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.