We Don’t Own Much of American Culture Anymore — What Now?

It's time to move past our current annoyance and on to a much healthier mindset.

By Tom Gilson Published on October 12, 2017

Conservative Christian America is annoyed. We’ve lost our position of strength on morality, truth, human identity, human purpose and a host of other issues. We’ve lost American culture, really. It bothers us, as well it might. But too many of us have let ourselves get mired in our annoyance. There’s a better way.

Let me explain. I spent about eight weeks in China once, back in 1983. It was my longest foreign excursion, and I would have gladly gone back to live there, had God so led. I loved the food, the music, the architecture, the hospitality and even the little bit of language I learned.

I didn’t love everything about it, though. Christian worship — not to mention many other freedoms — was strictly controlled under its communist leadership. Buddhist temples may have been beautifully crafted, but their purpose was idolatrous.

Wrong But Not Annoying

I felt a sense wrongness over these things, but no sense of loss.

From my Christian perspective those things were really wrong, but here’s the strange thing: They didn’t annoy me. I was grieved over them, and I suppose if I’d lived there longer I might have gotten angry over them. But annoyance is different. It’s more tied to personal grievances and losses, of which I felt very little there.

You see, I went to China expecting it to be a communist land with a Buddhist heritage. I felt a sense wrongness over it, but no sense of loss.

America, on the other hand, just isn’t what it used to be. Here I feel a very definite sense of loss — that LGBT activism, atheist legal initiatives against public prayer and Christian symbolism, professors’ dismissals of the faith, distorted views of Christianity in the media, and so on have all been an attack on my culture, my America. Frankly, it feels like an attack on me. I never took Buddhism or communism personally in China. It’s a lot harder not to take America’s downward drift personally.

Taking Things Personally

But there are different ways to take things personally. One is by focusing what I can reasonably be responsible for. That includes a lot more than many Christians realize. We haven’t begun to touch all that we can accomplish in His name, standing for His truth and His love.

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But there’s another way to take things personally: by “owning” what we don’t really own, defending turf that isn’t really ours to defend, trying to hold ground that isn’t even there anymore. I’m afraid that’s how we look to outsiders here in America — and we appear that way because we really are that way.

Defending Turf That Isn’t Ours To Defend

The fact is, American culture, or large chunks of it, is no longer our turf. We don’t own it. Silicon Valley has a large piece of it, and Google/YouTube. Facebook and Twitter have been caught more than once lately hindering Christian and other conservative access.

Hollywood owns even more. Harvey Weinstein played sexual-predator power games there, and his colleagues and competitors let him get away with it — as if it really was a game — until they could ignore it no longer. Their antipathy to the faith and to biblical morality is obvious on every night’s TV programming. 

Meanwhile the universities, with their PC culture, anti-Christian hiring biases and widespread mockery of Christian belief in the classroom, have turned so hostile, it’s almost as if there was never any Christian influence there to begin with.

I’m overstating it, I’ll admit. Christianity’s positive influence remains, even among those who deny where it came from. We could still benefit, though, from acknowledging our losses, grieving them, and accepting their reality as losses. Because a defensive attitude in a losing battle is often a desperate attitude, and it leaks out in our near-constant sense of annoyance.

A Better Approach To Our Mission

But did I say we should give up? Absolutely not! Did the Christian missionaries to China give up, just because China wasn’t the culture they grew up in? No, they went there with hope in Christ, confidence in His gospel, a positive outlook, and of course realistic expectations that they’d be working in strange and often difficult circumstances.

If we’re ever going to regain our culture, our best step now might be to let go of it.

There’s a great lesson there for us. Remember, what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working. The result has been that the new American way of life has become quite foreign to us. So let’s treat it that way! Let’s approach it like missionaries serving cross-culturally.

Missionaries don’t own the culture where they serve, but they certainly still care. They serve. They bend their efforts toward understanding the people they work among, so they can communicate God’s truth and love with them. In the long run they see real changes take place. In the short run they don’t expect things to be easy or even familiar, yet they’re not pining to go home, either. They’re there for the duration — for the good of the people they’re serving with, whether they’re welcomed there or not.

To Start Making a Real Difference Again

I’ve said before we’d be wise to think like expatriates — not as exiles, as Rod Dreher suggests, but as expats on a mission. American culture has moved even further away from us since I wrote that two years ago. I’d say the expat analogy is even closer to the truth now.

God doesn’t need us to own this culture. He really doesn’t need us acting annoyed over not owning it. If we’re ever going to regain our culture, our best step now might be accept that it’s foreign territory. It could open us up both spiritually and emotionally, freeing us to serve, to love, and to make a difference like we haven’t done in years.

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  • Ken Abbott

    Speaking of the great OT saints, the author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote,”All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (11:13-16). We do well to remember that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world and live accordingly.

  • Trilemma

    If the church wants to be relevant in today’s culture, I think this is a good way to go about it. But how would this look in practice. For example, in China, Christians should not expect to be able to erect crosses or Ten Commandment monuments on government property. Perhaps Christians should stop trying to do that in America.

    • Ken Abbott

      Christ’s church should not seek to be relevant to or in the culture; it should seek to be a faithful witness to him, to imitate him in all ways, and to proclaim his gospel. A good model for this is the first-century church, living as it did in a pagan and increasingly hostile culture for which Christianity was at first just weird, then offensive to the point where Christians were considered enemies of the Roman state.

      • Trilemma

        So, you believe Christ’s church should seek to be irrelevant in today’s culture? That certainly seems to be the direction it’s headed.

        • Ken Abbott

          No, you mistake my point. The church must seek to be the church, and the cultural chips fall where they may. The gospel is transcultural.

          • Trilemma

            In 1Corinthians 9:20-22, Paul said, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law, so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people.” This is Paul being culturally relevant to whatever culture he was in. The idea that the church must seek to be the church and let the cultural chips fall where they may makes the church have a tendency to be an isolated culture unto itself.

          • Ken Abbott

            Trilemma, you should cite the entire text (and I’ll include verses 19 and 23 to round out Paul’s thought): “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” The broader context of this passage is Paul’s discussion of his freedom in Christ and his rights as an apostle, all as a response to his critics. He is determined not to serve himself or insist on having what is his so as to remove any obstacles to serving others by preaching the gospel. He does not want to add to the offense of the cross by creating personal offenses. But even so, he very carefully states (and this was missing from your citation above, without any ellipsis) that he is still at all times under God’s law and Christ’s law, so that there remain moral and ethical boundaries for him. There are some things a culture upholds and celebrates that the Christian may not, even if his refusal makes him a cultural pariah and “irrelevant.” No burning a pinch of incense to Caesar as lord.

            Remember as well that this is the same letter in which Paul earlier stated, “Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” Cultural relevance might have demanded that Paul supply miraculous signs to appease the Jews and fancy philosophical arguments to satisfy the Greeks, but he did neither–he preached Christ crucified despite the offense. And this is what I mean by the church being the church no matter the culture. The message of the gospel is timeless and transcultural. It applies to all people everywhere and at all times.

          • Trilemma

            You said, “He is determined not to serve himself or insist on having what is his so as to remove any obstacles to serving others by preaching the gospel. He does not want to add to the offense of the cross by creating personal offenses.”

            I agree with this statement. I think Paul is saying that, to the maximum extent possible, he would adopt the culture he found himself in so as not to create any unnecessary offenses. The culture in America today is offended by crosses and Ten Commandment monuments on government property. I don’t think crosses and Ten Commandment monuments on government property are essential to the gospel or to the church being the church. So, perhaps Christians should stop trying to put those objects on government property.

          • Ken Abbott

            With the qualification added “SOME PART OF the culture in American today is offended by crosses, etc,” and I believe it is still very much a minority part, I agree with this, and I further agree that crosses and monuments on government property (or property owned by the entire citizenry–it doesn’t really belong to the government–are nonessentials. While I understand the impetus behind such efforts, in 2017 this represents an exercise in securing the barn door when the horse has left the county. Christians should redirect their efforts.

      • You might be surprised, Ken, at how vigorously the early church engaged with its surrounding culture. Irrelevant? Not caring about relevance? No, not at all. But what they did avoid was being driven by the culture.

        • Ken Abbott

          Engagement? Certainly. Offering an apologetic? Absolutely. But, in attempted application to the church, the bipolarity of cultural relevance-irrelevance is itself irrelevant. In, but not of, the world.

          • Anne Fernandes

            Just, yes, Ken. Yes.

      • Diana

        best comment on the subject i have red yet, Ken i agree with your statement. When Christ’s body really learn what it means to be a disciple in this day an age greater things will the world see from it. We like you said are in the world and not of the World. We have been Justified and therefore are not like the unborn, not better but a new creation in Christ. When the body really understand who we are then as the Light and the Salt we will have an eternal influence in the world. This place is not our home. Scripture teaches us that our citizenship is in Heaven and if we lived like members of the First Church, Jesus would have been back to established His Kingdom.

    • GPS Daddy

      The Apostle Paul used his status as a Roman citizen when it was to his advantage.

  • Charles Burge

    While we should always seek to be salt and light in our culture, I sense that a lot of Americans equate the decline of Christianity in America with a decline of Christianity in general. And that simply isn’t the case. Christianity is growing robustly in China, Africa, Brazil, and other places. God promised that there would always be a remnant. He didn’t mention anything about it always being located in the United States. We don’t know what’s in store for our fruited plain. We could be facing a hundred years of spiritual darkness. Or the next Great Awakening could be right around the corner. Either way, we can rejoice that when you look at things on a global scale, the church is still vibrant and growing.

  • Irene Neuner

    A wise friend responded to my demoralized view of our country by reminding how much brighter our lights will shine in the darkness. The contrast in necessary to bring the wandering flock back home. It was for me at least.

  • Hmmm…

    The church seems passive, introverted, like what’s going on out there is not our concern. However, we must be sent in a sense for some things, but it seems there’s not the outward thrust which the church in general has had toward our culture in the past. Personally, I am heartened by Roy Moore coming to the Senate, someone who made stands against the ill winds and refused to be moved by them. Then, Marsha Blackburn’s (who is Senate bound as well) very recent victory in the Twitter ad matter. Hey … that’s big, folks. Her bold and plainly accurate depictive speak was more than is usually tendered, and her right to do so was made to stand. It’s back out there. More of that needs to be done, imho. Take ground; re-possess the land! Don’t just yield it by default! To me, that is part of the positive side of the current presidency, that he is reclaiming ground that was taken and setting some things to rights.

  • GPS Daddy

    A difference between having a missionary mindset in the US as a US citizen and a missionary to a foreign land is that typically the missionary to the foreign land has their financial support from the US. So they are not dependent in the foreign land to make a living their. That is huge in being able to separate yourself from the culture.

    I think that more needs to be said on how one lives as a missionary while having to be tied to the culture to make a living. Without clear discussion and deep discussion on that part the Christian community will have a miss-fire in this.

    • Chip Crawford

      There are those who have, and some still do, look to God as a direct source – with no organized support or backing. They have amazing ongoing testimonies of provision. A lot of that is past, like George Muller with his orphans and orphanage. There are so many others. But I think there are more current examples of that were their stories to come to light. Modern day US Christianity may get that radical as well before it’s all over – of necessity. We might think a bit more about that having to be “tied to the culture” part. It’s a matter of Christians being used as channels in their giving as well as receiving, but allowing God to be God outside the boxes. In the world but not of it … Is God hindered by who appears to control the money? I’ve had some personal experiences in past shortfalls and temporary extremities of his “ways and means.” It can be pretty amazing. He is not limited by what appears to limit us. Something to think about.

      • GPS Daddy

        Agreed. The bad part of having is the possibility of loosing. IRIS ministries in Africa have some of the most spiritual Christians. But they are also dirt poor. They have faith that is hard to achieve in the West due to our affluence. Maybe the best thing for the church is an economic meltdown?

    • There’s a long tradition in missions of “tentmaking” ministry, in which missionaries make their living in their new location. We definitely need that discussion, but at least there are resources to draw on for it.

      • GPS Daddy

        I am listening to Sharyl Attkisson in the Eric Metaxas show. She has written a book, “The Smear” where she outlines how big corporations have gained the control in America. We have a porn problem, right? Yet, Google, Bing, and Yahoo are the biggest peddlers of it. Yet, we are soooooo tied to these big corporations. Out churches depend on the money being given from people with big salaries.

        I KNOW Christians who are in upper management and who toe the line of the LGTB agenda at work and then go to church on Sunday. What percentage of the men in any given church looks at porn on the monthly basis? The cognitive dissonance is high among Christians in my opinion.

        Yea, Paul made tents. But taking that idea from scripture and making is a movement today will take a move of the Spirit where the Spirit shows us how to do it. I have no idea.

  • Philmonomer

    This is a really good post. It’s positive; it’s thoughtful; and it proposes a way forward.

    I think it also speaks truthfully–in the sense that the bitterness that underlies many Christians does more harm than good. (You can almost hear the wistfulness in some Christians–hoping that God destroys America b/c of things like gay marriage.)

    • Ken Abbott

      Like as not, bitterness is always harmful. And no doubt many are bitter, which they would do well to work on correcting. Others are just sad that what they perceive was a better society has been injured or lost.

      As for those who wistfully dream about the Day of the Lord (usually with a mental picture of sitting in the bleachers, safely watching the spectacle from a removed and secure place), Scripture warns us not to long for it (Amos 5:18-20) because it will be a dark day for many.

  • John A. Murdock

    Very good piece. Thank you for it. The “under siege” mentality fueled by resentment and annoyance is not leading to our best decisions.

  • What was Christendom in 17th-century Puritan America has tragically devolved into mere 4-walled Christianity; aka, Christendumb. Contemporary Christianity is best depicted by Christ in Matthew 5:13 as salt that’s lost its savor, good for nothing but to be trampled under the foot of man.

    For more, see blog article “Self-Imposed Impotence.” Click on my name, then our website. Go to our Blog and search on title.

    Then “10 Reasons the Kingdom Here on Earth Isn’t Mission Impossible.”

    • Chip Crawford

      Part of the cause for what you describe in deficit in Christian input has to do with hyper sovereignty doctrine and view which leaves almost everything up to God. However, where believers see the NT model, which works in partnership with the head of the Church, Jesus Christ, is actively showing up and receiving assignments and staying fully engaged in follow through, it is a different story. So, about a quarter, a third at the most, of the Body of Christ is doing the work of the ministry. Many are not aware of this work, being entrenched in their own areas and others are critical and non-recognizing. This is a real part of the problem.

  • Paul Brownback

    The operative statement in this article is, “Remember, what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working..” Evangelicals need to ask why it isn’t and what they need to change. In my book, Counterattack, I make the case that evangelicals need three initiatives to be salt and light in our culture. We need to rid ourselves of secular cultural thinking and return to a biblical worldview. We need to unify. And we need to develop and implement a biblical strategy for winning. Until we do, we will keep losing ground. The longer we wait, the more difficult it will be.

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