Editor’s note: The following was adapted from an article that originally appeared in the July 2004 issue of the AFA Journal.
For Christians in America who believe their faith can and should have an impact on their culture, things haven’t exactly been moving in the right direction.
Nothing that Christians or pro-family groups have done has seemed to stop American society from rushing headlong down the tracks to moral oblivion. It appears that secularism and postmodern relativism have successfully teamed up to overthrow Judeo-Christianity as the dominant philosophical force in our culture.
Evangelical Christians have long operated under the belief that sharing the gospel is an important part of their faith, and that their faith was meant to serve as “salt and light” in the culture in which they lived.
However, evangelicals in America are a numerical minority, with the best studies putting them anywhere between 7% and 25% of the population. More importantly, they are a distinct cultural minority as well, as American society continues to reposition itself on a post-Christian foundation.
Engaged yet uncorrupted
Such facts are true, but may not necessarily be that significant, because, since the first century, Christians have often lived their faith in circumstances that defied the odds. What may be a more important question, however, is whether or not the church can avoid becoming irrelevant as the culture comes to grips with monumental issues.
Certainly what worked for evangelicals and other Christians over the last 50 years doesn’t appear to be working now. Changes in the moral and religious beliefs of the American people have occurred with breathtaking speed – all within virtually a single generation.
American culture is now dominated by a rather mushy morality that eschews principles of black-and-white truth and lives in an always-gray world where truth is individually determined and relativistic.
A decade ago, University of Toronto professor of political science Clifford Orwin said that, in America, “moral laxity is a way of life, having mysteriously emerged as the fundamental principle of morality itself. Not only do they treat the sinner with charity, but they’ve become curiously indifferent to the sin.” It has only gotten worse.
Over the last generation, this moral laxity has, understandably, led to a growing cultural decadence that alarms many Christians. Everywhere they look, the triumph of hedonism and, simultaneously, both secularism and paganism, seems at hand.
“For the first time in the nation’s history,” said Orwin, “religious opinion does not inhibit society as a whole. … Christianity, which once pervaded the one culture practiced by the one nation, has slipped to the status of a subculture – we might even say a counterculture. And the other subcultures, having shaken off Christianity’s hegemony, go their own riotous ways.”
A rotting culture poses a threat to Christians – and not just from persecution. As Christians stay involved in the culture, perhaps the greater danger is from the threat that corruption will seep into the church and compromise its holiness.
In order to be salt and light, the church must remain engaged in American culture without being corrupted by it. That’s not easy to do, as evidenced by the theological collapse of some mainline Protestant denominations.
Fire on the earth
However, for the church to be salt in this decaying culture means not only staying holy but remaining firmly committed to its prophetic witness within American culture.
In fact, the spiritual awakening for which many Christians are praying will require what some have labeled a “dissident culture” – that is, a Christian stratum that is a part of the whole while keeping itself distinct in critical respects.
In other words, something must exist outside the prevailing culture to challenge its suppositions and its actions. This has always been the place of the Christian church in America – at least when the church has heard its prophetic calling and answered.
For those Christians who shrink back from such an endeavor, they should examine the character and mission of Jesus Himself. He knew what it meant when Light entered a darkened world.
Jesus told His disciples in no uncertain terms that He had not come to seek a truce with evil. He had not descended from glory in order to seek a peace treaty with the vile kingdom of wickedness.
He said He had come to bring a sword (Matthew 10:34). Jesus would divide people – even families. His demand for obeisance from rebellious and corrupt cultures like ours would cause serious fractures within it.
“I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49).
That’s not exactly the kind of politically correct porridge heard in many churches nowadays.
Perhaps it is time to discover if the true church can still speak with that kind of passion and potency. Perhaps it is time to discover whether the church is worth its salt.