For Christians of a certain age, I expect a certain kind of Christian testimony will sound familiar: You grow up in a home with both of your biological parents (who are married), you grow up in and around the church, perhaps even going on Sunday nights and Wednesday nights but certainly on Sunday mornings. You’re taught a form of morality that resembles Christianity in some ways, even if it likely has some rather large blindspots. And most of the people you knew came from similar backgrounds.
As to your own profession of faith, you probably either experienced some kind of conversion experience as a child that grew with you as you matured or you left the church briefly in your teens and 20s, partied a bit, but then had some sort of experience that led to your return to faith and to church, which felt like a fairly seamless process because you already knew what church was like, you knew some Bible verses and stories, and so on.
For many baby boomer evangelicals, this is the story of their Christian life. (It’s not necessarily the experience of previous generations, though that’s another topic for another day.) They grew up in church and they either never left or they left for a short time and returned as they entered later phases of adulthood and began to get a little more serious about their life, choosing to marry, settle down, raise a family, and so on.
Mostly, this no longer happens. 1/3 of American children do not grow up in a home with both their biological parents. The range of beliefs present today about the good life, morals, and human identity are far wider than they were 50 years ago. And the boomerang effect we see with previous generations who left church as young people and then came back pretty much doesn’t happen anymore. When young people leave the church today, they usually don’t return. What’s more, fewer people are growing up in the church today and the churches they grow up in are theologically and culturally scattered.
Where We’ve Been
From the early 1980s until around 2008, many in the west lived in an era that Mark Sayers has referred to as “the secular sabbath.” The idea was simple: The Nazis had been defeated in World War II. The Communists were now defeated or about to be defeated. Liberal democracy had triumphed. Now we would enter into an era of peace and harmony, world without end. It was morning in America.
Within such a regime, it is easy to feel as if those two perennially divisive topics, religion and politics, don’t really matter anymore. Politically, we could all be various sorts of good liberal free market democrats and, so long as we maintained our commitment to liberal democratic norms, we could tolerate whatever political differences we might still have.
Religiously… well, there were two basic tracks most people went down. Some were able to embrace a privatized belief system in which religious convictions might be personally engaging, but they were publicly irrelevant. For most of these people, that seemed like a winning bargain: We had our creature comforts, whether those were a big screen TV to watch NFL games on or a $5 latte at the hipster coffeeshop. Consumption was comfortable, easy, and satisfying. Why disrupt the vibes with religious talk?
For others, there was still an inner need to be public about one’s faith in some form, and yet the form this took was mostly preferring the shape of 1950s era modernism instead of 1980s era modernism. For all the bluster of these proponents of public faith, their bark was worse than their bite. The underlying gods of the secular sabbath—personal peace and affluence—were left mostly unmolested even by more confrontational modes of Secular Sabbath-era religiosity.
But then a series of crises began to unfold, one after the other, that made conspicuous consumption a little more difficult and, simultaneously, a little less satisfying. The promises of the end of history began to fail. People lost houses or retirement savings or jobs. Then the racial discourse shifted in America: the hope that came from seeing a black man in the White House shifted toward horror and acrimony both as Obama’s presidency failed to live up to its promise and America’s racial evils began announcing themselves more and more loudly.
As these crises hit, the indifferentism of the post-Christian 90s and 2000s became less and less satisfying to many people. When you’re fat and happy, political or religious talk are irritants. They are disruptive of social harmony. But when you don’t have a job or a house, when you think your children aren’t safe in their own neighborhood, home, or school, when you no longer trust schools to educate children responsibly, and when you feel your very self is unwelcome in the public square, then politics become your religion because you think they are the way you can regain security and safety.
This is where we are today: We are rediscovering the political religions. And that rediscovery has torn the American church to tatters.
The Church In and After the Secular Sabbath
During the Secular Sabbath, white Christians in the US, like many other Americans, were mostly comfortable. There were problems, sure. It wasn’t entirely a silver age. And yet even many of the problems were able to be comfortably folded into existing mental categories common amongst many Christians. The divorce epidemic and teen pregnancy, both major issues in the 1980s, were not hard for American Christians to understand or critique from a basically Christian frame, for example.
Indeed, on matters of sexuality, even those who were not Christian were often of the view that Christian practices were more “moral,” if also less fun. It was harder to find people who wanted to “shout their abortion,” or celebrate divorce, let alone argue that the entire Christian frame for understanding sex and marriage was, #actually, immoral.
All of this created a certain sense of security and privilege for many Christian believers, even if that security was never altogether comfortable for them, thereby necessitating the tendency in this era to fetishize persecution. Moreover, this sense of belonging and security that many Christians found in the Secular Sabbath contributed to the corrosion of catechesis and discipleship, both of which seemed to be less necessary as post-cold war secularism provided material security and attractional ecclesiological practices showed that adopting modern marketing methods and consumer-focused product design could grow churches numerically. If anything, traditional liturgy and catechesis were almost deemed counter productive because of how they cut against the attractional methodology.
Now, to be sure there were still many differences between Christians which would routinely surface. Speaking in admittedly broad terms, there were predominantly white evangelicals who were dispositionally more conservative who tended to congregate in suburbs and, often, attend megachurches or mid-size churches established during the post-war economic boom. Then there were predominantly white Christians who were more dispositionally liberal who tended to congregate in cities and attend church plants or perhaps a small still-orthodox mainline congregation, all while still identifying as evangelical and consuming evangelical media.
Significantly, these two groups could recognize one another, for the most part, because they were all comfortable, post-Cold War Christians who, they thought, were dedicated to similar goals and similar work. Cultural divides were thought to be, well, cultural and, therefore, rather trivial when set next to agreements concerning theology, polity, and so on. Indeed, many of the blue church plants were planted and supported by red megachurches.
I remember showing up to attend a PCA church in Lincoln in 2007 and finding Obama bumper stickers in the parking lot, which was a bit of a shock as the church that planted that congregation was known for being a Republican home school church. But that sort of thing wasn’t that unusual in those days. After all, Rob Bell’s Mars Hill Church was planted with the support of Calvary Church, a large relatively conventional conservative evangelical congregation in Grand Rapids.
That said, it now seems that a large part of what made these partnerships possible was less theological in nature, and more a sense of security and strength, which allowed evangelicals to background politics in the name of ecumenism and church outreach. It was fine to divest politics of significance and, to varying degrees, to background cultural differences during a season of abundance. As the nation has shifted, however, and come to feel less secure, the common pattern has seen red Christians find stronger bonds with their political peers than with blue Christians and vice versa.
The Political Religions
Whether we realized it or not, many of us during the Secular Sabbath drew our sense of hope and security not from Christ, but from the political and economic systems that had made our lives so comfortable. Given that, it is not all that surprising to find that many people are continuing to look to politics as they try to regain that sense of peace and stability. And this has hit the American church as much as it has the rest of the country because, sadly, in many ways the American church hasn’t been all that different from the rest of the country. Culture and politics have taken precedence over theological conviction with the outcome being both the fragmentation of smaller Christian movements and the breakdown of relationships across Christian movements.
For the people involved in the more blue church plant movements, one sort of problem has been exposed. Briefly, many of these Christians were trained in what might be called a “relevance” model of church outreach, which is a successor to the attractional model that many of their parents practiced in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s. For “relevance,” Christians, the key to church growth and Christian development in their context was demonstrating that Christianity could be relevant to the interests, fears, and concerns of typical urban progressives.
Unfortunately, too often “relevance” Christians were not adequately grounded in the teachings of the faith, nor were they well formed in their day to day spiritual disciplines. To again borrow from Sayers, they had relevance but they lacked resilience. As a result, they were colonized by the very people they wished to reach. This is the move to progressivism that one can detect in a number of former members of churches that invested heavily in church planting and city-focused outreach in the 2000s and early 2010s who have capitulated to the culture on questions of sexuality and gender and who, additionally, have often embraced the most progressive imaginable positions on a host of other social and political issues.
On the other hand, people involved in more traditionally red churches have proven vulnerable to right wing political religions. In some cases, this is simply a more explicit embrace of the sort of Christian Nationism beliefs that were lingering along the edges of many white evangelical megachurches for some time. (The American Patriot’s Bible came out in 2009, after all.) In other cases, Christians have gone well past Christian Nationism and into gnarlier, more alarming forms of right wing politics, sometimes leaving the faith altogether while in other cases simply marginalizing the faith even more in their political thought. For these Christians, they too have been colonized, but not toward a blue progressivism. Their drift has been toward a sort of red Nietzscheanism that views strength and power as the great political goods. This has caused them to regard Christian commitments to patience, gentleness, and the rest of the fruit of the spirit as being a political liability—which it may well be. The difficulty is that when met with that test, many on the right have preferred power to kindness.
Where does this leave us?
If it seems like the church in America is burning, you may be right. But also that might be a good thing. Sayers suggests that we are now witnessing the equivalent to a brushfire, a controlled burn that eliminates a lot of dead grass and brush so that new plants can take root and grow. Who will be the Christians that survive the fires and sow the seeds for renewal and reform in the church?
Look to the Scriptures. Prolonged times of testing or seasons spent in the wilderness are not unusual in the history of God’s people. Indeed, such periods are often times of preparation. Paul spent years three years in Arabia and Damascus before meeting Peter in Jerusalem and beginning his evangelistic ministry. Moses spent 40 years in the wilderness before leading the Exodus, an event which foreshadowed Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness prior to launching his public ministry. Wilderness seasons are times of preparation for future ministry and, often, future growth.
They are also times of testing: When God’s people were sent into exile in the Old Testament, it was figures like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that God used to preserve his people while in exile so that when the exile ended his people could flourish again. So one question we should ask is, “What marks the various people we can see in Scripture (or church history) who flourish in and after the wilderness?”
One mark of these people is patience. Schaeffer used to talk about God “extruding” a person into a new role. To be extruded is to be thrust into something by outside forces. In manufacturing, some products are made by being extruded through a dye, which gives them their final shape. When we are patient, we allow God to do the work he needs to do in us and in the people around us to prepare us and them for ministry and, as the process of extruding suggests, our final shape will itself be a product of that extrusion. If you are not patient and try to seize a thing too soon, you lose the opportunity to be shaped and matured by the process.
A second quality that exiles learn to possess is courage precisely because they have learned that everything will not be OK, at least in the short-term. Learning to abandon a breezy belief in progress is often a crucial step in one’s Christian maturation. As Kirsten Sanders has noted, there is something deformative about optimism. She makes the point well, writing that,
To adopt a naive optimism about the possibility of human progress transforms human agents into robots and machines, as individual outputs in a larger “project” whose success is based on scale and not individual contribution. Optimistic views of progress make no space for small acts of heroism, for defeat, for faithfulness in spite of fear.
Put another way (perhaps more starkly), optimism means not having to be virtuous. Virtue is made real when it is put under pressure, when it is tested. (This is one of the reasons it is imperative for white Christians in the US to attend more closely to the example, witness, and thought of the black church.) Exile calls us to courage because it calls us to confront the reality of defeat and the possibility of yet more decisive forms of defeat. But if exile calls us to courage, then it calls us also to many other virtues as well for, as Lewis once wrote, courage is the form each virtue must adopt when put to the test.
The ultimate test of this, of course, is martyrdom and what unifies all four of the exemplars we are given in Daniel is a willingness to be martyred. None of them go looking for that fate, of course. Indeed, they go out of their way to assimilate to their exilic culture where they can, being trained to serve in the government, and living amongst the people in Babylon, and even, through their work, helping to maintain and grow the Babylonian (and later Persian) empire.
And yet they come to points where they know God won’t let them conform. And each time they choose to follow God, even at great risk to themselves. Indeed, before they are thrown into the fire in Daniel 3, the three friends explicitly acknowledge that it is possible they are going to their death, saying,
16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17 If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king.[d] 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
God chooses to spare their lives and through their courage and his salvation of them, God accomplishes a great work that seems to climax, in chapter four, in the salvation of the king. The fruit of that work isn’t seen immediately as that kingdom then falls away and a new one replaces it. But, once again, Daniel responds to the ascent of the Persians just as he did to the triumph of the Babylonians: He is faithfully present in the society of Persian Babylon, continuing to serve within the government. When tested, once again he refuses to worship other gods and, once again, God rescues him.
There is a further point to be made here as well which follows from the above and which, perhaps, hints at how this wilderness season might end and orthodox faith might flourish. Because the felt stakes of our current politics are so high, our political religions do offer thick community of a sort, belonging, shared work, and so on. They can’t do otherwise because they present themselves as the solution to the most keenly felt existential fears and challenges of our day. Any community that understands itself to be addressing an existential crisis will, inherently, be tightly bound together because wartime breeds camaraderie. However: It is for precisely these reasons that these communities will also be brittle. For while they might offer thick membership, they do not offer grace or mercy. And so they end up tacitly fueled by fear, not only of what might happen if one’s side loses, but also of what might happen to you should you ever dissent from your side’s stated orthodoxy.
Much of one’s participation in these latter day faiths consists of public signaling and conformity to agreed upon, ideologically driven talking points. And should you deviate from these, you will face a form of church discipline: thus the unpopularity of Freddie deBoer on the left and Tim Keller on the right. These new political religions, both of which base their hope for the future in political success, have no space for mercy, because the person who fails in the political project genuinely threatens the future peace. As a result, these religions run on a constant diet of fear, shame, and the ever present threat of being shunned and ostracized from your community.
In contrast to this, a pervasively Christian way of living will center itself around the necessity of mercy and grace for the simple reason that God accomplishes his purposes in the world and he invites us into that work with him, though he does not need us in order to accomplish his work. This does not mean that Christian belonging lacks all definition or boundaries. But it does mean that there is always a way of being reconciled to one another. There is always hope for reunion.
Within Christianity, future peace and consolation hinges not on the success of a political program today, but on the finished work of Christ already achieved. And this reality creates space for mercy and reconciliation that the other religions cannot offer for the simple reason that there is nothing I can ever do that can threaten Christ’s victory. In a world racked by shame, cancelation, and public scorn, the offer of mercy carries a unique power. Sayers makes the point well:
I thought of a picture in my mum’s lounge. It’s on a bridge in London in the 19th century and there’s this Salvation Army officer, young woman, picking up a sort of starving boy and… that’s what we’re called to do. That’s why we need leaders to go on. That’s why we need renewal. There is so much sin and brokenness in the world. I don’t want Rebuilders to ever be some giant, intellectual, self-congratulatory, listen and wow your friends with the latest crazy trend happening in the world. All that stuff is done to help us think well about the culture.
But at the end of the day it’s not just about head, it’s about heart. It’s not just about the size of your church or how many people think you’re the best leader in the world. What we’re after is a heart after God, a heart after God’s justice, a heart after binding up the broken and the poor. There are other boys and girls who need our love, there are men and women who are hurting, and the answer is Jesus living through you. At this moment, if you’re feeling discouraged but you also know you’re called, the big message is keep going. Keep going.
And so, for those of us seeking to be faithful in these challenging times, that is God’s word to us: Keep going.
(In much of what I’m saying here I’m indebted to Mark Sayers’s thought in general and, in particular, to this episode of “This Cultural Moment.”)