In a social context where Christian orthodoxy can seem bigoted, dehumanizing, and grotesque, and where people have no shortage of ways to make their criticisms heard, believers are tempted to mimic the response of animals faced with danger: fight or flight. The former feels like humility, but risks timidity and cowardice. The latter feels like courage, but risks slander and pride. However, the faithful option is humble courage. If we mistakenly think in terms of a spectrum with humility and timidity at one end and pride and boldness at the other, then we will end up justifying vices as virtues. The way of Jesus, by contrast, combines exemplary humility with astonishing courage, most powerfully as Christ goes to the cross.
The West is not as post-Christian as many imagine. No doubt there are places on earth, including Middle America, where it might feel like the wider culture is currently rejecting Christianity at an unprecedented rate. But the milieu that characterizes post-Christendom is still (despite itself) irreducibly Christian.
Imagine a cryogenically frozen Viking waking up in twenty-first-century Scandinavia, or a Mayan exploring contemporary Mexico, or Asterix and Obelix encountering German social democracy, or French laïcité. As “secular” as those places might feel to many of us, their values would seem deeply Christian to anyone who had not experienced them before.
Nevertheless, living in the world of late modernity obviously presents plenty of challenges for orthodox believers.
Is Christianity Losing?
Whatever we call the religious outlook of our societies — secularism, post-secularism, post-Christianity, or something else entirely — people are still skeptical toward Christianity and in some cases downright hostile.
The pagan gods of Mammon, Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Gaia, and Dionysus still trouble modernity in varying levels of disguise. Renouncing them to follow Christ is still costly. It is still harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:23–24). The church still bears many flaws, and the cultural influence of Christianity has often served to magnify those flaws to those outside her doors.
An internal, psychological challenge compounds those external, cultural ones: some Christians feel like they are losing. In some countries, this is a question of sheer numbers. For a variety of reasons, including prosperity, fertility, and the privatization of postwar life, the percentage of people in church on Sundays has steadily fallen in many Western nations since the Second World War (while rising substantially in parts of the Majority World over the same period). Even in America (often seen as an outlier), over two-thirds of churches are in numerical decline. At the same time, there is a widely held perception that Christian convictions have become increasingly marginal in public life, which in many cases is clearly true.
Five Responses of Faith
That decline in numbers and of perceived relevance has met with varied responses from the Western church. Some of those responses (repentance, prayer, a renewed commitment to discipleship) are certainly positive. Others (fear, hostility, and the pursuit of influence or power by compromising morally or theologically) are plainly negative.
Some observers remain optimistic and argue that things are not as bad as they seem; others think they are a good deal worse. Some argue the church needs a radical change in strategy; others claim the challenge is not really a methodological one at all, and the church should essentially hunker down, get used to life on the margins, prepare to suffer for what she believes, pray, and trust that the God who brings life to the dead will do something new.
So, how do we live by faith in a culture losing its faith? In my book Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West, I consider how the church responded to a similar crisis nearly 250 years ago — in particular the celebration of grace, the pursuit of freedom, and an articulation of Christian truth — and I suggest the last two centuries have only served to elevate the importance of these three responses. In this piece, I’ll mention five additional responses which, though perhaps obvious, are nevertheless vital for believers in an age like ours.
1. We Suffer Well
It’s hard to overstate the role that suffering has played in the expansion of Christianity.