Disenfranchised Christians, Strong Churches
Like the first round of layoffs that leave company employees expecting more layoffs to come, so the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013 have left American evangelicals with a growing sense of their own disenfranchisement.
THE GROWING DISENFRANCHISEMENT OF AMERICAN CHRISTIANITY
For decades pollsters have been charting the nation’s drift away from Christianity. Church attendance has been dropping. The registrants of “no religion” have been rising. And American evangelicals have become well acquainted with battles in the classroom over evolution or in the courthouse over Ten Commandment reliefs.
But the news events of late have brought the battle into new domains, renewing the sense among many Christians that America’s institutions are handing Christianity its pink slip.
- In November, a majority of voters in several states approved of ballot initiatives favoring same-sex marriage.
- In December, the federal government began to fine a company owned by Christians $1.3 million/day for refusing to provide their employees insurance coverage that includes abortifacient drugs.
- In January, a pastor was essentially removed from a presidential inauguration ceremony because of a sermon against homosexuality.
And these are just some of the matters that have hit mainstream media.
To speak of disenfranchisement is to speak of the loss of authority in the public square, the marketplace, and other culture-making institutions. We can leave for another day the tougher conversation about how or whether Christian and biblical norms should inform society’s institutions. Here I am simply making the observation that Christians are finding themselves disenfranchised.
This means, Christian, that your faith-informed ideas about “righteousness” and “justice” will less and less be represented in court decisions, acts of legislation, civically significant symbols and events, the hiring and firing policies of your workplace, or the leadership requirements for national youth organizations, to say nothing of whose values dominate television primetime or the scripts being read in your community playhouse theater. Just this week I read a Washington Post opinion piece which commended the Boy Scouts for reconsidering their policy on banning homosexual troop leaders on the grounds of “righteousness.”
Now, I recognize that society is complex, and that a narrative of moral declension can characterize one area of public life even while more biblical conceptions of justice take hold in another area. For instance, I do not support every policy recommendation that has emerged from the civil rights or the environmental movements, but I do believe that both of these movements have served the cause of biblical justice in various ways, bringing genuine progress.
Yet with such qualifications in place, I think it is fair to say that many evangelical Christians are experiencing an increasing sense of disenfranchisement in American life, as well as the expectation that things are getting worse. Hence, one friend felt compelled to write a blog post on “How to prepare for hostility.”
THE GROWTH OF HEALTHY CHURCHES
Yet there is good news here. The institutional disenfranchisement of Christianity does not always lead to healthier churches, but sometimes it does. And it is my own anecdotally-driven sense that there is a trend toward health among a growing number of churches.
A couple weeks ago, I was sitting at lunch with a friend who writes about cultural dynamics and trends. He asked me what encourages and what discourages me about the churches that I can observe from my 9Marks perch.
Many things encourage me, I said. Pastors are taking expositional preaching more seriously. More and more are trying to guard their flocks by carefully attending to biblical practices of membership and discipline. And all the conversations among evangelicals about the nature of the gospel over the last decade have left many of us with a more solid grasp of the gospel and its implications.
As for discouragements, I had a hard time thinking of some. Yes, many, many unhealthy churches bespeckle the American landscape. Yes, bad trends are afoot here and there. But among the smaller number of church leaders with whom I interact on a weekly basis, I see encouraging signs of health and solidification. A pastor might telephone me concerning a difficult case of church discipline, which are always sad, but the larger point is, this church leader is looking for guidance on wise and loving discipline. Ironically, that is a sign of health. The antibodies are in motion!
Am I saying that there is a causal connection between societal disenfranchisement and church health? I don’t have any evidence that would satisfy a Ph.D. review committee, but it stands to reason there is some connection. Either way, two lessons occur to me, one for the pastor and one for every Christian:
1. For the pastor: Assuming the narrative of cultural declension continues, it will be increasingly important for pastors to equip their members to know what it means to be a Christian in the workplace, in the public square, in the Parent-Teacher Association, in the doctor’s office, in the local playhouse theater, and so forth. Tim Keller has made this point well in Center Church. When society broadly embraces a Judeo-Christian ethic, as Americans did, say, in the 1950s, the pastor feels less need to think carefully about equipping his members for the ethical dilemmas and persecution they are likely to encounter at work.
As such, one thing that pastors can do today for building healthy churches is to give careful thought to what Christian discipleship looks like in these various domains, thought which should then show up in our counseling, preaching, and discipling. My own church addresses such topics, among other places, through issue-specific adult Sunday School courses. We now have 7 to 13 week classes devoted to work, money, manhood & womanhood, Christians in government, parenting, and more (click on links for complete manuscripts and handouts).
2. For every Christian: Assuming the narrative of cultural declension continues, each one of us will, most likely, find ourselves at a series of crossroads in the years ahead, moments in which we are forced to decide whether we stand with the world or with the Word of God. No doubt, living in a fallen world means that this decision faces us daily. But as the cultural forces against Christianity increase, and as we Christians find ourselves disenfranchised for holding to biblical convictions, we will increasingly encounter that decision in places where we are not accustomed to encountering it: Do I pay for the insurance, or do I pay the fine? Do I say what my college friends will call bigotted, or do I save face? Do I cater the event, or do I risk a lawsuit?
Every time we walk up to such a crossroads, we will be required to consider what is most central to our identity. Am I a U.S. citizen first or a Christian first? Am I a schoolteacher first or a Christian first? Am I a female first or a Christian first? Am I African-American first or a Christian first? Perhaps it will be a magazine article arguing that you, being female, must think a certain way. Or it will be a school principal telling you that keeping your job means going with the flow. Or it will be your own flesh inviting you to choose your nation over your God.
And at every such crossroads you will have to ask, “Who am ‘I’? And what does being crucified and raised with Christ have to do with the answer?”
Being a Christian means recognizing that all the other categories that we use to identify ourselves (family, gender, ethnicity, vocation, citizenship) are merely stewardships; and that Jesus gets to tell us how we will employ every one of those stewardships, even the ones that we hold most dearly.
THE SAINT’S ASSURANCE
Here, again, is the good news. As more and more Christians are required to make their crossroads choices, some churches will only grow stronger. After all, these crisis moments offer assurance
- that Jesus’ words are true: “I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you…In this world you will have tribulation…” (John 16:4, 33);
- that we are being identifed with the King of the Universe: “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19);
- that we are being prepared for perfection: “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth” (John 17:18-19);
- and that Christ will vindicate his name and the name of his people: “…I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
One cannot be sure, but perhaps America is handing Christianity the pink slip of disenfranchisement. And there are plenty more conversations worth having about how to wisely respond. But this much encourages me: Aslan is on the move, and the first place where I’ve spotted his shadow is among the assemblies of the saints, his holy ones. I’ve spotted it among some of you.