‘It Feels So Strange Here Now’: Why American Christians’ Situation is So Unique, and Why That Matters
The American church is in a situation no one has ever been in. I have said as much already, but that was brief. We need to take a closer look, and see what makes our place so unique in history.
In a word, it’s how far we’ve fallen, so fast. In a single lifetime (the lifetime of boomers such as myself) we have plummeted from a culture that respected Christian teaching, honored Christian morality, and even taught Christian beliefs in our public schools, to a culture that’s trying its hardest to expunge Jesus Christ from everything. No other culture reversed course away from Christianity so totally, so quickly, with so few shots fired. The same is true throughout the Western world, but to a lesser degree, I would argue, as it started sooner and took place more gradually.
I am not saying Christ and His people have lost all influence. Far from it. We have a voice. We still have our Christ-mandated role of salt and light. So we can still speak, and speak we must. But we do not hold the microphone — the airwaves, the universities, the big social media sites, where influence abounds. Those who do would rather shout us down. Try turning on the TV, reading the college syllabi, or going through your corporation’s diversity-equity-inclusion training, and you’d hardly guess there was a Christian anywhere, except to laugh at or criticize.
Many of us have suffered materially and physically. It’s nothing like the persecution many of our brethren have experienced, just … a lot more unexpected. It’s way more surprising here.
And we need to feel the gravity of that — not because it’s cause for despair, but rather because things have changed so suddenly. We cannot expect to do ministry the same way we have before.
You may say, “But we have changed: We’ve updated our worship, we’ve altered our evangelistic methods …” and so on. I see that in many churches, and I’m grateful for it. I still think almost all of our ministries are behind the curve. We’re not doing ministry the 1970s way anymore; it’s more like the 1990s or 2000s way. The issues, challenges, and questions have changed enormously since then.
Thank God that Christ and His gospel message do not change! But American Christians can no longer expect life or ministry to continue as usual.
Dealing with the Unexpected
That raises the question, though, what really is “usual” for Christians? Our culture has turned sharply against us; how surprised should we be? I’ve been raising warnings about it for many years, but I have to admit, even I am surprised by how far the world flipped during the past decade. It certainly feels like something very strange is happening to us.
I chose those words for a reason: They come from 1 Peter 4:12-13:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed.
Surprised? Of course we are. That’s why it’s so important to recognize this as unprecedented. To descend so far, so fast, has never happened before —not to us, not to anyone. We are perfectly set up to be surprised. Shocked. Astonished, even! No Christians in history have been so perfectly prepared to be surprised by a fiery trial coming upon them. No believers have ever been so conditioned to think it would be strange to fall under persecutions.
Our great strength as a Christian land could be thing that lulls us into weakness now. We are amazingly well positioned to be caught off guard. And we’re really likely to miss Peter’s reminder of the good that can come: “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed.”
This Should Not Surprise Us …
I don’t let us off the hook quite that easily, though. Our Lord gave us plenty of warning, and plenty good explanation (John 15:18-21):
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 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. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.
He was right, too. No surprise there! What we’re entering into now wouldn’t be nearly so head-spinning if we knew more church history, or more about the church worldwide today. You might even say our Christian experience in America is becoming more normal than ever before. I mean “normal” in the sense of being the usual thing, the common experience, not in the sense of “right” or “proper.” A country that defames Christ is in far worse condition than one that honors Him, or is even neutral toward Him.
Persecution is nothing new, and God has not abandoned us any more than He has those who have suffered before us or around us. Jesus Himself said, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart: I have overcome the world.” We are still more than conquerors!
But It Sure Does Feel Strange
Still, I have to admit, it feels so strange here now. For good reason, too: No one has gone through anything quite like this before.
That fact has some very practical implications. We knew how to do life and ministry in the old world, what Aaron Renn perceptively calls the Positive World. Now, though, we are walking new trails — trails that no one has marked out for us, because no one has gone this way before. Who has done this before, that we can learn from them? Whose model can we follow?
The persecuted church has much to teach us, and there’s also plenty in church history, especially the history of missions. Christ Himself is of course our true Guide and good Shepherd. Nothing has changed in His truth, His goodness, His holiness, His love.
Still the point remains: We were so well equipped for the world we were living in, weren’t we? Not so much for this one. We have a lot to learn — a lot to catch up on.
What’s the Answer?
So the question is, how will we catch up? I’ve been asking that for years, as I’ve seen some of this coming. More accurately, I’ve been trying to get ahead of the new questions and issues we’re being challenged to answer now. There are a lot of them. A lot. And some of them are almost bewilderingly complex. I compiled a list of these challenges a few weeks ago, and the magnitude of it all just about took my breath away.
Worse yet, it’s unavoidable. A lot of these challenges would have been obscure and unheard-of a couple decades ago. Now they’re everywhere, thanks to social media. I hear them in conversation, I read them online, I see them on television news, and social media multiples all that a thousand-fold.
What’s the Question?
The biggest question of all, though, is whether we’ll recognize what’s really going on. Will we rise to the current challenges? Or will we keep on doing church as always, as if nothing around us had changed?
If you’re not sure how you would answer that question — if you’re not sure it even needs answering — then wait a bit, please. It’s not my place to rush you to an answer. It may be that you need to see that list of questions and challenges, which I plan to post here for you soon (part of it, anyway). I predict it will take your breath away, too. Once you see it all in one location, I don’t think anyone will have to force you to start feeling the need for answers.
We have a lot of learning to do together. Are we willing to accept that? If we say yes, we can figure out the rest. Ideas and answers will start flowing every direction, from The Stream to you, from you to your peers, from all of you back to The Stream and other communication and leadership centers, and every which way besides.
If we’re ready to accept that we need those answers.
Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor), a senior editor with The Stream, studied missiology at the U.S. Center for World Mission with the late Dr. Ralph Winter, and has traveled and ministered in China, Russia, Cuba, and South Africa. He served five years as a strategic planner specializing in home (North America) missions, on a team reporting to the President’s Office of Campus Crusade for Christ (now known as Cru). His most recent book is the highly acclaimed Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.