In my lifetime (I'm in my mid-50s) we have seen our nation’s cultural ethos shift from favorability to faith, toward significant hostility. It remains possible in churches—and in Christian subculture generally—to hunker down in relative religious comfort. There is the noise of fists beating on our church doors, but we can still turn up the music and ignore it if we try.
There is reason to doubt we will be able to do so much longer.
Think of it this way. No matter what you think of the "Christmas Wars” (there is silliness on both sides, in my view), this much is true: No other country or culture could conceivably have marketed "Happy December 25th" cards, such as my wife and son saw a few years ago. This is nothing if not awkward (and a bit silly itself); but it’s also a telling sign that while we still acknowledge Christianity, we're not at all sure how it fits in around here anymore—or whether it even does.
There have always been challenges to living out the faith, but today is different. Throughout America's history until now, Christianity was widely considered a positive influence in culture, at least in theory. Christian ethics were held in high regard—again, in theory if not always in practice. To be seen in church was socially advantageous, whether one actually believed or not.
The most recent National Religious Identification Surveys show direct evidence that this view is dissipating. The number of respondents indicating “no religious affiliation” has spiked in the last decade or so. Analysts see this not so much as an increase in disbelief, as a decrease in religious affiliation among unbelievers who might formerly have acted as nominal believers, but no longer consider Christianity worth associating with. Christianity-for-comfort is passing away.
Meanwhile, our government is demanding that believers leading business organizations violate doctrine and conscience to pay for contraceptives and abortifacients. Atheists recently held a rally at the base of the Washington Monument, with atheist-in-chief Richard Dawkins publicly urging contempt and ridicule upon believers. Bestselling books urge an end to all religion. Christian groups are being virtually chased off college campuses. Gay “marriage” has finally achieved voter approval in some states, and we who oppose it are being painted as evil haters, homophobes, bigoted opponents of equality.
It may still be comfortable to be a Christian in church—but how about in high school? What of the Christian student who vocally stands for sexual morality, or (worse yet) opposes gay “marriage”? Believers in all generations have been teased and shunned, but now a biblical belief set can lead to official disapproval. Things are rough there. How long it will remain comfortable even inside our Christian enclaves is anyone’s guess.
An Unprecedented Circumstance
Uncomfortable Christianity is nothing new: It's been the daily experience for many of our brothers and sisters since the beginning. Post-comfortable Christianity, however, may be unique in history. The faith has lost ground before, but never in quite this way, for rarely if ever has any culture turned so quickly against Christianity from within.
The church once circled the Mediterranean, until large portions of it fell to the Muslim sword. That damage came from without. In Communist Europe the sword fell from above, when atheistic regimes took power. In Western Europe the church gradually drifted off into practical irrelevance: a true post-Christian condition. (I do not mean to discount the life and faith of true Christians who remained faithful in each of these places, but rather to describe their cultures in general.)
In America, by contrast, the turn has come not from some dictating government or invading army, but from our own educators, our favorite film and TV producers and musicians, our media elite: our own people, in other words. It is a true cultural phenomenon, and yet only a partial one, for there are many of us who have resisted it. Still, I struggle to recall any other culture that has experienced such a sharply polarizing turn against the faith from within.
What Then Does “Post-Comfortable” Really Mean?
I'm describing this new phenomenon as “post-comfortable Christianity.” I’ve tried to come up with another name for it with more zing; I’d be gratified, after all, if I could coin a new term that would catch on widely. I fear this one suffers from a certain sleepiness that will hinder that happening. But that drowsy feeling is actually part of what I want to describe. We have been comfortable (at least in the ways I described above), but now we have uninvited guests coming in to prod us off our couches. The temptation is to blink, yawn, and stretch; mumble our protests; and roll over to continue our naps.
And this is where the historical uniqueness of our post-comfortable circumstance comes into play. When the Muslims were at the gates in North Africa, Christians weren’t tempted to continue dozing away in front of their TVs. They didn't have that option. Unlike our predecessors in those days, we actually need to decide to wake up.
A Decision Point
While the culture turns in new directions, we could keep trying to hold on to the days of comfortable cultural Christianity. We could roll over and try to go back to our napping. Or we could embrace the new day we’re entering, the post-comfortable period.
I say “embrace” advisedly, and even joyfully. Yes, I grieve for what we’ve lost, and I expect there will be more losses ahead. Our children may experience hostility to the point of persecution. Some will be lost to the faith, which is most grievous of all. Yet the churches under pressure have consistently witnessed to knowing God and his faithfulness in ways we Americans rarely have. I have long heard it said, and recently this was reliably confirmed for me, that persecuted Christians elsewhere have been praying that American Christians would experience the grace of coming to know God as deeply as they do.
As our Lord assured us (Matthew 5:10-11),
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.He also promised comfort for the afflicted. I do not recall him otherwise promising blessing to the comfortable.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
We have blessings ahead of us, provided that we arise to meet new challenges for righteousness’ sake, on Jesus’ account, in post-comfortable days.
Image copyright Greeting Card Universe.
Tom Gilson is a writer, ministry strategist, and speaker, and author/host of the Thinking Christian blog. 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.