Christians in America today are facing a culture unique to our nation's history. Call it post-modern, post-Christian, or post-post-Christian, we cannot deny that the privilege and position Christianity once enjoyed in America is dwindling. Far from being a cry to don a "Doomsday Preppers" theology, though, we must realize the opportunity we have to fashion a message of gospel urgency. Writing over 30 years ago Francis Schaeffer said:
"Christianity is no longer providing the consensus for our society…Soft days for evangelical Christians are past, and only a strong view of Scripture is sufficient to withstand the pressure of an all-pervasive culture built upon relativistic thinking."
What Schaeffer saw, we now know. Culture is looking for us. And it has a flashlight.
Moralistic, consumer-driven preaching will not ultimately endure. The bland "Jesus is love" theology of so many churches today doesn't really answer culture’s demands, but neither does it rightly answer the call for biblical faithfulness. It is incomplete. It may thrive for a few years, even decades, but it lacks the substance to continue into much influence. As Russell Moore has noted, "It turns out people who don't want Christianity don't want almost-Christianity." What we need is not relevance according to culture, but faithfulness in regards to Scripture. As Schaeffer warned, hard times are coming, but these hard times are an opportunity if we have the right emphasis. Here are three points of emphasis that I think are essential to ministering to our current culture.
1. The Gospel.
Without the life, death, and resurrection of Christ fresh in our minds and active in our hearts no call to engagement, endurance or evangelism will be effective. The desire for the church to thrive shouldn't be out of a desire for survival, it should be out of a desire for revival. We know how our own story ends, and it is because of that hope that we have grounds, as did Paul, to "count everything as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord" (Phil. 3:8). The church can't afford to assume the gospel regardless of its present culture.
2. A Historical Theology of the Minority
What that trademark Chestertonian wit, G.K. Chesterton said that, "The Church is always the only thing defending whatever is at the moment stupidly despised." Paul himself says that our theology is a folly and a stumbling block to those who are outside the faith (1 Cor. 1:23) and for that reason history typically has had reason to not like us. Even in the scope of biblical revelation we find this to be true. Noah was one of the few who was righteous. Abram was a desert wanderer longing for God's promised majority. Jacob was hated even by his own family. Israel was a weird, but profitable, resource to the nation of Egypt. In Darius' courts it was the Jewish faith of Daniel which stood at odds with the cultural conformity.
In the New Testament Israel and Judaism were small fish in a big Roman pond. Jesus himself was a country boy from the north who managed only a few real followers despite the huge crowds which followed him. Save maybe the Constantine's Christianizing of Rome, Christianity was always a minority. However, the Reformation exposed that even in a "religious majority" there was an even smaller minority of true converts. Believers of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone were loners, dissenters, nuisances. Huss, Wycliffe, Carey, Wilberforce: all minority voices.
What American's have experienced in the last few hundred years is an exception to the otherwise consistent norm. That means that by God's grace we were given a privileged of prominence. Not because of our merit, not because of our worth, but because of God's good kindness. And in that kindness God seems to be leading his remnant back to minority status. This doesn't spell out defeat. It spells out endurance. Church leaders must look to the global church to discover our voice. We need to realize that it is not up to the Western Church to save the world from heresy. Perhaps it is even the persecuted church of the global south and far east which will bring us comfort and guidance in our coming moments of need. Christianity is and will always be bigger than cultural acceptance. We need to paint this picture in big brush strokes. As the author of Hebrews encourages us, we must fight the tendency to view our own culture and faith in a historical vacuum. Instead we should draw on the well of those past and take our stand against the cultural swells which come our way.
3. A Biblical Theology of Suffering
In working primarily with college students I have noticed that one of the chief disciplines lacking in today's young people is discipline in itself. We endure only until it becomes uncomfortable. Then we seek to medicate, avoid, or remove whatever causes us discomfort. We have become so entitled to the sun that we have forgotten how to play in the shade. But Peter warns us, "do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange is happening to you" (1 Peter 4:12). We shouldn't seek out suffering, but we should be ready to expect it.
You can’t preach God’s sovereignty from the pulpit without also being willing to walk in God’s designed suffering. We need to hold up high views of both sovereignty and suffering. It is through Paul's suffering that the gospel was sovereignly carried to Rome. It's in God's perfect plan that we should suffer not merely for our own benefit, but for the benefit of others. Paul highlights God's intentions when he says the God of all comfort, comforts us “so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God" (2 Cor. 1:4).
If we want to overcome the prevalence of the prosperity theologians, we must be willing to out suffer them. This is what Peter meant when he called us to "suffer as a Christian" (1 Peter 4:16). Our suffering is different from the world’s view of suffering, because our God is different than the world's god! We need to teach our churches that suffering is intentional and influential rather than casual and unfortunate.
These three points of emphasis are not the magic bullet to success and longevity. But they are simple ways where we can lift our members above the dashboard of culture to provide them a clear perspective on where we are going and what it's going to take to get there. By God's grace, his gospel will endure and the church will win. But God has chosen to do this through the faithful efforts of the bride of Christ. So we labor on.