Dean Abbott recently made an insightful post on the patheos blog.
I would like to offer some agreement and some critique of his thesis. The theme is basically the title, “Engaging the Culture Doesn’t Work.”
“It has also been, largely, a failure. The evidence is plain. In spite of the resources poured into these efforts, American culture has increasingly embraced the cultural and sexual Left.”
By what measure, I would like to ask Mr. Abbott, has Christian cultural engagement in America been a failure? Brothers I have met in places like the United Kingdom, Germany, or Australia do not share that perspective about Christianity in America. They wonder speechlessly that Christianity in America is as successful yet, as it is, in permeating American society. They marvel at the boldness and freedom that we personify in talking about our faith in public, or to express views contrary to say, for example, “gay marriage”, because it is simply not possible for them to get by this way as we do in the United States of America. This is not by any means a reason to boast, or take pride in ourselves. It is a reason to give thanks to God. Where else in the developed world are Christians yet considered an important voting bloc, to whom even non-Christian politicians wish to ally themselves and make promises to appoint justices who will maintain their values, and pass laws to protect their religious liberty? This kind of recognition of strength is not happening in any other western nation that I am aware of. Where else in the world do Christians maintain the full liberty to preach the gospel on a bustling street corner, or to homeschool their kids in the Christian faith?
The benchmark to which a mutual fund is compared is not zero. It is to be expected that stocks will go up and down. It’s in comparison with indices like the S&P 500 or total market indices that the performance of a managed mutual fund is judged. Let us apply this technique to this topic. Christianity in America has had its losses, like Obergefell vs. Hodges, the Supreme Court Decision that imposed “same-sex marriage” on all fifty states. (The final chapter in that national debate is yet unwritten.) But we have also had our successes. We scuttled the Equal Rights Amendment, deregulated home-schooling, banned late-term abortions, put hundreds of abortion clinics out of operation by putting onerous regulations on them, pushed back on recognition of transgenderism in the military, and achieved landmark precedent on the right of Christians to run a business in accordance with our Christian values. Where else in the modern western world do Christians enjoy the liberty that we do in America, and what would it be like today if Christians had not been engaging culture with the law and gospel, in all areas of life? Christians would be barred from approaching the bench as lawyers, getting any desirable jobs, or opening businesses, unless they hid their lights under bushels and pretended to be the opposite of what they are. Merely stating the unique claims of Jesus Christ as Savior in certain public settings would be considered criminal hate speech, as it now is in the United Kingdom. In most of the western world, a refusal to enroll ones children in government-approved schools is cause for arrest, but in America we have the freedom to educate our own children from the starting point of a Christian worldview. I am working in urban Southern California at a mid-sized corporation with offices nationwide, and have the privilege of attending a weekly Bible study at lunchtime in the office with co-workers, which is occurring at most of the corporate buildings, and is even recognized as an official employee activity. It is a small group, but nevertheless one that would not be tolerated in most of the secularized western world. We mourn at the decline of Christian values in America, but on the other hand, in comparison with the most culturally similar nations in the world, things are looking much better in America. In America’s military and prisons you will still find a preponderance of paid staff chaplains generally conservative and evangelical in their view of Scripture. You can still get Christian radio stations on the radio in America. Churches can still rent (or even get free use of) public space or sign up to set up an evangelistic book table at a show or special market, or start a student group at a University. Things would certainly be a lot worse for Christians, and the progress of the gospel, if they had not been working hard at engaging the culture socially, evangelistically, politically, and even artistically over the last forty years. So, has Christian cultural engagement been a total failure? Not at all, and we have much to be thankful for.
Speaking of the post-World War II era, Abbott writes, “Millions of people still attended church.
But, even then, in elite circles, Christian belief was a mark of low status.” And “We have now arrived at a moment when this dynamic can no longer be hidden. The hostility of our elite institutions and those who run them is well documented.”
I think that Mr. Abbott makes the mistake of placing the cultural center of gravity of American life in the “elite circles.” In America, elites are more the object of derision than objects to emulate. The center of gravity in America is the great wide majority, the great middle class also known as the bourgeois. It is they that drive the culture and define it, unlike in many other countries like the United Kingdom or France. America has always had a very wide anti-establishment and even an anti-intellectual streak. America’s cultural center is more Hollywood than Opera, more hamburgers and pizza than coq au vin. This has had good and bad ramifications for Christianity in America. But, it is something that Abbott’s thesis fails to consider.
“Christianity has become marginalized because Christian belief has become an obstacle to getting what most people want: social status and the privileges which accompany it.”
Americans in general loathe and disdain the cultural elite. The American culture, or, if you prefer, cultures, are more popular than elitist. This is one of the distinctive things about America that is obvious to every European or Asian who visits. Our heroes are self-made businessmen, power-hitting baseball players, and compelling Hollywood actors, not blue-blooded politicians, impressionist visual artists, or aristocrats. In America, success is not generally measured by social status or fitting in the upper class, but by individual achievement, particularly pulling oneself up to wealth and fame by the bootstraps. The American Dream is the aspiration of the middle class. So, in the American context, Christianity as the anti-establishment faith of the people has flourished far more than the established mainline church social clubs. Note the demise of the mainline churches even as non-denominational churches have flourished. The latest Pew Research, indeed, shows that evangelicalism in America, in contrast with other developed western nations, is holding steady, not declining in numbers.
What is the alternative to cultural engagement? If, as Mr. Abbott describes, engagement has been a failure (which I have demonstrated to be false), what is his alternative? He proposes none. His reference to Rod Dreher makes me think it is hermitism, a retreat to introspective preservation. But, rationally speaking, that will only accelerate the current trends and bring the wrath of the world to bear upon the Church in America in more nasty ways more quickly. How could it not? The current political climate shows that just as it’s not enough for evangelicals to engage winsomely, it will not be enough for them to disengage, either. The unbelieving world will come after us in all their fury if we retreat. There is no shrinking from the cultural battle at hand. How did insular ghettos work for the Jews in Europe? They attracted pogroms and the Holocaust. Giving up on the creation mandate is tempting, because sometimes the result of our labor is disappointing or frustrating, but it is not a practical option. And let us be cheerful, because our God will prevail. To use a historical analogy, after the Alamo came San Jacinto.
Now a point of agreement: Abbott is spot on with his criticism of the stylistic attempts of evangelical churches to engage the culture by imitating it. As he notes,
“Many evangelicals sensed something was going on. They responded as though the problem were a matter of style rather than content. They created churches calculated to prove evangelicals could be as hip as anyone else. The result was churches that had rocking worship bands, superb lighting, a million cool programs and no cultural impact.”
The only lasting success to come from this trend was to make the hip pastor in a goatee and skinny jeans a universal object of derision.”
Very true. The mistake of evangelicalism has largely been emphasizing style over substance, as if the problem were that the church were not stylistically inviting enough to the world. This approach will never work, because the world has better style (in worldly terms) than the church ever will. Faced with the problem of social and cultural marginalization, evangelicalism on the whole has chosen the wrong remedy. Abbott insightfully describes that failure.
Now, I would like to propose another course of action. As we maintain and defend our faith, our families, our lives, and our heritage, let us focus on content over style, substance over sizzle, God-honoring worship over entertainment, and our confession of faith over results. Our churches must be historically confessional and biblical, not trendy. And let us not shrink from the battle, because we know that we are more than conquerors in our Lord Jesus Christ, that He is even now reigning as king, and that He will soon finish the conquest of all His and our enemies. What a privilege it is to be a part of that operation. Let us serve God in our occupations, with our businesses, in direct evangelism, in apologetical answers, in our schools, in our communities, in running for office and in making our political voice heard. Let our churches hold to our confession of faith and our pious practice, let us pray for a great awakening across our land, and let our families continue to lead and adhere to the fear and admonition of the Lord, because nations may come and go, but His kingdom reigns forever.