How the church can respond to a post-Christian culture

April 13, 2018

For the church, the skies are growing dark in the West. But the sky is not falling in.

In fact, this is a great time to be a Christian.

I know it may not look like that. From terrorist attacks to racial injustice to political chaos to an increasingly secular world that seems to have lost its moral center, we find ourselves in some unique and challenging times. Fear runs rampant across our cultural landscape—and, especially and increasingly, fear sits in the pews of our churches. Talk to most Christians—or read most Christian blogs and social media streams—and it’s clear that the church isn’t what it was. Or rather, it isn’t where it was.

Whether it’s legislation around issues such as gay marriage and transgenderism . . . or the debates around what religious liberty really is (and whether it even matters) . . . or the popularity of the “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan . . .  or just the way our neighbors and co-workers look at us if we mention that we agree with what Christ said about salvation, relationships, or truth . . . we’re in a new era.

It was one thing to move toward a pluralistic society where we lived among those who looked and thought differently than us, and who disagreed with us on some of our closest-held beliefs. Now that’s not good enough. We’re currently experiencing the intolerance of intolerance (hopefully you catch the hypocrisy in that). Christians with “traditional” convictions and understandings of sexuality and marriage are seen as “bigots”—churches are being viewed as “hate groups.” Our beliefs are “hateful,” and our positions are “backward.”

Welcome to the age of unbelief. What are we going to do in it? I believe we can thrive.

Three problematic ways to respond

As we live in this cultural moment as Christians, each of us responds in one way or another. We have to. We may do it with great thought, or we may do it based on gut instinct or on what everyone else at our church is doing—but we will respond. And I think that response will take one of four basic approaches. I want to lay them out for you, and I want to say first up that none are altogether wrong, but that the first three are problematic.

Converting culture: So first, we can take what might be called the converting culture approach. In this mindset, what matters most is that our nation’s culture reflects biblical principles and values. Supporters of this view are willing to go to great lengths to make it happen, even if that means making alliances with corrupted politicians and political parties, or making what they might see as lesser moral compromises.

But this approach, especially in a span of history where the church doesn’t have high cultural standing, is going to leave a lot of people frustrated and bitter. It already has. It will only perpetuate what has been known as “the culture wars,” a frankly arrogant posture that pits the church against the world, and does not draw a healthy line between the kingdom of God now and the kingdom of God to come.

I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t some good aspects of “converting culture.” After all, you can trace much of its roots to the work of amazing theologians like Abraham Kuyper and Francis Schaeffer. It recognizes the reality that Christians should be engaged in all of culture, seeking to transform culture through the power of Christ, whom through all things were created and through whom all things are sustained. After all, Christ is not just the Lord of the church, but of the world.

Until Christ returns, this world will never look like it should. You can’t use politics to build the new Jerusalem, and you can’t legislate people into the kingdom of God.

And yes, Christians are called to seek the good of those around us, and to pursue justice and to love good and shun evil. But we get into trouble when confuse the earthly city with the heavenly city. Until Christ returns, this world will never look like it should. You can’t use politics to build the new Jerusalem, and you can’t legislate people into the kingdom of God. In fact, I’d argue that the compromises and unholy alliances Christians have made in pursuit of converting the culture has left many more suspicious of and hardened to the message of the church. And I don’t blame them.

Condemning culture: The next option is to respond to the age of unbelief by what I call condemning culture. This is the idea of removing ourselves from the world, retreating into a subculture, and staying well away from wider culture because society is sinful, corrupted, and antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This stream has always been part of the church’s response to the challenge of living in this world. You see it in the rise of the monasteries. You see it in various parts of the Anabaptist movement. There’s certainly something admirable and beautiful to it. God does call his people to holiness. The Scriptures are clear about the Church being distinct than the rest of the world. We are to be salt—we are to “taste” different.

My concern is that, by itself, I just don’t think the idea is all that biblical. We are to be “the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13)—and salt maintains its flavor while it is rubbed into the foodstuff it is being used to preserve. Not only that, it spreads its flavor, too. There comes a point where we have to actually get our hands dirty and show and share the good news of Christ, and proximity and relationships are essential to making that work. It requires involvement in the local community, and in the “public square.” If God’s Old Testament people could be called to “seek the welfare of the city” of Babylon during their exile from their homeland (Jer. 23:7), then we should be seeking the welfare of ours, too. After all, however ungodly your context, you’re not in Babylon.

The truth is that, whether we’re talking food, technology, music, or other entertainment, God gives us these things as good gifts to be enjoyed, as long as we keep them in their right place by not elevating creation over the Creator. We can be skeptical of them, but we shouldn’t be fearful of them. Culture is not the source of evil. That’s the human heart (Mark 7:18-23)—and so closing out the culture won’t close out sin.  

Consuming culture: The third popular response to post-Christian culture is in many ways the most attractive, the most widespread, and the scariest. It’s to follow the trends—to consume culture. Wherever culture and historical Christian teaching disagree, the latter is accommodated to the former. After all, if we want to stay relevant in a post-Christian age, then some of the Christian stuff will have to go, right?

In most cases, those who take this approach start in a good place, with good intentions of seeing where the Bible speaks boldly and clearly about social issues that we often ignore and embracing the connection between faith and culture. As the Manhattan-based pastor Tim Keller said in his critique of this position in his book Center Church, “This model sees Christianity as being fundamentally compatible with the surrounding culture. Those who embrace this model believe that God is at work redemptively within cultural movements that have nothing explicitly to do with Christianity.”

But the problem comes when we start to put too great of a focus on culture to the neglect of the gospel, and that even goes for social justice. What happens is that we start to want the implications of the gospel more than we want the actual gospel. Those who take the “consuming culture” approach follow culture, first and foremost, before the Bible, neglecting and compromising on significant aspects of faith. These men and women begin to look more and more like the world and less and less like the church. When the voice of a culture, and not the word of Christ, is what governs the church, then it is no longer the church. It’s just a social club of people desperately trying to keep up with the cultural fashion. Ironically, that’s the quickest way to close your church. Why would anyone bother coming to a church that is indistinguishable from anything else?!

These three options—converting, condemning, and consuming—are all very different, but I think they all have something in common. They are born of fear. Those in the “converting culture” camp fear they are losing their culture and that if they do not make the compromises necessary to continue the culture war, the church cannot thrive, or even survive. Those in the “condemning culture” camp fear that culture will corrupt them and the church; that any connection will lead to contamination and the church will become sick. Those in the “consuming culture” camp fear that the church will become unacceptable and therefore irrelevant to those who are steeped in post-Christian culture, and that if the church is to have a future she must get with the program.

A better way for the church

A Courageous Posture: You may have guessed by now that I will not encourage you to convert, condemn, or consume the culture. I want to give you something else, a fourth option. And I don’t want to offer you a strategy so much as a posture. I want to address the fears that grip our hearts and that drive so much of the Christian response to the age of unbelief.

I want to give you courage. I want to give you a posture that allows you to look round and think, “This is a great time to be a Christian.”

That’s what Christians most need in a post-9/11, post-Christian, post-modern, post-everything world. If our hearts are not in the right place, if our hopes are misaligned, anything we try to do will be short lived and misguided.

I’m convinced that if we have a God-sized, God-given courage, then we will be freed up to be the people of God, living out the mission of God, marked by the joy of God. With courage, this season of history can be viewed not with fear and trepidation, but instead with hope and a sense of opportunity. With courage, our perspectives turn, and we can be excited and encouraged about this cultural moment and not intimidated, angered, or paralyzed by it.

Welcome to the age of unbelief. The church can thrive here. All we need is Christian courage. Take heart.

This article is a modified excerpt for Take Heart by Matt Chandler, with David Roark.  

Matt Chandler

Matt Chandler (born June 20, 1974) is the lead pastor of teaching and an elder at the Village Church, a Southern Baptist church in Flower Mound, Texas, and the President of the Acts 29 Network. Chandler's first book, co-authored with Jared Wilson, The Explicit Gospel, was released in 2016.  Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24