In the last post I laid out four concluding thoughts, to be followed in this post by three more about the relationship of Christianity and culture:
5. Over-realized eschatology is a danger. It is one, in particular, to which the transformationist model might be prone. If we mis-calibrate our expectations of cultural influence, we will be sorely disappointed when we face reality. Cultural advancements have been made in the past, and they will be made in the future, Lord willing. But sin will always be present in this present evil age, meaning that human culture will always express rebellion against God. We cannot eradicate sin from the world. Only Christ can.
6. The church acts jointly and separately. I owe this terminology to Jonathan Leeman (in his book Political Church). It is one of the most helpful distinctions to grasp in ecclesiology. The local church, as a body of believers who do some things together while spending most of their time scattered to their various vocations, must think carefully about what it has been called to do jointly vs. what individual Christians have been called to do in the name of Christ. This distinction helps the church clarify its mission. With so many good causes out there, local churches must maintain a focus on fulfilling the Great Commission, or making disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18-20). Acting jointly, the church must pool its resources to advance this mission above all others. Of course, Christians involved in various vocations of life will be called to address other things as they grow in discipleship. Some will help fight poverty, and others will fight to protect the unborn. Some will be very active in the political arena, while others will have a particular calling to focus attention on their neighborhoods. Not everything that Christians do that is good for society should be lumped under the heading of the church’s mission, if we are speaking of what the church does acting jointly. But because the church’s joint mission involves making disciples, and because discipleship affects every part of life, we can see an indirect connection between what individual Christians have been called to do in various ways in the world and what the church’s joint mission is. Let the church keeps its focus on the mission, and not directly on changing the culture. Cultural change can be an indirect result of the fulfillment of the church’s mission.
7. The increasing marginalization of Christianity in the West provides us an opportunity to revise our strategy of cultural engagement. I believe I stand in basic agreement with Rod Dreher that we are at a historical moment that summons us to keep our main focus on culture at the local level rather than the broad level. It looks like Western culture will have to hit rock bottom before it can be rebuilt, and at this point it is anyone’s guess how long that process will take. In the meantime, we should give our attention to local culture by doing two things in particular:
(1) Build a strong (counter)culture in our local churches. This point builds on what Alistair commented the other day under Part 4, calling for repentance and renewal among believers during this time of cultural marginalization. Greg Wills, a church historian with particular expertise on Baptist history, has argued (in Democratic Religion) that it was when Baptists in the American South began to focus more on purifying society around them (namely, the early 20th century) that they lost focus on maintaining their own holiness as the people of God. The result was a decline in church discipline that has brought us to where we are today, with most Baptist churches showing very little understanding of a healthy ecclesiology. Cultural marginalization can only help us winnow out false believers from our congregations and give us a more distinctive witness in a godless world.
(2) Engage primarily with culture at the local level. We may not be able to elect a person of character to the White House or bring Harvard University back to its Christian roots, but we can build and invest in local institutions, such as classical Christian schools, regional Christian universities, Christian pregnancy centers. We can write letters to the editors of our local newspapers on issues of importance to our communities. We can labor faithfully in our public school systems, as broken as they are, for the good of our youth. We can serve on our city councils, school boards, etc., bringing Christian influence to bear on the life of our local communities.
This last point is where I resonate the most with the Benedict Option, which may be the best cultural strategy we have during this time of rapid Western decline. Let’s keep our focus on the kingdom that transcends the ups and downs of this present age.