“We live in a darkening civilization in which worldlings seek to divide Christ’s garments among them…Evangelicals…are beleaguered in China, prohibited from building churches in Saudi Arabia, arrested for distributing literature in Turkey, and no less tragic, are often vilified in the United States.”

That’s Carl Henry in his 1986 book Christian Countermoves in a Decadent Culture. 20 years ago, Christian Smith found that the energetic worries about the world that marks Henry’s quote still animated evangelicals. As Smith wrote, “American evangelicalism…is strong not because it is shielded against, but because it is—-or at least perceives itself to be—-embattled with forces that seem to oppose or threaten it.”

counter cultural ChristianityEvangelicals are still well acquainted with these themes. We are frequently reminded these days that we are about to be a church “in exile.” The Benedict Option has become our only hope. Springtime is over: winter is coming. We must be willing, as Owen Strachan writes, to “stand against cultural ideology, not with it,” if we wish to be “true heroes.”

And then there’s the claim that Christianity is “counter-cultural.” David Platt has thrown his hat in that ring, but he’s late to the party. Proving that it’s not just conservative Southern Baptists who have a stake in the term, Gabe Lyons deployed it at Q and in his widely-read book a few years ago. There are few more basic, accepted doctrines of the evangelical world than that the church should be a “counter-cultural” institution. The persistence of this sort of rhetoric may be the best evidence we have that despite evangelicalism’s diffused institutional forms, somehow a tradition of thought keeps getting passed down.

It may surprise readers to find out that I have little objection to these formulations of our state in the world today, at least in theory. I am happy to accept the sociological observation that conservative Christians are under some kind of interesting pressure these days. After all, I’ve made that argument myself. And I have spent the better part of my adult life working to strengthen the confidence of the evangelical witness, a task I only undertook because I was convinced the evangelical kids were not alright. The two books I have written may not have been (widely) read, but put together they contain diagnoses and constructive treatments for our evangelical lassitude.

But I am interested in writing as though the past happened, and that means acknowledging the limits of such ‘declinist’ discourse. I don’t begrudge my peers for looking a bit squinty-eyed at the anxious rallying cries we’re hearing about gay marriage within the church. I wager few of today’s college students know the Religious Right ever happened, and sometimes I’d like to forget about them myself. But they did. And like it or not the image—regardless of its accuracy—of the fearful evangelical leader shouting about decline still pervades our media world.

And here is the unfortunate effect: by overreacting against various non-offenses and impotently shouting about real shifts in the world that they had no real power to prevent ruined the rhetoric of ruination and decline for the rest of us. Having played the same song so often, evangelical writers—like me—invariably have a credibility gap with anyone who isn’t already convinced. Young conservative evangelicals have been placed into a relatively tricky conundrum: the misuse of narratives of decline have left us without a potentially helpful tool to overcome and resist the naivety of our peers about the social transformations afoot. But carrying on as usual gives such rallying cries the atmosphere of a winnowing, so that anyone who demures is de facto on the outside. And therein lies a path where the declinist narrative becomes its own self-fulfilling prophecy: embattled and thriving, until it’s only we happy few who exist to die.

In this vein, Laura Ortberg Turner uttered her own exasperated sigh about the rhetoric of “counter-cultural,” pleading for a commitment to the centrality of love within the evangelical world. Of course, everyone in the argument is going to claim love as their grounds and motivation, even if it’s not the word that shows up most often on their blogs. And they have good reason to be wary: like it or not, the rhetoric of “love” is just as empty as that of decline and “counter-culture,” and we do face real divisions over what the boundary and shape of love must be. Liberal Protestants tried out an amorphous “love ethic” which knew little besides the hippy inclusiveness of the 1960s: situation ethics was a thing, after all, even though it is no ethics at all.

Suppose it is the case that for the past 30 years the rhetorical environment of conservative Christianity has emphasized narratives of decline with the corollary that our Christian existence was in kind of jeopardy. James Davison Hunter described the evangelical political character as being pervaded by ressentiment, or the sense that “injury—real or perceived—leads the aggrieved to accuse, blame, vilify, and then seek revenge on whom they see as responsible.” Only Hunter was more sophisticated than many of his critics: ressentiment describes a political culture, not necessarily the recognized motivations of its participants.

Hunter wrote many footnotes, so I’ll not repeat his evidence here. But the tricky business about the world is that perceptions actually kind of matter, and like it or not, Hunter identified the kind of atmosphere evangelical rhetoric has been perceived as promoting. The question I have pursued in its political aspect the past decade is whether that rhetorical environment ought have any effect on how we go about our business. The answer my fellow conservative evangelicals seem to be resoundingly giving is, “Nope. Once more unto the declinist breach.”

I suppose I have my own worries that being “counter-cultural” has such rhetorical appeal. If the logic of being a counterculture becomes a part of the church’s essence on earth—and given its unexamined status within the evangelical world, it is hard to see how it has not so become—then when the Church becomes the majority, something has gone deeply wrong. But by distancing ourselves from the Christianity of our predecessors, we also do not have to acknowledge or confess their missteps. Now that we are becoming a minority, we can go on as always without recognizing our own complicity in the falsehoods embedded in the worldview we have inherited. If we are entering a winter, it may be because in our spring and summer we had already swallowed a pill that would lead to our eventual demise. Conservative evangelicals cannot decry accommodators until we have confessed the means and manner of our own predecessors accommodations. We cannot write as if history has not happened.

But the logic of being ‘counter-cultural’ also frames the church-world relationship exclusively in terms of negation, so that the affirmations become the kind of qualification which gets tacked on at the end. Only the paths of affirmation and negation don’t merely need each other, nor do they exist in some kind of yin and yang-like symmetry. The “no” might establish our distinctiveness, but then integrity and not distinctiveness is the point of the church’s moral life. (Disclosure: that formulation is my advisor’s, but it happens to be right. And so I agree, fundamentally, with Laura’s concern.) By turning our attention toward “counterculturalness,” we potentially blind ourselves to real works of good happening in the world to which we can offer our “Yes and Amen” to the glory of God (followed, if you are a good Calvinist, by the hasty reminder that all that good stuff is only dirty rags).

But I might also be so bold as to suggest that our “yes” should be the most fundamental thing about us, which means we may want to make it the loudest. The striking thing about the evangelical rhetorical environment among those who write about these matters is not that conservative Christians are necessarily wrong: it’s that the whole business sounds so cheerless. With a few exceptions, no one seems to be having much of a good time.

To give but one example, I am on record suggesting that Christians ought to respond to the charge of “bigotry” for our views on sexual morality with a hearty laugh and a, “Oh, if you only knew!” Thinking gay sex is wrong is, after all, probably the least crazy of our views. We think the guys who say they can “look but not touch” are wrong, too. And I’ll even argue that auto-eroticism is wrong. Opposing gay marriage these days is a gateway drug to a whole world of outlandish and hopelessly outdated moral conclusions which turn out to be the most sensible positions in the world. We need courage: but we also need a sense of humor, because if we don’t have that the world is not really worth fighting for.

(Somewhat surprisingly, my argument has at times been turned against me, as it allegedly demonstrates I’m nothing more than a “defeatist.” I will save you a long excursus on why taking up the question of whether Christians are ‘bigots’ is itself a losing cultural strategy. You can thank me later.)

Now, I will grant that it is a tricky thing to be cheerful about the world whilst trying to persuade others that our doom is afoot. (Note to readers: rhetoric means exaggeration, so read “doom” as “bad things that will probably be imperceptible on a wide scale for a generation or two, a la divorce”.) It is the kind of thing which I have not perfected, but have gotten somewhat better at over the years. Reading Dickens is a great help: it’s hard to be unhappy about the world whilst being perpetually amused by it. In fact, reading anything for pure entertainment is a help. The real point of the culture wars is to destroy culture, and it’s impossible to fight well if we’ve forgotten what we’re fighting for.

Nor do I think such cheer incommensurate with a real lamentation about the effects of sin: I have myself sought to suck the marrow out of my limited sorrows and found within them the wellsprings of life. But it is that kind of cheer which evangelicalism’s greatest virtue—its legitimate and real concern about the world and its inhabitants—potentially throttles. In this case, we may have to be good pagans before we can be good Christians: eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow they’re gonna come for your tax breaks.

I’d note as well that it’s this kind of cheerful disregard for things which Chesterton aptly said was the heart of courage, a virtue which we have heard much of and will doubtlessly hear more about. It cannot be quoted too often, for it is the finest thing Chesterton ever said:

“Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if we will risk it on the precipice.

He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying.”

And here I signal my last worry about the way the rhetoric of “countercultural” has functioned within the evangelical world. By drawing our energy out of the opposition to the world—by thriving in the embattlement—we tend to foreclose the possibility that we could win, finally and decisively, the very cultural struggle we are waging. By enshrining its status as a cultural minority, the ‘countercultural’ approach contributes to the conditions which ensure nothing changes. The culture war is self-perpetuating (and the one sound it cannot fathom is genuine laughter at its pretenses).

I remember reading a history of early Christianity during the summer after my freshman year of college. I don’t remember which one, because I am no scholar. But the astounding conclusion of the author was that it was not their love which made the early Christians such an irrepressible force. In the midst of an over-stretched empire that had grown decadent and fat off of its own success, and which had ceased to see any life beyond its own horizons, it was the hope of the early Christians that allowed them to kiss the dying, to hold their own bodies in chastity, and to turn their martyrdoms into murals.

I have never forgotten that, even while I have imperfectly lived it. The hope of the church breeds energetic action, Barth puts it, and so it should. But I fear the evangelical rhetoric of decline and persecution and marginalization and exile and all the other ways of putting things these days casts a dark shadow over our hope, making it appear less vibrant and cheerful and alive than it should be.

Such a word of hope sounds a note of peace and good will to all men, and resolutely keeps open the possibility that the conclusion of efforts here and now might be approval rather than denial. “Do what is good,” Paul tells those minority Romans, “and you will receive [the ruler’s] approval, for he is God’s servant for your good.” And of internal church matters he’ll say later that “Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.” This too has been ruined by a different strain of the evangelical world, namely those notorious health-and-wealthers. But Paul still full-throatedly leaves that possibility open, and does so without hemming and hawing about it.

Is such a transformation unlikely? Sure. But sociology is not the plane from which the Christian proclamation goes forward. Was the path for the Roman church one of suffering and martyrdom? Unquestionably. But it was the manner of their death, not merely the fact, that bore witness to the triumph of the gospel. The announcement that ‘all will be well’ is the final word which encompasses all others; in pointing toward the life wherein all will be made new, it opens up the possibility that the new could arrive here and now, in dress and visage that we may not foretell. It reminds us that the church is the culture, and the form of world that now counters it speedily passes away.

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • Solid. A few points thoughts you brought up:

    1. I was thinking shortly before reading this that one of the major reasons we have struggled to articulate our position on homosexual marriage in a way that the surrounding world hears is that we *did* basically make all these same arguments before on the race issue—and were profoundly wrong there. As you noted in your point about losing our minds about non-issues, we’ve lost credibility in certain important ways because we have handled previous issues so poorly.

    2. As a good Calvinist, I cannot of course let your jab go by without noting that a good Calvinist—of the sort who reads Calvin—would say no such thing. Book II, Chapter 2 sees him trace out both the reality that all our good cultural works are simultaneously morally insufficient and nonetheless good and a work of God’s common grace. (You knew that, I’m sure. But some of your readers might not. Including some of the Calvinists at whom you lobbed the blow!)

    3. The importance of hope as foundational to good cheer is an important note, and one too-little sounded. It’s one thing to say that Christ will come again, and quite another to let that make life in all its travails joyful rather than bitter. (I’m rather interested in American Apocalpyse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism precisely because it suggests that the apocalyptic is a driving force in fundamentalism and evangelicalism—not least because it seems that evangelicals as a group have embraced that end-of-the-world mentality, but without the hope I would think it should imply.)

    • Chris,

      1) Yes, the credibility gap is a huge problem. There are other problems, but that’s a major one.
      2) I should have said ‘earnest Calvinist.’ Also, it was a joke. Purely a joke.
      3) I’ve seen Sutton’s book and have wanted to read it. It looks really good.

      Matt

      • (2) I know. The response was half in earnest, half because that’s what a Calvinist should do, right?

    • hoosier_bob

      Chris,

      I suspect that evangelicals’ discussions on same-sex marriage fall flat for other reasons.

      First, we have largely accepted a view of marriage that owes more to individualistic romanticism and Freudian sexuality than to anything in the Pauline corpus. As Carl Trueman noted some time ago, same-sex marriage is largely consistent with the redefinition of marriage that occurred about 100 years ago. Peter Leithart’s article on emergence of “pornographic marriage” makes much the same point. After all, we can’t exactly tout the merits of “traditional marriage” when we have largely abandoned that institution in favor of a more (heater)sexually expressive variant.

      Second, we have failed to rein in many of our fellow evangelicals when they dealt with this issue in a way that displayed anti-gay animus. I think of the longstanding perpetuation by FRC of the false notion that gay men are far more likely than the general population to be pedophiles. And seeking to pass laws that authorize discrimination against gay people in employment, housing, etc. doesn’t help either.

      On a separate note, thanks for pointing to the book in point #3. I grew up as an evangelical and still have a basic affinity for evangelical theology (at least in a Barth/Moltmann/Volf vein). But I simply grew tired of the shrill alarmism that seemed to punctuate evangelical life.

      • hoosier_bob

        Sorry… (hetero)sexually expressive variant.

        I hate Apple’s new aggressive version of auto-correct!

      • I broadly agree with all of those points (and have written along very similar lines here at Mere O); I was simply noting that the other is one more reason it’s hard to take these arguments from us seriously.

        • hoosier_bob

          Thanks for the link to your earlier piece. I found it interesting, as I generally tend to view myself as asexual. And, truth be told, that’s actually at the heart of why I felt the need to leave evangelicalism. I didn’t feel that I had any place in a church culture that tended to valorize heterosexual desire, and which consequently viewed me as falling short in the “biblical manhood” department.

          I was thinking about this again recently as a friend passed along the following quote from a piece by one of the early leaders of the “biblical manhood” movement (at least in my former denomination, the PCA): “Sex is a calling from God and is foundational to Christian discipleship, so the man who says he’s a celibate effeminate is a rebel against God.”

          The quote is taken from a piece that criticized Wes Hill, Eve Tushnet, et al. But I think it fairly sums up the sentiment I experienced growing up in the PCA. One pastor even suggested that I buy some porn to try to inculcate a desire for heterosexual sex, apparently fearing that my soul would be imperiled by my lack of appetite for sex. That’s around the time that I decided to walk away from evangelicalism.

          Evangelicals, by in large, want to conceive of marriage as some kind of playground for the licit expression of sexual desire. This view, of course, makes the experience of robust (hetero)sexual desire a prerequisite to marriage. That’s a far cry from anything traditional. And when we accept that view, it makes us look a bit arbitrary when we deny those without such desires the opportunity to form vowed relationships.

          • That’s… bonkers. Buy some porn? Good grief. I don’t even know where to start with that; there’s so much wrong with it that I just… yeesh. To be sure, everything you’re describing there fits with the sort of deficient anthropology (in my view closely tied to a deficient Christology) that I critiqued in the piece linked above, and that Matt has critiqued elsewhere (as have many others).

            That said, I do think evangelicalism has the robust resources necessary to engage these issues (else I wouldn’t be an evangelical), even if it has often failed to do so.

            That said, I don’t think your final paragraph is particularly wide of the mark for a lot of folks, which obviously is something we need to work to change.

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  • I think the “Epistle to Diognetus” strikes just the right balance:

    They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers.

    Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign.

    They marry like all other men and they beget children; but they do not cast away their offspring.

    They have their meals in common, but not their wives.

    They find themselves in the flesh, and yet they live not after the flesh.

    Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven…

    …In a word, what the soul is in a body, this the Christians are in the world.

  • Lee Furney

    Thanks for this. I’m probably missing a bit because you seem to be talking largely from the American context and as if you’re in dialogue with those who know both you and your cultural context well. For clarity, though, I wonder whether a few broad brush strokes on where you’re coming from (theological framework) would have helped. Am I right in assuming that you’re a post-millennial and that you don’t see a close parallel between Israel in the wilderness and the church always walking in the minority of the narrow way as exiles in enemy territory? If so, could you unpack that a little first? Perhaps it’s more that you don’t like the Elijah-like negativity sometimes accompanying other views? Either way, or another still, and whatever the terms we use, a more joyful and creation-affirming view of being “counter-cultural” is welcome. Blessings.

    • Lee Furney

      NB. I get that we’re no longer in spiritual exile but there’s a very real sense in which we are still away from home.

    • Thanks very much for the comment! I don’t think I’m a post-millennial, but then I’m not quite convinced that the pre-millennial outlook *has* to lead to the minority-outlook that it is often accused of engendering. I wouldn’t necessarily want to reify EITHER the triumphalist/exile status, since it seems like the church’s place in the world varies. But then, I really haven’t thought about eschatology in *that* way very much, so I’m shooting from the hip.

      My main concern, really, is the kind of rhetorical atmosphere that comes out of these various commitments. We take all this up on the next episode of Mere Fidelity, so you may find more there of interest.

      Matt

  • Kyle

    You’re getting at a lot here, Matt, and it’s thoughtful stuff. I had just a few thoughts.

    The first is that I think you’re getting at something important with your “Oh, if you only knew!” response. Picking battles. Understanding how some battles are advantageous or not and who’s paying attention to the battle and how it matters to them. This is the stuff of prudence and shrewd thinking and we need more of it.

    The second thing is that while I’ll follow you in saying that the declension narrative has its limits–and by now I would agree its rhetorical force is suspect–I’d be interested in bringing more granularity to the story and thinking more about how the idea of decline has functioned in evangelical communities. Is it that declension narratives (which are ironically handed down by tradition) tend to interrupt institutional/inter-generational memory, keeping us from thinking clearly about where we’ve come from? Are the countercultural disposition and the narrative of decline always paired?

    Finally, it strikes me that these elements of being “countercultural” are pretty well infused in the conversations among many evangelical converts to EO/RC these days. This may be another interesting cultural exchange.

    • Kyle,

      All those are really good questions. I queried a few RC friends on Twitter about the presence of ‘countercultural’ rhetoric in their groups, and they said that it’s floating around. So that was interesting.

      The paradox that I’ve been struggling with is this: On the one hand, such rhetoric *does* seem to rest a dehistoricized approach to the world, since it necessarily means forgetting all the other times people used such rhetoric. On the other hand, it seems to keep popping up in evangelical circles, suggesting that it’s being handed down *somehow*. It’s a dehistoricized *tradition*, which just strikes me as odd.

      As to your question about whether countercultural and decline are always paired, I don’t have a good answer….but would love to find one out.

      Matt

      • Maybe it’s just me, but couldn’t “dehistoricized tradition” describe a lot of the things we do as evangelicals? It’s explicitly present in (especially Southern) Baptist circles, where, “No creed but the Bible!” is, well… a strong tradition at this point, often in the same churches where you might often hear, “That’s the way we’ve always done it!” if you suggest changing things. I think there’s probably more to trace out there.

        • hoosier_bob

          I suspect that that has something to do with the fact that our conception of “traditional marriage” relies unwittingly on the Freudian sexuality that was popularized in the post-war years (primarily by the emerging medical profession).

          In my experience, most evangelicals view culture through a lens that has a notch filter that blocks out everything before 1945.

  • Eugene Scott

    I really enjoyed this.

    For those who have chosen to embrace leading with being ‘counter cultural’ almost as an identity, has that proven to be effectively winsome in the past? Or is that not the goal?

    And if that’s not the goal, what is the goal? And how does leading with being ‘counter cultural’ as an identity achieve that?

  • hoosier_bob

    I enjoyed reading this piece. Do you have any thoughts as to how the decline narrative emerged? I grew up in an evangelical church and home, and can’t remember hearing too much of it until after the 1992 election. From that point forward, evangelical culture seemed to become increasingly fueled by three things: (1) a posture of ressentiment, as Hunter notes; (2) an abandonment of political realism in favor of an unachievable political idealism; and (3) an irrational alarmism that assumes that any failure to achieve these idealist goals will bring impending doom. In many ways, it’s become a culture of spoiled children. I dearly miss certain aspects of the evangelical culture I left behind. But I felt that it was becoming too poisonous in a number of other ways.

    For the most part, I see the culture as something of a mixed bag, and that it generally trends toward conservative practices (although not necessarily for religious reasons). In my experience, most people are fairly open to being persuaded by a solid pragmatic argument. I don’t sense any great hostility toward Christianity, as long as Christians aren’t trying to impose sectarian practices on others for sectarian reasons. In that sense, it’s good that our God created this place, as nature often affords us a good pragmatic argument to use when a religious argument will be rejected. In short, I just don’t see that things are getting worse. I just don’t see it.

    Yes, there is a decline in the authoritative role that Christendom once played. So what? My faith is in Christ, not Christendom. And, yes, pragmatic arguments don’t lend themselves to clean, black-and-white answers: They leave fuzzier boundaries. But I can live with that. In fact, leaving a little wiggle room on the fringes is probably not a bad thing, given that we’re prone to error and need to leave some space for correction. The quest for absolute certainty is a fool’s errand.

  • Wow. So many good things here. Wish we had a beverage to discuss. I’ll say one thing:

    The bohemian evangelical intelligentsia- you know, the people who try not to be evangelicals but still are- have made a cottage industry out of their artistic sentiments, which seem to prize gloom over cheerfulness. We have become too delighted to leave Kincade behind, I guess. For instance, I see over and over again appeals to modernist art or Flannery O’Connor or darkened rock music in the evangelical artsy set. We have very much left behind Chesterton and Dickens because they apparently wrap too many bows on their art.

    It seems you have ably demonstrated why their art needs to return to the evangelical imagination.

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  • Pea-Tear

    Many good thoughts here, and I appreciated your general point about our posture vis-a-vis the culture that surrounds us. Also, I nearly spat out my cereal when I followed the link behind ‘with a few exceptions’. You didn’t even use a specific post, LOL…just the website. And it’s definitely true. That was good. Thanks for the laugh :)

  • Jonathan Leeman

    Thanks for the post, Matthew. Many things I agree with. Couple thoughts:
    (i) We tried to adopt an anti-declinist posture in this 9Marks Journal (http://9marks.org/journal/vanishing-church/). 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.

    Last thought: I love your “Oh, if you only knew” response. Very good.

    Thanks for your typical thoughtfulness.

  • disqus_mvcG3nBiDZ

    Any response to this?

    “I’m completely convinced that exile is the paradigm we should be operating in as the Church. I think Christendom was a theological anomaly [commenter: was it, though?], that the Christian church is meant to operate at the margins of worldly society for the sake of those who are marginalized (and largely made up of the marginalized). I think we’re meant to be counter-cultural. I think nominalism is bad, and we’re not seeing a decline in Christianity in the Western world but a reduction of those who identified as Christians because the church operated at the centre of the corridors of power rather than in these margins. I think fleshing this out would require more words than I’m able to write in response to these two posts, but basically, if the church is the body of Christ we should probably expect our experience of life in this world to mirror the experience of our Lord, the head of the body. Who was crucified by the powerful worldly people. I think Paul carries this expectation into the church in 1 Corinthians…”

    from: http://st-eutychus.com/2015/when-in-rome-reframing-our-expectations-as-the-post-christendom-church/

    I agree both with Jonathan saying that we have to be careful to distinguish between the idea of defining ourselves by what the world is not (which many evangelicals do automatically without further thought), and holiness or separateness. I also think we need to think carefully about whether Christianity is in fact compatible with majority culture at all. This would certainly put a damper on how we typically see our past — we usually leave out the part about the great American Christendom setting black churches on fire or running concentration camps for Native children.

    I agree that we should be defined by our positive beliefs, not as “not the world”. However, when we are “mainstream”, are we in fact living out the Gospel? Certainly a terrible question to ask ourselves.

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