We are a generation that yearns to feel significant and successful. A people who see themselves as destined for greatness. A nation that believes our unique qualities represent some special place in the gospel narrative.
Perhaps not all these notions are wrong in certain forms, but in recent years we often made an idol out of our own greatness on multiple levels: personally, institutionally, and nationally. Such idolatry has contributed to the dire straights we find ourselves in today.
No, I am not referencing the impending coronation of Donald Trump as president of the United States of America. Although carrying with it weighty concerns for the future of believers, the church, and the county, this political development is not what mourns my heart most. Instead, as I reflect on our present times, I grieve the extreme weakness of the public testimony currently offered up by the Christian church in America.
There is much deliberation in political circles about what comes next for the conservative political movement in this country and the future of the Republican Party. These discussions are important, but not as significant as another question we should all be asking: What is the future of the American Church in post-2016 America?
I have a few ideas to add to the early stages of this discussion, and I hope you will join with me in engaging these thoughts and suggestions. This series is meant to be the starting place for a conversation, not a presumption of offering final answers. If we are serious as a church of maintaining a credible witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ in this country, we need to ask these questions and be open to the idea that some of our long held assumptions regarding our public expression of faith must change.
First, we must acknowledge that our immediate future as a church is drifting toward the role of Jeremiahs, Isaiahs, and Ezekiels; not Davids, Daniels, and Esthers. This shift in thought will not be easy, and I am sure not all will choose to agree. Yet if we hope to get anywhere in shining the light of Christ in the darkness of our age we must first deal with the reality of the culture we live in and the role we are called to play in it, not a fantasy of the one we wish existed.
Second, I propose three steps we can take as a community to address the problems that have led us to this very dark place as a society. We must repent, we must restore Biblical teaching and accountability, and – finally – we must dare to reimagine our political Christian witness.
Jeremiahs, Not Daniels
A common teaching I heard growing up in the church, repeated in a wide spectrum of denominations, is the notion that we are a Daniel Generation. While the interpretations for practical application vary, most contexts where I encountered this notion charged that we have a fundamental responsibility to influence the powerful sectors of society for the cause of Christ.
While this can be wise advice in a general sense, it seems we have abused the notion, especially in how we form our Christian youth. Many young Christians are advised and even trained to specifically seek out roles of influence so that they may in turn use the power of the world for the good of the gospel.
Perhaps it is still an ok goal for some, although we have clearly downplayed the temptations to abuse or covet this power once it is within our grasp. However, I’d point out that in the cases of Daniel, Joseph, and Esther, while they were differing models of empowered members from a captive nation in a hostile land, they also were chosen by God and put in their positions of influence through circumstances mostly beyond their control.
Instead of fantasizing about how we can scheme and manipulate our ways to the halls of power, the church of the future must be prepared to stand on the metaphorical street corners of our communities and do crazy counter-cultural things while faithfully declaring the Word of the Lord to an often ambivalent or even hostile world.
I get why this vocation isn’t all that appealing. I mean, if I had a choice I’d rather be Daniel (lion den and all) sitting in the halls of the king as a radical vegetarian than a seemly crazed robeless and barefoot messenger wandering about the countryside unable to get the attention of my own people. But I worry that we have so glorified the goal of being a Daniel that we have lost sight of what might actually be required of us in order to preserve the integrity of the message and testimony of the gospel.
For fellow Christians, particularly us Millennial Christians, the type of public sacrifices to this integrity exhibited by many of our leaders in the past year went far beyond what we will wish to imitate or support in the future. Some might argue that “dirtying our hands” by defending or supporting undesirable candidates or policies is just the cost of working within a sinful culture, but I think that we have a responsibility to respond with integrity, love, and truth at all times no matter the apparent consequences.
The real sacrifices we are called to make are ones that will set us apart, not lead us to become further intwined with the powers and principalities of this world. Remember that the ends never justify the means, and far too often unseemly means invariably also lead to unseemly ends – irrespective of initial intentions.
There will still be some modern examples following in the pattern of Daniel, Joseph, and Esther in the years ahead, hopefully even some Davids. But the true cases will come about by the divine appointment of God, not by the willful scheming of man. So instead of forcing our way to the king’s table, perhaps we need to take a step back and acknowledge that – for most of us, at least – our calling is to humbly walk out a radically gospel centered life in the midst of a dominant and often hostile pagan culture.
To do so means embracing the pluralistic reality of our society, not in a way that lessens or damages our theological purity, but rather by amending our expectation that most everyone around us will live and think as we do. It means risking being the genuine weirdo at the lunch table, in the work place, or with the other moms at the playground, who testifies of a wholistic way of life that runs counter to the driving force of culture.
It might mean choosing to surrender certain things we’ve allowed into our daily lives in order to strengthen our witness: our favorite t.v. shows, our favorite music, our favorite pastime, our love for material goods, our acceptance of worldly philosophy, or the platitudes and policy of our favorite political party. It also might mean making choices that cost us: financially, professionally, and – on occasion – relationally. We, as orthodox Bible believing Christians, aren’t a majority in America and it is time to stand out and stand apart because of it.
I know a lot of you have already seen, accepted, and done these things. But I wonder how many churches preach to this reality of separateness rather than accommodation or prepotence. I look at most church leaders and public figures today and I see a lot of hip and trendy messages with packaging and even fashion designed to sell or to dominate.
We have our Jesus smiles, our Christian music and our Christian bookstores, our Christian decor and our special Christian conferences, but how radically do the bulk of these messages, products, and events diverge from their secular cousins of community building, generic spirituality, and self-fulfillment?
Surveying the most successful within our ranks I often see the hard things overlooked, while the light and feel good messages of self-help, worldly success, and generic life purpose apart from eternity are raised up and promulgated. While certain sins are addressed head-on, others are ignored or outright condoned.
Reaching out to where people are is all well and good, but denuding the hardness, mystery, and depth of the message of Christ in the process defeats the point. Sometimes (perhaps most times) the gospel will be rejected, spat on, mocked, and despised but we still ought to lovingly preach that depth of truth anyway.
I think the question we need to ask ourselves is this: if called to modern day versions of camel hair vests and brutally shaved heads like the prophets, or prisons and persecution like the early church, will you still follow Him?
God most certainly uses people and movements who broker power in and of this world for His good. But lest we not forget, particularly in this advent season, He Himself came down to dwell and minister among us, to live as one of us. Not as a king or a conquerer, but as the humble son of a carpenter who rejected calls for temporal revolution and political dominion to instead sacrifice his own earthly life for the eternal gain of all.
The Savior born in the line of David never once sat at a king’s table, lived in a palace, dressed in the finest clothes, amassed a great fortune, or wore a golden crown on his human head. As we walk forward to herald his birth, let us remember and rejoice in both the humility of the stable and the humility of the cross.
Our callings on earth are often not very grand or marked with the power, wealth, and success of this world. But as our Savior triumphed over the grave and now sits upon His true throne for all eternity, so shall we triumph when we look past the vestiges of this age and this place and instead work – with true humility and love – to reveal His glory in the lowly places, in surprising ways.
Stay tuned for further posts on repentance, restoration of Biblical teaching, and reimagining our Christian political witness in the next several weeks.
We welcomed our third child last month, so finding time for writing is even more of challenge but I plan to keep it up. Many thanks to all who have offered words of encouragement and support as I continue to grow in this writing venture. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in His sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.