Thanks for the post, Matthew. Many things I agree with. A couple thoughts:
(i) We tried to adopt an anti-declinist posture in this 9Marks Journal. See especially the articles by Larson, Dever, McCullough, and Kidd. So I agree with this instinct to couple the decline narrative with something which affirms.
(ii) Counter-culture (or distinctness) should not be equated with a decline narrative, per se, nor should it be treated as a matter of negation. Rather, counter-culture, to a biblical way of thinking, is a property of holiness, which I would define as being consecrated to the glory of God. Counter-culture, in the best sense, is nothing other than eyes straining to see the beauty of the glory of God, and a stomach longing for the food of the messianic table.
(iii) The formulation “integrity not distinctness” feels logically reasonable, but we can trust that the authors of Scripture had a pastoral rational for so often employing the metaphors of distinctness (salt, put off, be not conformed, two ways in Ps. 1, etc.). In other words, Scripture offers us ample precedent for the pastoral power of the language of distinctness.
(iv) The language of distinctness (as well as a decline narrative) is part of what prepares a congregation for persecution—tarring the ark, Dever calls it. And the best undershepherds prepare their churches for persecution, like the good shepherd faithfully did. Now, that work of preparation also needs to be balanced with a posture of hope and confidence, one that knows deep in the bones that Jesus wins and the church will be built. Combining this preparatory work with this posture yields hope-filled, happy people who hold onto this world with a loose grip as they await a better city, a people of whom this world is not worthy.
Bottom line: you’re right, evangelicals can overemphasize the “woe is us” declension narrative. But we can underemphasize it as well.
I appreciate the criticisms here (and the others in the comments), which have spurred my own thinking further on these matters. It’s entirely plausible that Jonathan and I agree on the kind of rhetoric we need and are, as he indicates in his bottom line, simply accentuating different aspects of it. But let me say a bit more to clarify more where I am coming from.
First, Jonathan’s right that the “counter-culture” and decline can be conceptually unlinked. It is a historical accident that they come together for us: a counter-culture could exist in a society where no further “decline” could seem imaginable, after all.
But I’m not convinced that the holiness of God (or the church) consists primarily in distinctness: the consecration of certain aspects of the world may make them distinct, yes but that distinctness is a secondary feature of them, not their fundamental meaning. The holiness of God is the perfection of his Being: his holiness is not diminished if there is no creation for him to be distinct from. And likewise the holiness of the church consists not properly in the church’s “set apartness” from that which she is not, but in her orientation toward the God and the subsequent perfection of her inner life. The emphasis on holiness or integrity does not foreclose the possibility of distinctness from the surrounding world, but it orders the church’s inner life toward her first and proper end—being the people who rightly worship God, and who do so now and always. Distinctness is a byproduct; it comes in its proper form not by seeking it, but by ordering ourselves toward a third thing, the person and work of Jesus.
It is true, of course, that Scripture does offer language that entails distinction: but distinction from what and how? On my reading of such exhortations, the “world” and “this age” against which Christians are meant to stand do not necessarily and always perfectly correspond with the institutions outside the church.
Indeed, it is possible that such patterns may make their presence known even within the institutional life of the church. Judgment begins at the house of God, after all, and there is some good sense to the advice that if decline is upon us then Christians should take up a season of penitential self-reflection. Is there anything more ‘counter-cultural’ than willing self-mortification? Either way, I’d press back at Jonathan and suggest that we untether the logic of being distinct from “the world” from the sociological framings embedded within the rhetoric of being “countercultural.” To do otherwise potentially blinds us to the real spirit of our age and our own complicity with it.
What of persecution? It may surprise readers, but I am happy to affirm that pastors should prepare their people for persecution; to do otherwise would be spiritual malpractice. The question is what form such “preparation” takes, and whether it requires a kind of formation that is different from the kind of formation which the church should always be pursuing for its people. I’d amend Jonathan’s suggestion that such preparation needs to be “balanced with” hope and confidence: there is no preparation to speak of besides one that is rooted in hope.* Hope is the grounds of the church’s good cheer. We are “saved in hope,” and if the virtue takes on a new character and meaning in times where despair runs rampant, it still must be a quality that marks out the church in every day and age.
Still, that minor adjustment aside, it’s not obvious to me that the rhetorics of decline and distinctness function the same way at all times. The early Christians, for instance, may have thought the whole world mad. But they bore no responsibility for its making, and so their martyrdom could be free from confession. Our situation is not quite the same: if persecution comes upon us, it will in part because of our own steps and missteps. And, like it or not, one of those missteps may have been the overuse of the very rhetoric of decline we now need in seasons where it simply did not fit.
But most pressingly, what if all of our best cultural predictions turn out to be wrong? What if we stand not on the cusp of the persecution of the church, but its purification and renewal? What if we stand not at the beginning of winter, but in springtime, only having become so comfortable with the rhetoric of decline we have none of us eyes to see it? Shall we, in our rhetoric and our preparation, foreclose the possibility that the “counter-culture” might become the culture, that the powers of our day might yield their rebellion against the Almighty and confess with us that Jesus is Lord?
The qualifications inevitably come at this point: “Well, it’s possible, but…” On which plane does the church speak, though: on the plane of having already handed our society over to darkness, or on the plane of suspending judgment about its inevitable perdition because of the power inherent in the gospel? Is the hope which is the substance of the church’s life also the hope of…the world? My central contention about the rhetoric of decline and of being “counter-cultural” is that it presumes too much and asks too little. By keeping our affections and attentions firmly located within the boundaries of history, it appeals to and deepens a sub-theological mindset within the evangelical world, and so fails to treat the diseases it claims to diagnose.
Update: Jonathan has responded in the comments. It’s worth reading his thoughts in full.