Things are changing all around us. Over the last several decades, we have experienced a massive cultural shift taking place in Western culture, including the United States. Our culture has transitioned from a Christianized culture to a post-Christian culture.
Our culture is moving in secular and pluralist directions and away from a Judeo-Christian influence and worldview. As followers of Jesus, we no longer find ourselves in a faith-friendly culture. Christ followers no longer have the home court advantage. We now find ourselves in a culture that is against our King and hostile to our way of life and beliefs. The era of Christendom in the West is over.
The rise of globalization, secularism, the digital age, and progressivism all feel different in various locations of the United States – Dallas, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Washington DC Norman OK – yet their influences are impacting all of us.
Therefore, perhaps the most vital question we face today is: how do we follow Jesus within our current post-Christian culture?
Three Cultural Worlds
In order to better understand the cultural changes, we find ourselves in, here is a brief adaptation of sociologist Phillip Rieff’s work on classifying Western history according to three cultural “worlds” from a Christian viewpoint.
1. First culture or “Pre-Christian”
Pre-Christian culture occurs in a pagan world mainly filled with its many gods, goddesses, angels, demons, superstitions, and evil powers at work in the world. This culture is highly spiritual but possesses no or little knowledge of Jesus.
2. Second culture or “Christianized”
Second cultures shift to a monotheistic view of God and a rejection of paganism. The Judeo-Christian value system shapes a Christianized culture. Culture seeks to reproduce the moral, social, and political vision of what Jesus referred to as the Kingdom of God.
[Note: I purposely do not refer to this second culture as a “Christian” culture but a “Christianized” culture. People are Christians, not nations. America was undoubtedly Christianized in that the founding of our country was primarily based on a Judeo-Christian moral ethic. However, it was not founded upon a Christian theology.]
3. Third culture or “Post-Christian”
Third cultures seek to do rid itself of God. This culture defines itself as a reaction against the second culture. By referring to culture as post-Christian, that does not mean Christianity no longer exists. Instead, post-Christian culture is a deconstruction of many religious, political, and social values.
As Mark Sawyer states, post-Christian culture “wants the Kingdom without the King!” People desire many aspects of the Kingdom – such as justice, equality, peace, freedom from oppression, the alleviation of poverty – but reject the authority of Jesus. They believe the values of the Kingdom are all possible through activism, sound political policy, and social justice.
Three Current Cultural Shifts
In America, we have transitioned from a Christianized culture to a post-Christian culture. Jon Tyson, the lead pastor of Trinity Grace Church in New York City, describes three shifts the current culture has had on the church and followers of Jesus in the West.
1. Christians have shifted from a majority to a minority.
For the first time in American history, Protestant Christians are no longer the majority of religious people in our nation. Also, according to Pew Research Center, the Nones (those who would check the “none” box on religious affiliation surveys) are the fastest-growing segment of Americans who currently comprise 23% of the population. Furthermore, 35% of Millennials describe themselves religiously unaffiliated or Nones.
2. Christianity has moved from the center of our society to the fringe.
A generation ago, the religious landscape of America appeared entirely different than it does today. Most people believed in God, Jesus, and most of the Bible, even if they were not dedicated to Jesus. Disciples of Jesus were are at the center of cultural influence. However, today Christians have been primarily evicted from the key places where culture is made and left meandering on the fringes of our culture. The church no longer occupies a position of privilege, credibility, and influence as it once did.
3. Christians have gone from being well-respected to disrespected
Even just a few decades ago, Christians were well esteemed. The majority of non-Christians still held a high view of their fellow Christian neighbors. However, today our society carries a negative connotation towards Christians and often labels them as weird, odd, and out of touch. Some people even consider followers of Jesus as dangerous.
Living in Exile
Despite these culture changes and shifts, I believe the best days for the Church of Jesus lie in the uncharted frontier that the Spirit is calling us into.
The Scriptures have a metaphor that accurately describes the cultural moment that we live in: exile.
The concept of exile for God’s people is a theme that runs throughout the Bible: from Israel in Egypt to Daniel in Babylon to Christians in the New Testament. Peter begins his first letter as “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces . . .” (1 Peter 1:1, NIV). Peter then admonishes his readers, “conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile.” (1:17).
As John Mark Comer states, “In the post-Christian world, to be a disciple of Jesus is to be in exile.”
We find ourselves in a new cultural moment with a battle to fight for the future of Jesus’ Kingdom. Exile may sound scary and horrible, yet historically, followers of Jesus have been at their best in times of exiles. To thrive in exile, we must once again become innovative and experimental, bold and courageous, full of love and kindness towards our neighbors, and filled and led by the Holy Spirit. How we follow Jesus must change. How we interact with our culture must change. And how we “do” church must change.
Over the next few posts, we will examine the life of Daniel and how to thrive in a Babylonian culture by being a creative minority that once again “turns the world upside down” for the glory of God.