Christians always live in a culture. Sometimes that culture has been, in some way, a “Christian” culture. In most instances, Christians have existed in cultures that did not appreciate or endorse their worldview.
Determining how to live in culture, and to what extent that culture will influence us, has always been a challenge for Christians. Our “connectedness” to culture, however, is often not a matter of our decision to participate or belong. Because we live “in” culture, the condition of culture affects us whether we agree with that culture or oppose it. It is the water we swim in and the air we breath, and there is little that can be done about its presence unless we are willing to choose radical separation.
God’s word to his people has varied in regard to this challenge. In some circumstances, God has told his people to be separate to the point of suffering. In other cases, God’s people were told to settle down, buy houses, marry and do business; to seek their welfare in the culture where they found themselves. Christians are not always sure whether to refuse to eat the king’s food or to seek a seat at his table.
Some cultures have allowed God’s people to exist in peace with little interference, while other cultures have sought to persecute and kill believers. This kind of threat has, in many ways, been easier for believers to navigate because the hostility to the values and welfare of God’s people has been clear. In other kinds of cultural experiences, the extent of the “threat” to Christians from culture has been less easy to understand or anticipate.
Christians in American culture would appear to be in a friendly environment, but that isn’t what you will hear if you pay attention. Evangelicals in America today are awash in the rhetoric of persecution. If a person with no familiarity with America or Christians were to listen to much Christian media or wander through evangelical congregations, they would get the distinct impression that many Christians believe they are under assault, persecuted and constantly ostracized for their faith.
Fear of “secular humanism,” the “homosexual agenda,” and government “control” of religion is plentiful in evangelicalism. If one knows the right radio networks and programs to listen to, the paranoia runs very deep.
This isn’t a new situation. In the twentieth century, evangelicals felt themselves under assault in the Scopes trial, under assault by the influence of cold war communism, under assault by aggressive atheists and under assault by their fellow Americans who resist adopting the evangelical version of “American values.” In a nation of churches with unprecedented evangelical influence and political clout, the rhetoric of persecution and threat is everywhere.
Part of the reason for this is the difficulty Christians in America have in coming to terms with their privileged history in this country. To Christians of other times and places, contemporary America looks like an evangelical empire. Even Roman Catholicism in America is increasingly influenced by evangelicalism. But to American evangelicals, America seems like a place where secularists and anti-Christians are being given unprecedented power to limit Christian belief and impose their vision of culture on the children of Christians. This is because the culture is changing in reference to our past, a cultural past that is mythologically presented as an idealized Christian country until the 1960’s. This is ridiculous, but it is the widely believed view.
Evangelicals see three aspects of culture that frighten them:
1) An overall cultural decline, particularly in areas of family, community, entertainment and institutional life that were traditionally very deeply influenced by Christian belief.
For example, evangelicals are largely in a fearful retreat and abandonment of the public school system in America. As recently as my experience in the early 70s, most Christians were in public schools and many would choose careers in public school careers. Today, alternatives in private Christian schools and by those who homeschool are increasingly the norm.
Evangelicals feel that public schools have become unsafe, hostile, politicized and far inferior in quality. There is nothing on which the average evangelical feels more strongly than the threat that exists in culture to their own children.
2) The increasing tolerance and diversity in America that give cultural influence to non-Christian religions, atheism, homosexuality and militant secularism.
Few Christians are out and out racists or bigots, but there is a reason that most evangelical churches, schools and institutions reflect a narrow sample of race and a narrower diversity of views. Evangelicals are determined that what they think happened in the mainline churches — cultural accommodation followed by apostasy — will not happen to them, but the visible result looks exclusive, white, and middle-class.
Contemporary evangelicalism finds it very easy to turn the culture and the culture-shapers into the enemies of the faith, and the rhetoric of the “culture war” is dominating evangelicalism at every level, This increasingly makes evangelism and missional church life difficult for many evangelicals.
In fact, I’m amazed at how many Christians seem to believe that arguing and lobbying about social and cultural issues is “evangelism” and “a good witness.” In many ways, it appears that some popular theological movements today find part of their appeal in a despair over culture and a kind of hopelessness about the future of culture.
Christians are the primary buyers of the literature and media of apocalyptic fear. The Left Behind video game portrays the kind of future scenario that many American evangelicals find inevitable: fighting unbelievers in order to survive. The “What Would Jesus Do?” question seems to be far less important than, “What will we do when the culture turns on us?”
3) The prevailing power of culture to shape thinking, values and character.
Evangelicals have been trying to shelter themselves from worldly culture and its particular temptations for most of their history. The worst whippin’ I ever got from my dad happened after telling him I’d played cards in church. Anxieties over movies, books, television, celebrities and, now, the internet, have always been part of evangelicalism. We are convinced that the world will draw us in, take away our faith, and turn us into drunks and criminals if we don’t fight.
Of course, in this kind of atmosphere, fear-mongering and fear motivating is common. For example, most recently critics of Christians in public schools have brought forward statistical proof that Christian teenagers in public schools are highly likely to abandon their faith. Ironically, most of the Christian parents reading and heeding those studies are products of public schools.
Are the studies wrong? My career in youth ministry tells me they are outrageously wrong, but I understand why such studies are gaining influence: they tell evangelicals that their fears are reasonable.
I want to close this post with one observation and two suggestions.
The observation is that younger evangelicals are getting over this, and that fact is causing even more anxiety in some quarters. A generation of missional leaders are doing church in a very different way, seeing culture as something to be used, understood and taken over for the sake of Christ. This is risky business, and not everyone is doing it equally well.
Some evangelicals have capitulated to the worst aspects of culture, while others are demonstrating Biblical wisdom and incarnational humility in navigating culture. I’m praying these missionaries to western culture are fabulously successful, and we see a turnaround from fear to Biblical engagement and discernment.
My first suggestion is that evangelicals find ways to take the posture of servants, rather than victims, within culture. We are paying a price for the culture war rhetoric that has been embraced by the church. Many of our fellow Americans are convinced that we are a militant movement with the goal of political domination. They hear us speaking of them as the enemy. We need to reverse this, and confess that God has put us here to be witnesses and servants in any way that promotes the gospel.
The second suggestion is that we take another look at culture and realize it is not identical with all the negative connotations of “world.” Ed Stetzer has reminded us that culture is the house our neighbors live in, and the rhetoric of burning down a house rarely accomplishes very much. A stronger belief in common grace, a more consistent look for common ground, and a frequent celebration of our common humanity could all be helpful in living as strangers, but not enemies, with those in our surrounding culture.