One of the more formative experiences of my Christian life came a couple days after my arrival at Rochester L’Abri. It was Sunday evening, which meant high tea. It was an old L’Abri tradition dating back to the Schaeffer’s: Sunday lunch was always a large, festive meal following church on Sunday morning and you likely wouldn’t be that hungry by the evening. So Sunday evenings were for finger foods, small plates, dessert, and tea.
Sometimes one of the workers would read something aloud—this is how I was first introduced to PG Wodehouse and Kate DiCamillo. Other times, like this night, we would have some music. The group of students there that weekend were especially musical and so we actually had an impromptu concert in the living room of the house with all the workers, helpers, and students present along with a handful of folks from the church.
What I remember about it is just a pervasive sense of warmth and simple joy. I hadn’t really imagined that such places still existed amongst Christians and discovering that they did was a revelation. Many things would come after that night—many books, conversations, and much else besides—but there is a certain sense in which that night contained it all: there was friendship and beauty and art and hospitality and running through it all there was God.
All of which is to say that I know quite well the power of Christian fellowship and community for helping to disarm bitterness and mistrust. Yet even given all that I said above, I sometimes wonder if we expect too much from experiences of Christian community or, perhaps better, if we expect the wrong things from it. Or perhaps we misunderstand what Christian community is for in the first place.
What drew this question toward front of mind for me is a recent short article by Abe Cho. A couple excerpts will give you a feel for it but it really is quite short so you can just read the whole thing.
“People aren’t asking whether Christianity is true, Abe. They aren’t even asking if it is good. My friends are wondering if Christianity is even safe.”
This was how a friend of mine responded in a conversation we were having about how the objections to Christianity we were hearing seem to have radically shifted in the last decade or so.
The most urgently-needed cultural apologetics for our day isn’t primarily an intellectual defense (as important as that is). The most powerful apologetic for this generation will be whether Christians can become known as the people who most willingly and most sacrificially identify with and seek justice for the most vulnerable and marginalized in our cities and neighborhoods. That is to say, today the most effective hermeneutic of the gospel will be the local congregation of women and men whose earned reputation will reflect to the watching world the reputation of the God they worship: the God who is the defender of the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, and the poor.
In so much as Cho is simply calling for a renewed attentiveness to the social ramifications of the Christian message and a fuller embrace of its moral demands on God’s people, even when those demands seem radical, this is all excellent. I’m a L’Abri alum and I work part-time for the Bruderhof, who share all things in common and live from a common purse. I am well acquainted with the power of such radical witness and share in Cho’s desire to see such things become more common in the American church.
What is “safe”?
The problem with Cho’s particular articulation of this argument, however, is two-fold: First, we need to closely interrogate what people mean by “safe” in our current context. Increasingly, what “safe” means is “fully affirming of my self-conception and understanding of my own identity, whatever that might be.” While Christians can and should have an open door to their community and can and should be marked by a conspicuous spirit of generosity and kindness, our understanding of these things comes to us not from our neighbors, but from Scripture and, secondarily, from the guidance afforded to us by our fathers and mothers in the faith who have gone before us.
Therefore, in that sense I do not think we as Christians are allowed to be “safe” in the way many of our neighbors now understand the term. This is not a license to be hateful or obnoxious, obviously. Our own conduct must still be gentle and kind as is becoming for the people of God.
But we should not expect that such behavior will earn us a hearing with our neighbors, nor that it will cause many of our peers to now regard us as “safe.” If we uncritically adopt contemporary conceptions of safety and then aim to become “safe” we will be aiming at a goal that can only be reached by abandoning historic Christian teaching.
What is “loving”?
Second and related, as Cho notes there has been a shift in how Christian morality is now regarded by many. If the critique in the past was that Christianity taught good morals, but they weren’t terribly practical or enjoyable, the critique today is that Christian moral norms are actually evil and harmful. It is true, of course, that if Christians live lives marked by generosity, kindness, and love that we can in some way undermine the credibility of some of those attacks.
Yet the moral differences will remain. Indeed, there are times where the moral differences actually cause even our most obviously generous, loving behavior to be interpreted as something malicious. Recall the way, for instance, that many progressive critics attacked Samaritan’s Purse while the non-profit was camped out in New York at the height of the pandemic caring for the city’s sick and providing aid and support to the city’s hospitals.
In this current moment, tangible acts of generosity done by orthodox Christians are often viewed with great suspicion. This is no doubt due in part to the corruption that the Christian church has tolerated in its midst for far too long. Our neighbors do have reasons not to trust us.
Yet even were that corruption to be removed, we have ample reason to think that our generosity would still be regarded with suspicion, just as it was when an army of evangelical volunteers showed up to care for sick New Yorkers. This is not necessarily because of any failure in us, but because the value system shared by so many of our neighbors imagines “kindness” and “love” and all the other virtues in ways significantly different from Christian conceptions of these terms. And this is quite significant for Cho’s point because it means that there is something our neighbors and peers believe that inhibits them from recognizing the very things Cho wishes the church to embody more fully.
The Primary Apologetic
There are two obvious ways by which we can resolve that dilemma.
One of them is to recognize that the ways of Jesus are frequently unintelligible to the world and that this is no discredit to them, nor is it a reason to abandon or transform them.
The other option is to subtly and slowly accommodate our understandings of neighborly love, care, safety, and all the rest in order to make them intelligible to our neighbors. To adopt this approach, however, is to commit ourselves to a slow, drawn out abandoning of Christ. Why? Because we put ourselves into the position of constantly seeking to prove to our non-Christian neighbors that Christians are actually good people while subtly accepting our neighbors’ conceptions of what a good person is rather than God’s.
What, then, of the evangelistic task before us? While anchoring our appeal in this sort of externally facing public justice approach is wrongheaded, it would also be a mistake to adopt postures of aggression and belligerence or to attempt to secure our standing in this challenging context through political means.
The first and primary apologetic, then, is not even chiefly apologetic in nature. It is not any act of public speech or activism. It is, rather, the vertically oriented act of gathering together as God’s people to remind one another of our belonging to another king and another country, who then equips us to live strange and alien lives as we sojourn in this world.
A friend has told me of how Barth liked to tell the story of a Christian congregation who was gathered for public worship during World War I when a bomb fell on their building. The community did not stop the service. They kept on singing, kept on attending to the preached Word. From what I have seen, this is precisely what the beloved community gathered at Covenant Presbyterian in Nashville has done these past two weeks. A bomb was detonated in their midst. They have responded to it with songs and hymns and spiritual songs and a continued attentiveness to the Word of God, offering themselves up, all that they have and all that they have lost, to God.
Certainly, pursue justice. Be people of mercy and generosity. But do not expect these acts to always make intelligible to the world what the world believes to be foolishness. Our first apologetic will not be our commitment to justice, important as that is. Our first apologetic will be our commitment to God manifested in worship, prayer, the preached Word, and the blessed sacrament. And that first apologetic will not only speak to the world of the strangeness of our hope, it will secure us to Christ as we face the suspicion and hostility of the world around us.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).