By Russell Moore – Adapted from Onward
Culture is shifting, it seems, into a different era, an era in which religion is not necessarily seen as a social good. Christianity in its historic, apostolic form is increasingly seen as socially awkward at best, as subversive at worst.
For a long time, the church in America has assumed that its cultural conservatism was American, that most people at least ideally wanted to live up to our conception of the good life. Those with eyes to see ought to recognize that if those days ever existed, they are no more. We must retool, then—some tell us—if we’re going to reach the next generation and if we are going to maintain any influence in American society. We will lose the next generation, they say, because of our “obsession” with sexual morality. We need a more flexible ethic, they say, to adapt or else we will die.
This argument is hardly new. In the early twentieth century, “modernists” within the mainline Protestant denominations were concerned, they said, for the future of Christianity. If the church was to have any future, they warned, we must get over our obsession with virginity. By that, they didn’t mean the virginity of single Christians, but the virginity of our Lord’s mother. The younger generation wanted to be Christian, but they just couldn’t accept outmoded ideas of the miraculous, such as the virgin birth of Christ.
What the liberals missed is that such miracles didn’t become hard to believe with the onset of the modern age. They were hard to believe from the very beginning. The Christian message isn’t burdened down by the miraculous. It’s inextricably linked to it. A woman conceives. The lame walk. The blind see. A dead man is resurrected, ascends to heaven, and sends the Spirit. The universe’s ruler is a Jewish laborer from Nazareth, who is on his way to judge the living and the dead.
The same is true with a Christian ethic. It didn’t become difficult with the onset of the Sexual Revolution, or the secularizing of American culture. It always had been difficult. Walking away from our own lordship—or from the tyranny of our desires—has always been a narrow way.
Strangely enough, the increasing marginalization of Christianity offers an opportunity for the church to reclaim a gospel vision that has been too often obscured, even within the sectors of the church we think of as “conservative.” The loss of the Bible Belt may be bad news for America. But it can be good news for the church.
This leaves American Christianity to ponder the path forward from here. We ought to approach the future without the clenching of our fists or the wringing of our hands. We ought to see the ongoing cultural shake-up in America as a liberation of sorts from a captivity we never even knew we were in. The strangeness of Christianity will force the evaporation of those who identify with the almost-gospel of Jesus as means to American normality, and it can force the church to articulate, explicitly, the otherness of the gospel. If our principal means of differentiation is politics or culture, then we have every reason to see those around us as our enemies, and to see ourselves as somehow morally superior. But if what differentiates us is blood poured out for our sins, then we see ourselves for what we are: hell-deserving sinners in the hands of a merciful God.
The gospel we have received is a missionary gospel, one that must connect to those on the outside in order to have life. We must put priority where Jesus put it, on the kingdom of God. But while we are a Kingdom First people, we are not a Kingdom Only people. Jesus told us to seek both the kingdom of God “and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). We pursue justice and mercy and wellbeing for those around us, including the social and political arenas. This means that we will be considered “culture warriors.” Maybe so, but let’s be Christ-shaped culture warriors. Let’s be those who contend for culture, but not those who are at war with the culture.
We witness to a gospel that seeks not only to reconcile people to one another but to God, by doing away with the obstacle to such communion: our sin and our guilt. That comes not by voter blocs or by policy papers but by a bloody cross and an empty tomb. Our call is to an engaged alienation, a Christianity that preserves the distinctiveness of our gospel while not retreating from our callings as neighbors, and friends, and citizens. As we do this, we shouldn’t be ashamed of Jesus, and we shouldn’t be afraid to be out of step with America. We are marching onward, toward a different kind of reign.