Ours is an acrimonious age. It is painful to see the disruption in so many relationships and the fracturing of so many ministries. Just this week, one of my former parishioners wrote, “Our church and many of our congregants are changed forever. Instead of this being our finest hour of brotherly love in the face of a pandemic and political polarization, the church has become divisive…we are watching it fracture little by little.”
What has happened? How is it we are becoming known for our fighting rather than our uniting? A recent article by Aaron Renn, entitled “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism,” has some answers. He gives a brief history of public engagement between Christianity and culture and describes a shift that has gone from positive to neutral to negative. Like some of you, I have seen this firsthand.
I grew up in the ’50s when Christianity was at its peak. 50% of Americans attended church. On Sundays, things slowed down, and many businesses closed. Culture was largely positive towards Christians. Invocations were expected at Log Trucker’s Conventions and Christian leaders were given access to the White House. Christendom, a carryover from Constantine, was still in the air.
In the ’60s, things changed. There was a gradual erosion. People became more cynical and students more rebellious. Vietnam began to polarize, the sexual revolution redefined sexual parameters, and traditional Christianity began to feel threatened. Christian norms were no longer the automatically accepted norms. Voices like Jerry Falwell and James Dobson began to urge Christians to go to war to take back America. Sitting under the ministry of Tim LaHaye, another more to the right cultural warrior, I received a steady diet of this.
By the time I gave my life to the ministry, it was the early 70’s. Culture had become more neutral towards followers of Jesus. Seeker-sensitive churches were an important church growth strategy, and they worked because, in lowering the bar, people were still open to attending. If you accommodated to the cultural interests, played their music, and created a comfortable context, the church would grow. Like many pastors, I went to conferences to learn the methods of Willow and Saddleback. But I began to fear the church had overcorrected and was more interested in accommodating to rather than impacting culture.
By the ’80s and ’90s, I was influenced more and more by men like Andy Crouch, James Davison Hunter, and Tim Keller. They underscored a strategy of cultural engagement. The aim was not to withdraw and separate from, seek to take over, or attempt to accommodate and conform to the world—but engage in a dialogue. We attempted to follow the mandate to be in, but not of the world.
This became my strategy for impacting the world. I determined to live in the tension of both contributing and resisting, aligning yet distancing, loving yet hating, and serving while at the same time confronting. Augustine spoke of this tension in his City of God. We live between two worlds—one in the present and one in the future. We are citizens of both, giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God (Matt 22:21). Our aim was to bridge the gap between God’s kingdom and the context of culture, believing culture does not set the agenda but provides the context.
The context has changed today. There has been a marked cultural shift in the last 8-10 years. An increasing number of people are hostile to Christianity. We are perceived by cultural elites as bigots, homophobic, intolerant, and dangerous. Unfortunately, in contrast to the past, evangelicals today have no clear strategy. This, according to Renn, explains some of the fracturing going on in many churches.
In this disorienting time, Christians are responding in different ways. Some are choosing to separate from popular culture—create their own schools, their own coffee shops, and their own platforms. Others have embraced the cultural war strategy of the ’60s. Today’s cultural warriors are every bit as vocal and hostile towards the establishment and cultural elites. This, in part, is a response to a woke culture that, in the name of toleration, has little tolerance for a Christian worldview and its moral convictions. A number believe the times require an all-out fight to regain the levers of power. This means building alliances, even with political leaders. If it requires some compromise with issues of character, so be it.
Other evangelicals are less inclined to take a hostile stance and are more intent upon engaging culture with careful and reasoned arguments. They read widely with the hope of finding common ground. They refuse to align with either side of politics, taking a more moderate position. This comes with its own risk, for as Renn notes. they face a progressive, secular agenda that is intent upon silencing those who refuse to get in line.
What has happened is that these different approaches have caused believers to turn on one another. Cultural engagers find themselves in conflict with cultural warriors. The pandemic, as well as politics, have only deepened the divide. Pro-Trump vs. anti-Trump, vaxxers vs. anti-vaxxers, far-right and conservative vs. liberal and far-left. Tragically, this has left a divided and impotent church, and families who refuse to talk with one another.
Renn suggests that a negative culture will require several strategies. Maybe, but whatever we do, we need to take our cues from Jesus and Paul, who lived in their own negative worlds. What might this look like? Here’s a shortlist. We need to resolve to—
-begin to love one another—to listen and honor our differences
-look to God as our King—not man as our hope
-fulfill the Biblical mandate to honor those in authority and pray for them
-give more time and attention to God’s word than to the world’s talking points
-engage without becoming syncretistic
-bring the gospel to the culture rather than bring secular movements to the church
-not be intimidated by voices that mock and disparage our faith
-call out those who, in the name of Christ, demonstrate a hateful or racist or resentful heart
-accept the fact the world hated Jesus—it will hate us
-speak a prophetic voice, reminding the world of its true nature as fallen and its need of a Savior
Kenneth Kaunda, former President of Zambia, once commented—“What a nation needs more than anything else is not a Christian ruler in the palace but a Christian prophet within earshot”
The church needs to recover this. Maybe then will we come together.