a logical consequence of the relativity of truth. If indeed truth is relative and all are destined to be with God, does core belief even matter? In light of numbers 1-4, I would say, no.
Further, when it comes to defined belief, aside from ascribing to the three ecuminical creeds and the Augsburg Confession and the Book of Concord--well, really I'm not so sure about the latter two as most Lutheran congregation goers and many clergy read them only once or twice in seminary and then proceeded to allow them to gather dust--we tend to be very loath to actually define what we Lutherans should believe. Case in point: the Book of Faith initiative in the ELCA. This study is designed to see how Lutherans read the Bible--not how Lutherans should read the Bible based upon our tradition and how it applies to today. By being descriptive instead of defnitive, it basically allows anyone to read the Bible in any way they choose and still be included in the Lutheran tent. While allowing a "big tent" mentality, it also means we don't stand out in any particular way.
6. Do we stand out because everyone is welcome? I ask this question almost with tongue in cheek because how could such a thing even be possible in the climate of the U.S.? If we are not dividing upon political ideology, we can certainly divide along the factors of racism, feminisim, sexism, or whatever ism you want to throw in there. We'll further divide on the issues of evangelism--social gospel/social justice versus the coversion of individual souls; although being healthy means we do both. Ooops, I'm sorry but in a post-modern world conversion is taboo because of the relativity of truth. Darn it! Well, um....uh.... Unfortunately, when we define what we believe versus what we do not believe, someone gets excluded, and it seems like one of the core values in the ELCA is to make everyone welcome. Unfortunately, when trying to make everyone welcome, eventually no one feels welcome. Therefore, we don't even stand out here.
I'm sure I could go on, but I will cease and desist for now. I'll try to put some stuff together about how we could actually stand out in a later post.