In what direction is our nation moving?
It is commonly believed around the world that Christianity is mainstream in America. Unfortunately, the world’s perception is not the nation’s reality. While there is still a strong religious bent among many citizens in the Southeast and much of the Plains states, there are few other areas in our country where being Christian makes you mainstream, and in our big cities organized Christianity is being rejected in favor of godless secularism.
In 1965 Harvard Professor Harvey Cox wrote The Secular City. One of the most influential books of the 20th century, it argued, among other things, that religion in America is being lost to secularism in our major cities. Then in 1994, realizing his prediction of the death of the church in the city was not being fulfilled, he wrote Fire From Heaven, attributing the continuing vitality of urban religion to the presence of Pentecostalism. Though we would agree with few of Cox’s conclusions in his former book and disagree in several places with his latter, I think a combination of some of the ideas of both works will lead us to the antidote for our nation’s secular sickness. Simply put, it is formal, dry, organized religion that the secular city is rejecting. But a real God who moves powerfully among His people is relevant to all people of any culture.
Our secular society shuns mere words without power, especially when those words often sound condemning and excluding. In a society that is tired of ritual and formalism, the experience of the power and presence of God is what makes the church relevant. But when the church promotes programs and pageantry instead of presence and power, it fades into irrelevance, for it is not a program or a service that will change the world. Nothing short of the presence and power of God will do that. Paul said, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power” (1 Cor 4:20). To the degree that the church relies on talk and not power is the degree to which society around it will disregard it, or worse, try to shut it down.
That is the world the early church lived in. Not tolerated by the state, the church of the first three centuries of the Christian era was irrelevant to Rome and the Hellenized world, and numerous times the government tried to shut it down for good. But this so-called irrelevant church changed the world. And it was not long after the organized church took control of the world that we entered what is called the Dark Ages, so one could argue that becoming irrelevant might be a blessing in disguise. It is encouraging to know that God is big enough to make the church thrive even if it is considered irrelevant by the world, I still think we should pursue relevance in our society. Far more can be done in the open than underground.
That is why we should be alarmed at the current trends in our nation. No longer respected and honored, Christians today frequently are the object of ridicule and mockery among growing numbers of Americans. Hollywood almost always presents Christians in a negative light. The liberal media (pardon the redundancy) typically, though often subtly, portrays Christians as narrow-minded bigots. With the passing of new laws that challenge the protections of the First Amendment, it is becoming more and more difficult just to continue believing what the Bible teaches. Just to defend the biblical teachings on marriage and sexuality puts Christians on a mental hate-crimes list in the minds of many Americans. Special interest groups are retraining Americans to think of conservative Christians as hate-filled bigots who should not be tolerated in our nation. Where is all this leading? Are we close to the time where Christians will be charged with hate crimes simply for quoting what the Bible says about sexuality? Is the time near when Christianity will become an illicit religion in America?
Separation or amputation?
Those who are advancing anti-Christian values in America are using a double-edged sword. On the other end of the sword of anti-Christian values is an attempt to cut away the rights of all who oppose them, especially Christians. There is no neutrality here; an ungodly society does not want to live at peace with a God-fearing church possessing a conscience. Every law that weakens the freedom of religion and of speech in this nation also weakens the presence of the church, which exists to serve as the conscience of the state. Dr. Michael L. Brown quotes Yale law professor Stephen Carter in his recent article on separation of church and state:
“The wall of separation between church and state is not there to protect the state from the church; rather, it is there to protect the church from the state. It stands as a divide to preserve religious freedom. And one needs to protect the church from the state because the latter will utilize its enormous powers to do what the state has always done – either subvert the religion or destroy it. If we continue our slide toward a state that breaches the wall of separation whenever it is convenient, then I worry about the great risk to religious freedom. In the end, such a breach could destroy our ability to form the communities of resistance that are crucial if we are going to have a chance to transform the nation.”
If the separation of church and state is allowed to be defined as the state keeping the church separate from it, then the net result will not be a church that is separate from the state; it will be a church that has been amputated from the state. Responding to pressure from special interest groups and wanting to be politically correct, the state is progressively subverting the religious freedoms of Christians in America. If Canada already issues heavy fines to pastors who speak against homosexuality, if England already has denied adoption rights to parents simply because they are Christian, and if Australia arrests pastors for “vilifying Islam” simply because they hosted a seminar on the subject, then do we really think we are safe just because we have the U.S. Constitution? That document is being reinterpreted as we speak. We are in danger of losing our freedoms, and with them, our relevance in society. And an irrelevant church, like a vestigial organ, can be excised from the body of America.
Considering the direction in which America has been moving for the last several decades, where can we predict it will be in another 10 or 20 years? If I say I am going to New York and I drive a car down I-40 West, I will not arrive at my desired destination. If I just convince myself that God will get me where I need to go, I am in for a disappointment. No matter how much I want to be in New York and how much I believe God wants me there, I will never get there until I turn around and go in the right direction. Likewise, America is not going to magically “arrive” as a nation that honors God unless it changes course at some point. Yet millions of American Christians seem to think that our nation can get increasingly worse and the church can continue to lose its rights and somehow America is just going to automatically turn around one day and become a godly nation again. To them, the idea that one day Christianity might become illegal in America is like saying our next President will be an alien from Mars. But on what basis can we claim that the anti-Christian sentiment in much of America is going to change? Not long ago fornication, adultery, and homosexuality were not tolerated in America. Today, they are celebrated, and it is Christianity that many Americans are becoming more and more intolerant of.
In what direction should the church be moving?
America needs an awakening, this is true. But this awakening has to begin at the doors of our church buildings and our homes. If the church becomes what she is called to be, the nation will follow suit. If she does not, then I can predict the future of America. It will become a closed country for the gospel. To be a Christian will mean being marginalized and persecuted. The Bible will be banned and burned, branded as an archaic book of bigoted laws. More missionaries will be coming into America than going out, but they will have a difficult time converting people, because they have already heard it all and rejected it. Our nation will become a missionary graveyard, and people will shake their heads when they remember that this was once a nation that honored the God of the Bible.
If you don’t think that will ever happen in America, then just get on I-40 and head for New York. The fact of the matter is, if you are going in a certain direction, eventually, you’re going to get there. Unless a major display of God’s power changes the direction of our nation, it will not be long before we are no longer the majority and no longer mainstream. We will become the marginalized few who have no political power and no influence in the larger society in which we live. However, if America decides to excise the church it will not succeed. Instead, it is America that will be in danger of losing its significance and its place in the world. God is using America to promote His causes in the earth. If the nation utterly rejects this call, it loses its purpose and God may see no need to allow it to continue as a nation. God will not bring the nation to oblivion; the nation will do that to itself as its own sins weaken it until it is powerless to defend itself against outside forces. That is how every empire vanishes, and America is no different. The future of America depends on the church.
What direction should we, the church, take? The presence and power of God are the only things that will turn our nation around. In The Secular City, Cox built around the thesis that God’s presence is not restricted to religious structures and the church. He can be found in the world, and for that reason, Christians need to be in the world. This much is true. But it is through the presence of the church in the world that the presence of God in the world is going to be felt. It is the job of the church first to believe in the power of God (unfortunately, many theologies today have banned God’s power from operating today, except to save souls), and second to take that power to a world in need. America’s secular city needs an encounter with the power of God.
We have had enough talk; now we need the power. It all begins with the church. If America is going to change, the church has to lead the way. It is time for every believer in Jesus Christ to wake up to the threat that is before us, and cry out to God, asking Him to send a mighty move of His Spirit to wake up America and send strong conviction of sin. We need to pray for God’s power to hit this nation like it has never seen it before. But we must at the same time be committed to going out into that world and bringing the power of God to it.
If we live in denial, we will never change and neither will America. But if we acknowledge that Christianity is in danger of becoming an irrelevant fringe group in America, a condition that threatens the nation’s survival, then perhaps that sober reality will cause us to wake up and repent, and maybe we will see a Jesus Revolution take place, instead of the demise of a nation that once feared God.