In 2015, a Pew survey on religion was released that confirmed the greatest hopes of some and the greatest fears of others—Christianity is in decline in America.1 Or is it? After digging through the data, Ed Stetzer pointed out that “convictional Christianity” is actually holding steady but “nominal Christianity” is hemorrhaging. The real story, Stetzer concludes, is the swift drift of millions from “nominals” into “nones.”2
Yet even this conclusion is unintentionally misleading, and the ramifications for how we approach the culture is huge. Practically speaking, these nones are not atheists and agnostics—there are categories for those labels. The nones are not those who have no religion, but those who have no religious preference. This simple reality casts doubt on whether our society is truly becoming more secular or more (small “s”) spiritual.
Of course, biblically and philosophically speaking, we know there is no rise in irreligion, because there is no one who is actually irreligious. The apostle Paul explains that “since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities . . . have been clearly seen,” yet men “suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Rom. 1:20, 18). Indeed, the fervor to discuss things of a spiritual nature may be increasing. Last year, I conducted a Facebook poll, asking my fellow soldiers whether they like to talk about religion, spirituality, meaning, purpose, and so on. Ninety-seven percent responded in the affirmative.
So if our society is not secularizing, then what worldview is it actually embracing? After counseling thousands of young adults over the past ten years, I have come to believe that most people are narcissistic nihilists disguised as hedonists. As Christians, we often pay attention to the latter part, but it is the former that is more important. Most of my soldiers, for example, do not cohabitate before marriage in order to “play the field” but because they were raised to do so, and they fear the consequences of failing at marriage like their own parents did. Remember, these are the children of the sexual revolution and its aftermath.
Behind the desperate pleasure seeking is a vast void of nihilism. Freud was right in connecting father figures with God in the mind and heart of the child. He was wrong in that God is not a projection of our fathers; our fathers (and parents more broadly) are projections of God. They reflect the character of God to their children—for better or worse. They also create a mini-world in the home that teaches their children what the world outside those walls is really about.
Broken homes are not the marginal cases anymore, but the mainstream. And that’s what has created the pervasive nihilism of our culture. We often focus on destructive trends such as divorce and abuse, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Some parents permanently cohabitate rather than marry, while others simply switch partners over and over. Perhaps the fastest-growing trend I see today is polyamory (open marriages). All of these trends undermine a child’s view of God, notions of love, trust, security, and acceptance, and paint a decidedly bleak picture of the world they will soon enter on their own.
If much of the younger generation can’t trust their parents to impart truth and meaning to them, then where do they look? They are instructed to look within, as we well know, to discover their own path to self-esteem and self-fulfillment. Happiness is made normative without either an explanation or any objective means of achievement. Repurposing Lewis’s line in The Abolition of Man, we “castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
How has this generalized upbringing shaped the thinking of our culture? Across demographic lines, it has robbed men and women not only of their hope but also of their ability to reason. Except for isolated pockets, rationality has been supplanted by experience as authoritative. Lost amid all the cross-cultural and political shouting matches is the fact that we wouldn’t do much better if we spoke in more measured tones. Neither sales pitches nor syllogisms have much of an effect anymore.
How do we engage a culture that is so quickly changing? We should first rest in the fact that our God does not change (Mal. 3:6; James 1:17), nor does the truth and power of his word change (2 Tim. 2:8–9). One of the great treasures J. Gresham Machen passed down to the contemporary church is the reminder that experience is rooted in truth, not the other way around. Machen elsewhere said that if you want to move the world, you first need a place to stand. We have that. So far so good.
Rooted in the immutability of God’s character and invincibility of his word, we can better assess the culture. While much of what we are seeing is new to us and to our culture, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccles. 1). Other cultures have experienced vast societal and familial decay. The marginalization of Christianity is the historical norm, not the exception. The idol of experience has battled the idol of reason for supremacy in countless cultures. If we take God at his word, then none of this is a surprise to him. In fact, he reigns over the present evil age as much as any other and intends us to engage it to his glory in “such a time as this” (Esther 4:14).
While the loss of cultural prestige and political power may seem disheartening, the harvest is perhaps riper for the church than at any other time in American history. The church has often been treated by liberals and conservatives as a means to a given social or political end. Perhaps now the church can be viewed as simply the church, with the glory of God as our transcendent end.
The decline of nominal Christianity also means a more clearly defined Christianity. Almost a decade ago, I visited soldiers in the California desert, asking who identified as Christians and what that meant to them. Virtually all of them offered a vague platitude about being a good person. In the past, there was often social capital in calling yourself a Christian. It was an attestation to your character and provided an opportunity for social, professional, and even political advancement. There was no real need for plumbing the depths of that definition. Now, you must understand what you believe and why you believe it or become another statistic in the next Pew survey.
Another perk to this historical moment: the destruction of idealism and triumphalism. You might compare twentieth-century American modernism to a city with vast towers devoted to the pride of human achievements and the triumph of science and reason. Most of these towering idols came crashing down around Watergate, Vietnam, and the Sexual Revolution.
The ensuing postmodern milieu in America looks much more like the ruins. It looks like being unplugged from The Matrix, where all was tidy and neat, and discovering that you really live in a wasteland. Thankfully, since the aftermath of Eden, the wasteland has proven to be familiar terrain for God’s people. We live in tents and tabernacles, looking forward to the city whose builder and maker is God (Heb. 11:10). It is Christ who will transform the wilderness into a new and better Eden.
Now that we have a better view of our culture and corresponding opportunities, how do we engage it with the gospel? At this point, it would be easy to introduce a principle or concept, define it, and then give examples. Such a Western, lecture-style format is useful for keeping consistent lines of logic, but it turns out that people generally learn best by seeing how something works before learning the principle.
Toward the end of a long day of work, you notice your coworker, Jeremy, with his head in his hands. You ask him if something is wrong. He tells you that he’s having a tough time right now. At this point, the more callous Christian might say, “I’ll pray for you” (don’t be that guy), but you say, “Really? What’s going on?”
Jeremy tells you that he drinks, but no more than a handle of whiskey a week (some people do that in a day). His wife has long threatened to leave him if he didn’t stop. His drinking has also led him to be late to work four days this week, and the boss just told him he’s fired. Now he must go home and tell his wife. Knowing you’re a believer, Jeremy asks, “Why would God allow this to happen to me?”
At this point, many faithful and zealous Christians would come at Jeremy from one of two angles. Let’s call the first the evangelistic angle. In this case, you might walk Jeremy through the basics of the gospel and call him to faith in Christ. Let’s call the second the apologetic angle. In this case, you might defend the justice of God in the face of clear human irresponsibility.
But knowing what you do about our culture, you wonder if this seemingly rational question by Jeremy is actually what psychologists would call a “presenting issue.” It’s not at the heart of Jeremy’s struggle and may even be an attempt by him to keep you away from the real sources of struggle, pain, and doubt. So, setting aside your desire to vindicate God’s character, you invite Jeremy out one-on-one for a beer at a local pub, or both him and his family over to your house for dinner later in the week.
It is in one of these venues that you start digging deeper with Jeremy. It turns out that he has been abusing alcohol his whole adult life, often in response to common stressors. You gently ask him more about his upbringing and learn that his dad did the same thing and eventually destroyed the family in the process. Jeremy swore he’d never be like his dad, but that upbringing had shaped his picture of the world, and his dad’s behavior was the only model he had for coping with this broken world.
Now Jeremy feels incredible shame for being like his dad. His shame keeps him from accepting responsibility and owning the unintended similarities. He feels helpless and hopeless to change and is angry at both his dad and himself. If God is real, he doesn’t really blame him for his own behavior, but he does blame him for his broken upbringing. “Why would God allow that to happen to children?”
Without knowing it, Jeremy has given you his trust and the data necessary to more effectively engage him with the gospel. If you’d tried to shortcut the process, you would have misfired. Now you can talk to Jeremy about how broken households shape broken belief systems—and you can show sympathy to him. Jeremy’s father failed and misrepresented the character of God in the process. In Jeremy’s situation, you know you might have made many of the same choices. Jeremy’s grief also testifies to biblical truth. This broken world is worthy of our tears. Even Jesus wept! Yet why does Jeremy grieve? He knows that God exists, he knows something of the design of this world, and he knows that something went wrong. He also knows that whatever broke is also broken in him.
At this point, you can start to share the gospel with him as it pertains to broken homes. God cares about those orphaned by broken parenting (Ps. 27:10). You can talk about the character of the heavenly Father (Ps. 103:13). Jeremy needs to know that there’s hope, but that this hope comes through following the Father who doesn’t fail us. That means getting to know Jesus Christ, our elder brother.
Now all of this is overly simplistic, but let’s notice a few things that happened in this exchange. First, you displayed patience. You don’t always need to swing for the fences, but rather put the ball in play and earn more at-bats. One easy way to slow yourself down is to remember: “Basics, background, beliefs.” Start with the basics: “What’s going on?” Get the conversation started. Proceed to the background of someone’s life by hearing their individual story of sin, suffering, and common grace. It is important you do this before engaging beliefs. The more you learn about a person’s life, the more you can surgically strike with God’s word rather than carpet bomb and hope you get your target.
Second, you recognized that rational objections in today’s culture often present issues. While it is tempting to engage such objections, the conversation often gets lost in the tangled web of well-rehearsed abstractions. Don’t mistake logic and sophistication for depth. Instead, you invited Jeremy to unpack his psychological baggage and the worldview that sagged underneath the weight of that baggage. As a result, you discovered false idols, false identities, and false ideas about the world shaped by untrustworthy experiences and sources of authority.
Third, you have engendered trust and cultivated a relationship. Against a backdrop of broken trust, you have provided a safe place for Jeremy to share his pain and divergent beliefs without fear of rejection. The fact that you are a Christian and Jeremy is not is largely irrelevant. If Jeremy trusts you with his heart, he will also trust you with his questions. Over time, gospel conversations almost inevitably follow.
This approach to engaging unbelieving friends in the present culture might best be labeled as “experimental apologetics.” With this approach, we show fellow sinner-sufferers that only God’s word makes sense of and gives hope to their brokenness. We cannot shadowbox with abstractions. There is a difference between what people believe to be true and what they really believe. To engage their true belief system, we must trace the contours of their lives. Effective apologetics no longer necessitates a logician but a counselor.
As with other apologetic methods, experimental apologetics recognizes the power of God’s word and the necessity of God’s Spirit to convert, but it diverges from other methods in that it seeks to engage and deconstruct one’s practical belief system. We are not looking for logical fallacies but for practical inconsistencies in how one interprets one’s experiences. We are seeking to dethrone autonomous experience, not autonomous reason. We recognize that everyone has a religious worldview; and rather than directly assault that worldview, we seek to unearth, engage, and expose that worldview in the context of friendship.
The Rise of the Third Place
One of the great, underreported stories of our time is the collapse of community in modern America. Job stability cannot keep pace with job opportunities. Social and economic mobility often require geographic mobility. The number of deep friendships for your average American has plummeted. And many of the old civic and communal organizations are dying.
This collapse is both a crisis and an insuperable opportunity. It takes a community to raise a family, and the lack of external support for families is devastating. It also is a major contributor to the present “loneliness epidemic,” in which most Americans lack the vertical bonds of spirituality and horizontal bonds of community that provide identity and meaning. For risk of using a politically loaded term, there is a huge opening here for Christians to be community organizers.
One way to do this is by cultivating “third places” as the setting for engagement. In sociological terms, homes are the “first place” and work is the “second place.” Historically across cultures, people have enjoyed “third places” where they can engage others for a pint or a bite with a neighbor, friend, or colleague. In The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg notes the past prevalence of these places—from the British pub to the American soda fountain or beer garden.3 The main street of small towns used to encapsulate this sort of meeting place.
Today, most of those places are gone. They were zoned out of suburban America as our homes became our castles. Americans were increasingly left with the polarity of home and work, with little in between or alongside. Yet healthy human flourishing requires more than work and family. We understand this in the church, but the same proves true of society. Communities are the cradle for raising healthy and productive individuals and families.
For Christians, the idea of the third place is neither new nor unique. Does the White Horse Inn ring any bells? As in past ages, the pub is the quintessential third place. It seems less than coincidental that the rise of craft beer pubs—which tend to cultivate conversation more than intoxication—has accompanied the modern collapse of community. In a sense, pubs have emerged as the new town halls and Mars Hills of our culture, where important conversations can take place. The beer (in moderation) is not incidental. In a society that often lacks social graces, beer provides a social lubricant. For people who would rather amuse themselves to death rather than risk vulnerability, it can help tap the sealed containers of the heart and soul.
Of course, the pub is not the only vehicle for recreating community and engaging the surrounding culture with the gospel. Another staple of Christian life and practice—hospitality—is more valuable now than ever. Most of our unbelieving friends (and many of us) grew up in broken families or in homes that weren’t safe, and so they have rarely ever witnessed the gifts of repentance and forgiveness.
Now picture them around the dinner table with a family that reads a devotion, prays, and engages in substantive, gracious conversation. Even more, picture them in a messy Christian home where Mom needs to repent for snapping at the kids and Dad needs to repent for not really listening to what Mom was saying. God’s grace reigns supreme in the home—especially in the mess. The unbelieving friend will see that Christians are also a mess, but that they’re God’s mess.
When we open the doors of our homes, we also open the doors of our hearts. Others see us in our weakness and vulnerability and find the safety and freedom to do the same. More than that, they see Who gives us the freedom to be weak and vulnerable—the One whose grace is sufficient—and they get a window into the gospel.
Venues like these are not incidental to experimental apologetics. The space laboratory, with its views of distant exploration, has been supplanted by Starbucks and the quest to explore the inner self. Lecture halls have been supplanted by lounges. This experientialist culture has discovered—even created—the venues that are most suitable for conversations. People don’t want to be recipients of information, but participants in a conversation. Keep that in mind when finding an appropriate place to meet.
While the local church is where we want unbelieving friends to end up, the jump over the chasm between the church and broader culture is more daunting than ever. We often need these intermediary venues, not as replacements for the church but as instruments for drawing people into the church. They want neutral turf. We’ll give it to them and show them that we have no problem bringing biblical truth into the marketplace of ideas.
The Church in a New Age
This brings us to the final piece of the puzzle: how this all relates to the church. Grand philosophies, sweeping plans, and a host of new programs are no substitute for the means of grace and communion of the saints. As John Piper once noted, missions exists because worship does not. What is the point of any endeavor that does not ultimately lead back to the glorification and enjoyment of our God?
To this end, I would like you to picture an empty swimming pool. Say you want to fill up this pool; so you open a nearby spigot, but the water just gushes out on the ground. There’s no piping connecting the spigot to the pool. You can run that water all day long, but none of it will reach the pool. And you’ll probably get wet. And you’ll probably have a hefty water bill. But that’s beside the point.
There is little that still connects the broader American culture to the church. We don’t share the same presuppositions or vocabulary; and with nominal Christianity quickly evaporating, there is little instinct to seek God at a local church in a time of crisis. It is time to concede that, in America, we are now engaged in a cross-cultural mission field. We are reintroducing Christianity from the ground level up.
Imagine that pipeline between the spigot and pool once more. Let’s say you need three pieces of pipe—one connected to the spigot, one connected to the pool, and one connecting those two pieces together. Imagine the same thing in a pipeline between the culture and church. You need points of engagement with preexisting community groups (e.g., running clubs, Toastmasters, volunteer groups), with groups connected to the local church (e.g., Bible studies and fellowship groups), and finally, third-place groups that bring people from the one to the other.
The broader approach of the pipeline is more user-friendly for the whole local church. Many Christians are already part of groups in the community, and many churches have some form of Bible studies or community groups. Perhaps there are a few zealous young adults in the church who are eager to engage others with experimental apologetics in a third place. Christians who love hospitality can host church-based groups, older adults can disciple younger ones, and the elderly can pray for the labors of the more able-bodied. Not only does this approach not take away from the centrality of the church, but it also calls the whole church with the varied gifts of the body into action.
This pipeline also fits the experiential, relational mind-set of the present generation. It recognizes that conversions don’t often occur in a moment but over time, through ordinary people and events under the rule of King Jesus by his word and Spirit. In the belly of the culture, we focus on the basics of establishing relationships: in third-place venues of our choosing, we delve into the deeper waters of background and beliefs; in church-based community groups, we begin to teach others the basic vocabulary and presuppositions of the biblical worldview and faith in Christ. And all along this process, our goal is to draw lost sheep into the fold of the local church in order to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd.
The Greater Storyline
You must see, brothers and sisters, that it is an exciting time to be a Christian in our culture. “Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1). Are his rule and reign in any way diminished by the current state of our culture? Has the king abdicated his throne? Is this woebegone era a parenthesis in an otherwise uninterrupted history of grace upon grace?
When Saul of Tarsus sought to strike the heel of the infant church and set them to flight to the surrounding regions, he was unwittingly doing the bidding of King Jesus, who promised, “You will be my witnesses . . . to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Even the flight of God’s people is blessed by the soaring providence of a gracious and heavenly Father.
If our God remains unchanged and his word retains its power, then we need not fear. Rather, we can roll up our sleeves and get to work in accordance with the gifts and opportunities he gives us. And we also get to work with this comfort: “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). King Jesus will continue to build, sustain, defend, and preserve his church by his Holy Word and Holy Spirit. He is now and will forever be undefeated in this task. And we are the privileged beneficiaries.
Stephen Roberts is a US Army chaplain and has written for The Washington Times and The Federalist.
- Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Research Landscape,” May 12, 2015, http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/.
- Ed Stetzer, “‘Nominals to Nones’: 3 Key Takeaways from Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey,” Christianity Today (May 12, 2015), https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2015/may/nominals-to-nones-3-key-takeaways-from-pews-religious-lands.html.
- Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community (New York: Marlowe & Company, 1999).