In my last Worldview and You column I described the American church’s situation as moving toward “post-comfortable Christianity.” It is a situation unique in history, as far as I know, and it calls for a kind of leadership unlike any we’ve been prepared for. Some have used the words “persecution” and “post-Christian” to describe our day, but I don’t think either of them fit.
We’re coming under pressure, to be sure. Religious freedom is under increasing assault from government and from cultural elites, but our condition is far from that of the persecuted church around the world and down through history. We are not the persecuted church by any stretch.
Large and influential segments of society consider Christianity passé, but they cannot consider the faith irrelevant as is common in post-Christian Europe. America has not gone post-Christian, and does not appear likely to do so anytime soon.
Our situation is unparalleled in history, as far as I know. Hence the new name I have offered for it: post-comfortable Christianity.
We have been a drowsy sort of church. We’ve faced conflict, to be sure. And we have not always won—the abortion battle comes to mind—but still we’ve been fairly well able to coast on our heritage of cultural approval. What I mean is that to be a Christian has been generally okay within our culture, even if (in the minds of some) we have held quirky beliefs about unborn babies, not to mention a risen Savior.
I like being comfortable. I hate having to get up from my Sunday afternoon naps. I rise up reluctantly and in full protest against the ringing alarm. The church in America likewise shows every sign of wanting to remain in its cozy condition—even as we are entering into the battle of our lives. Contrast that with an army sleeping in its tents, and how quickly it rouses when the sentries shout, “We’re under attack!” We hate to be bothered.
It’s a very human response, of course, which above all sums up the reason post-comfortable Christianity calls for a new kind of leadership—leadership that could come from anyone, anywhere. So while my message here obviously points toward pastors and others in identifiable positions as leaders, it could touch on any Christian. What does the American church need in new measure today?
We need a fresh vision of what it means to follow Jesus Christ. To follow Christ is to take seriously His most frequently sounded message: “The Kingdom of God is at hand;” and the accompanying call to repent, to change our minds and our actions, so that we recognize Christ as King and let our lives reflect His total rulership.
As comfortable religion comes under cultural pressure, that very change in church life affords us a new opportunity to distinguish our former ways from genuine Kingdom Christianity. This will have a crucial effect especially on believers who have blurred that distinction in their minds, who (for instance) think that being a Christian can be equated with something like helping to keep the local church running smoothly.
I was in a church business meeting once where a member, concerned about our debt, pronounced that “God’s first priority for our church is that we avoid going bankrupt.” (Really.) At that time we were supporting a church in another part of the world that was also concerned about surviving; but for them the issue was men in uniforms, carrying guns, intent on shutting them down forcibly. Their strategy in response was not to run a capital campaign but to hold 24-hour prayer vigils on the church property.
We need sentries on the watch, and we need to pay attention to them. By God’s design we all have different gifts and motivations, so not all of us can or even should be focusing our primary attention on current cultural shifts. These changes will affect us all, though, so we would all do well to give heed to those who have the discernment and skill to see for us what is happening. I am thinking here of ministries like BreakPoint/The Colson Center, among many others. I am thinking also of sentries’ shouts (so to speak) like the Manhattan Declaration.
We need new strategic thinking. Opponents of Christianity have been shrewd in their use of media, the educational system, governmental channels, and more to accomplish their objectives. We need to do likewise, which leads naturally to the next requirement.
We need to keep our objective clearly in mind. Our goal is not to be the winners in a “culture war.” It’s not to come out on top in the next elections. It is to reflect the Kingdom of God, and to make a winsome, attractive, even compelling invitation for others to join us as followers of the King.
We must not forget to maintain our joy and our love. Jesus taught us in the Sermon on the Mount that reviling, false accusations, and persecutions were occasions for joy (Matthew 5:10-12). He called on us shortly thereafter to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-47). Nothing could so thoroughly rebuff a “culture war” than the thoroughly countercultural tactics of loving others joyfully—even our opponents—and serving them sacrificially. To serve them does not, of course, mean to compromise our convictions for them; we have already discussed the importance of knowing truly what it is to know and follow Christ as King. Rather it means to find ways to return blessing for cursing (1 Peter 3:9).
Finally, we must not allow ourselves to get confused over what’s at stake. Take the “Christmas wars” as an example. Sure, it’s distressing to see “Merry Christmas” being replaced by “Happy Holidays.” I love Christmas, and I hate to see it undermined. Taking the long view, however, Christmas has only recently become the month-long major event that we have known it to be. The church thrived before then, and it can still thrive as our “traditional” Christmas is supplanted by the bland secular holiday it seems to be becoming.
Jesus Christ Himself has nothing to fear from a temporary loss of popularity. He has (it goes without saying) overcome worse.
Culture matters, of course, as an outflow of our lives, an expression of who we are, and also as an influence on who we become. Still, what’s most at stake is not whether we can live the way we wish in the environment we prefer. It’s the eternal lives of people we love: our friends, neighbors, co-workers, and family members. The assault on Christmas is only a symptom of the general cultural mood that seeks to undermine their opportunities to hear about Christ truly and to follow him.
In a surprisingly real sense, the same could be said even of the higher-stakes battles like religious freedom, marriage, and respect for life. What really matters—what’s really at stake—is salvation from sin and Christ’s rule in the hearts of men, women, and children.
Our persecuted brethren have had experience practicing these teachings. We may have the same opportunity coming our way. We could blow it. We could hold tightly to our tradition of comfortable church-as-usual. We could try to lead as we have always led. Or we could move wisely, discerningly, joyfully, and lovingly into the reality of post-comfortable Christianity.
Image copyright Art.com.
Tom Gilson is a writer, ministry strategist, and speaker, and author/host of the Thinking Christianblog. He’s closely involved in developing curriculum for global discipleship use through Campus Crusade for Christ, and in co-founding a new Life Leader Institute at King’s Domain near Cincinnati.
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