Here’s a story from my life. I grew up in a great Christian home and had the fortune of being in a very active youth group in high school. I was involved in local and short-term missions, was helping lead weekly discipleship, and had some tremendous “mountaintop” experiences while camping. Then I went to college. My faith stagnated, my spiritual life suffered, my relationships turned toxic. By the end of my fourth year I was a mess of anxiety and depression, and had pretty much given up on God and my faith. All because I went to a secular state school, right? Nope – a good, well-respected, conservative Christian college.
Looking back I saw what had happened. I had gone to a school that was spiritually and religiously very familiar to me. In many ways, it reinforced what I already knew about my faith. That meant that I didn’t really have to stretch or defend myself beyond being able to name the kings of Israel and Judah in order during the period of the divided kingdom (which is hard!). It also meant that everyone assumed that most everyone was pretty much like themselves. It was assumed that we all believed the same thing. Sure there were outliers, but it was very easy to blend in with the good kids just by dressing up before heading to the cafeteria on Sunday. What I discovered was that homogeneity (even perceived homogeneity) bred comfort, and comfort bred complacency. As my faith had never really been challenged in college, by the time I had graduated it had shriveled up to a limp rag.
The same thing has happened in America, and I believe the church in America has suffered for it. The perception has been for many that this is a Christian country, and that it needs to stay that way. However we often see churches – more specifically American Christians – that are complacent, self-centered, and comfortable. I think much of this complacency has come from the belief that America is a “Christian nation”, where we all pretty much believe the same thing – or at least should. The conservative church has focused on cultural issues that fall more on the moral & evangelistic sides (abortion, homosexuality, evangelism) and less so on issues that could be considered “social justice” (poverty alleviation, human rights). You could characterize this as the difference between cultural dominion (a top-down approach to encountering culture) and cultural rescue (a bottom-up approach). The problem is now that many millenials, as well as those in other generations, are moving in the exact opposite direction, focusing on social justice “rescue” work and less on “dominion” issues. The interesting thing that I see now is that in an effort to exercise power and dominion over culture, Christians have become less powerful. And yet many are lulled into the belief that Christianity is still in charge.
As a reaction there has been a growing ruckus about Christian “persecution” in America. Fingers get pointed at the government (with the appropriate references to Nazi Germany of course), the media portrayals of Christians in news and pop culture as “extremists” and bigots, pro-tolerance groups and so on. But is this really persecution? I just don’t see Ned Flanders as a symbol of Christian persecution, and neither do I fear homosexual activists burning my church or home down.
Is there discrimination against Christians? Most certainly, and discrimination is wrong. But discrimination really is nothing new to Christians or Christianity. And I think to a certain extent we need it. I think we need to realize that we were never called to forge a Christian nation in Scripture. Rather we are called to be the Church. I don’t think that Christianity or Christians are helped by making American culture more Christian-friendly either. This only perpetuates the myth that we’re all the same and you’ll be tolerated only as long as you agree with what we Christians believe (whatever that may be). This is more like the Jim Crow South than anything.
That’s absolutely not to say that I think religion is wrong, that Christianity and faith have no place in politics or society, or anything else like that. I also don’t mean to say that persecution is not a big deal. It is a huge deal worldwide, and one which we need to not only be aware of but seek to eliminate. However here in America I have yet to see “persecution” of Christians fall beyond verbal harassment or individual incidents of discrimination, none of which are even remotely close to what we should consider to be systemic persecution.
Furthermore, I think the decline of Christian influence in America will have a negative impact in our country. What salt there has been seems to be drying up as our culture becomes more crass, more violent, and more hateful toward each other. Our culture desperately needs the Church. However we need adversity, even wrong adversity, to remind us that we are strangers in this world – not just America but in the world. We are not to be too attached to it. We need to recognize and reclaim our “otherness”, and understand that our call is not to dominate but to be salt and light. As we move into a post-Christian society we need to not retreat into our holy huddles of sameness but be engaged with the world even when it doesn’t agree with us.
That is why I think that the secularization of America should not be seen as a hindrance. Instead we need to see it as an opportunity to recognize who we really are, and how much we need God. Discipleship never comes without struggle. But the battle is not “out there” against culture, it is against the sin within ourselves. We need to set ourselves right through faithfulness and the hard road of discipleship before we can impact the culture around us, or else America will become a whitewashed tomb.