There is no question that our culture has changed and is changing rapidly. Many of us have been tracking it on the theoretical level for years. But with the onset (onslaught?) of COVID-19 followed almost immediately by the crippling of the American economy and social strife, the deeper philosophical, psychological, and spiritual shifts in our culture are now appearing on the surface.
For one, the “epidemic of loneliness” long-observed by psychologists and sociologists is being exacerbated by the shut-down of communal gatherings and communal places. Many of us were social distancing with devastating consequences long before COVID-19; now, this psychological isolationism is the de facto policy of the state.
Yet, this greater epidemic of loneliness came from somewhere—primarily the home. The statistical breakdown of families and communities is not big news anymore. A general lack of love in the home has cultivated a general lack of trust in our country and our communities. The most appalling consequence of COVID-19 cannot be measured in deaths, but in the response of the living. People are fueled by anger and despair. It feels like the culture is tearing apart at the seams. In other words, the Orphaned Generation has grown up.
How We Got Here: Promised Land or Mirage?
None of this should have come as the complete and total shock to Christians that it now appears to be. It seems that many Christians are falling into the same trap as the broader culture—letting stunned disbelief turn into anger, anxiety, and despair.
Why are we so surprised? What were we missing over the last 40 years? It is always perilous to do historical analyses of your own time, but I think it worthwhile to offer a few conjectures as to our blind spots over the past several decades.
1. We focused our energy on politics rather than culture.
The goals were good: Defend the right to life and the institution of marriage while maintaining a place for Christianity in the public square. In service of those goals, there were substantive achievements. The right to life, for example, has made greater headway in both the legal and legislative realm than it would have without the power of the “Religious Right.”
Underlying these political battles was a quest by many to regain “Christian America.” Yet such an exorbitant quest would necessarily require Christians to pony up millions of dollars and volunteer hours for something that was rooted in dubious historical and theological claims. It drew Christians away from both the church and the culture to effect a top-down change in our society.
There was a problem, however: The culture wasn’t with us. Policy and political gains did not translate into persuasion. When Christians helped drive the impeachment of President Clinton for his lack of character, they drew a stunning rebuke from the broader culture in the ensuing election. In 2004, they thought they breathed new life into the defense of traditional marriage with the re-election of President Bush—not realizing that it was really a dying gasp. Few candidates can run on the traditional marriage plank anymore.
In 2016, the same block of activist Christians made President Trump the first pro-gay marriage GOP nominee for president. In defending a man with many of the same character flaws as President Clinton, they replaced the term “character” with “personality” and dismissed the importance of “locker room talk,” mirroring the progressive “It’s just sex” defense of the ‘90s.
A funny thing happened on the way to shaping the culture through politics—it was ultimately culture that re-shaped Christians through their political engagement. If we had been paying attention to the culture—for example, to the breakdown of individual families and communities rather than the “breakdown of the family” in general, we would have had more opportunities to counteract corrosive changes in the culture.
The so-called “culture wars” left much of American Christianity sapped for strength, out-of-touch with the broader culture, and more cynical and worldly in their own values. The impression formed by many non-Christians over the past four decades is not wholly unfair: Christians care more about power than service, political change more than heart change, favor more than fidelity.
2. We drew the lines in the wrong places.
In the process, politicians often used terms like the “Moral Majority” and “values voters” to galvanize rank-and-file Christians into political action—and again, this was effective. But movements such as these have a profound impact on the identity of their adherents. At what point do I stop fundamentally seeing myself as a Christian and more a part of the rising tide of moral people seeking to remake America? At what point do I start caring more about morals and values than a distinct and vital faith in Jesus?
The shift in identity and battle lines was subtle but significant. Few Christians would say that GOP stands for “God’s Own Party,” but many would whisper “How can you be a Christian and vote for the Democrats?” We would more commonly hear (or say), “How can you send your kids to public school?” Some believers supplanted church outings with political rallies and homeschool conventions. Again, these events are by no means bad in themselves, but they reflected battle lines drawn in the sand of culture rather than in deeper spiritual realities.
The result was in some ways predictable and in other ways unanticipated. Christians (particularly white Christians) became so identified with one party that they largely lost their influence with people who identified with the other party. We saw a subset of unbelievers as the enemy rather than unbelief itself. Meanwhile, many cultural conservatives who were convinced of their own moral superiority were firmly ensconced within many of our churches. We failed to offer hope to those with opposing ideologies and failed to convict those who shared our own.
3. We engaged in philosophical abstractions rather than a more painful, personalized reality.
Even as Christians genuinely tried to understand the culture better, they were often using abstractions that—while helpful as a tool, were employed to oversimplify more complex realities and shortcut conversations with unbelieving friends. For example, we just passed through a phase that many labeled “postmodernism.” Superficially, this cultural current was identified with moral relativism. At a closer look, it had more to do with a suspicion of truth claims more generally.
Knowing about modernism and postmodernism in the abstract was helpful. It reminded us that the same salesmanship and logical reasoning that we employed in the 1950’s would not resonate as well with people after, say, the 1960’s. But most people had never heard of these philosophical terms, let alone consciously identified with them. It was easy for us culture doctors to diagnose a friend’s problem as moral relativism and the remedy as absolute truth.
It turns out that abstractions and generalizations are immensely helpful in guiding our own thinking, but often a hindrance to real world applications and conversations. As the military learned years ago, the latest advances in technology cannot always replace the intensive and costly work of putting boots on the ground. In the same way, no amount of philosophical sophistication or slick presentations can replace the intensive and costly work of patiently forging a relationship.
4. We confused God’s gracious providences with His saving promises.
I think this last issue is the most personally convicting for many of us. Our lives are “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3), and that is where we would all profess to find our identity. But it was also nice to have shared cultural values with much of the population. And to have the most elastic and resilient economy in history. Oh, and don’t forget about the system of checks and balances that curbed abuses of power and the rule of law that helped us feel safe at night.
All of these were gracious providences of the Lord, but He never promised us any of them. Americans are not His chosen people and He never promised to heal our land if we turned to Him and sought His face. Instead, Jesus promised us that we would suffer like our Master, but that we would not need to fear because no one would snatch us from His hand (John 10). Throughout most of history, God’s people have been marginal and molested by the prevailing culture.
The Present Predicament: Preparing for Exile
I don’t need to tell you that this is a profound moment in our culture and history and that this is a painful inflection point for Christians. We are increasingly finding ourselves ostracized by both major political parties. Our core beliefs do not fit in with the narratives on the major news networks—right or left—and our values are not aligned with most of the culture.
Some of our beliefs are no longer accepted in either party—traditional marriage, for example—which means that there may be a price to be paid for exercising our conscience in the public square or private marketplace. And whatever the merits of the actions, our society is developing a precedent for dictating the terms of worship services. The rationale might be particularly compelling right now—will it be as compelling in the future?
But the greatest blow here is to our idolatries. I think most of us feel a bit wobbly and off-balance right now, not only from the perfect storm of an epidemic, reeling economy, and social strife, but from the destabilization of our extra-biblical spiritual supports. When the weather is good for Christians in a culture, we don’t have to question the reliability of our anchor. Now we do.
In that vein, what can we as Christians do to prepare for exile?
1. Repent of our idolatries.
I know many of you are tired of being told to apologize, but only Christ could perfectly stand against His accusers. Luther reminded us that repentance is a lifestyle, not just an act. Calvin reminded us that we are idol factories. Where have you confused cultural idols with your identity in Christ? Anger, anxiety, and depression usually give us a good indication of where those idols live. The wobbly feeling shows us where we added to the Gospel. Repent daily, and if you don’t think you need to repent, then you really need to repent.
2. Meditate on the sovereign, loving God of history.
God’s Word is the preeminent fount of learning, church history is penultimate. The study of either one would have prepared us for the present day, and they will equip us for the days to come. There is nothing unique about our present quandary, nor our present opportunity: Will you and your house serve the Lord? Read of God’s care for His people in the wilderness or Jesus’ promise of care for His people. This will put our present difficulties in perspective.
3. Express gratitude for all that we have in Christ.
The Word of Christ and Christ the Word was not merely speaking to their contemporaries, but to the whole of His beloved bride throughout history. We have not stumbled upon the lone accident of God’s providential ordering of history. King Jesus gave us His blessed promises and assurances for today. His Word is as good as ever and His love is still our most precious gift. This season—like all seasons—is a time for rejoicing and thanks.
4. Pray for our leaders, our faithfulness, and for more laborers.
Don’t make the mistake of spiritualizing your politics like so many revolutionaries across the political spectrum. Every leader needs your prayers as they seek to rule justly. Don’t neglect this duty and privilege! And pray for your faithfulness as well. This will keep you active in your community, rather than an online activist more interested in prestige. Finally, pray for more laborers. We desperately need more faithful ambassadors of the Gospel. Many of these will come from overseas. America now receives more missionaries than any other country in the world. Pray that God would use these missionaries to convict and comfort His people and help reintroduce the Gospel to the broader culture.
5. Prepare for economic detachment from our leaders.
This might seem overly pragmatic, but it is tied to deeper spiritual issues. As Christians in America, we have historically assumed that we would have equal opportunity to utilize government funds for the good of society. This will change. Those of you who run Christian charities and colleges need to ready yourselves for the blow. Churches, I doubt your tax exemptions will last long—no matter who is in office. Prepare now. The same Lord who calls us to seasons of plenty also calls us to seasons of little. Pretty soon, we will be on our own. But not alone. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8)
6. Embrace our local churches and communities.
If you believe in Jesus and are not part of a local church, go join now! The church is our beachhead in the broader culture. We have no guarantees of land elsewhere. You cannot do this alone. Internet sermons will not do it. You need to entrust yourself to overseeing elders/shepherds and link arms with the diminishing—but no less empowered—people of God.
In addition, get your eyes off the latest political gossip and back onto your neighbor. The people who live next door actually need you and the grace of God that you carry and that carries you. Open your home and your heart. Let your neighbor know that you don’t live in a Facebook façade, but have a genuine faith that cares for all those whom God places around you.
7. Go on the cultural and spiritual offensive.
Christians are not a beleaguered minority, but the Spirit-empowered people of God. Insincere followers of Christ compromise; sincere Christians without courage capitulate. We are a chosen possession; a royal priesthood. Jesus is not in the business of retreat, but of resurrection. In our “post-Christian” culture, we have opportunities our parents couldn’t have dreamed of.
You are a cross-cultural missionary, much like many of our brothers and sisters around the world. You must learn the language of this foreign culture and the presuppositions that guide it. You must learn how to talk to it, as well as to the individual people that the Lord places around you. Don’t resent this change—savor it. Millions of people die of false hope every year. King Jesus is setting the stage to use you to save a few more.
8. An Exilic Hope: Solid Joys and Lasting Treasures
T.S. Eliot once wrote that there is no such thing as a lost cause because there is no such thing as a gained cause. We have overinvested ourselves in temporal treasures and underinvested ourselves in heavenly hope. While our hubris and idolatries are being whacked by the broader culture, there is also an incredible opportunity here to cherish the cross anew.
As Christians, we will become more estranged from American culture with each successive year. We will be marginalized and ridiculed. And yet the present hour shall prove the best hour. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany, we will dress ranks alongside our fellow believers. We will know who stands alongside of us and each week, as precious truth after truth is spoon-fed into our hearts on the Lord’s Day; we will be reminded again who leads us, feeds us, and keeps us.
Brothers and sisters, do not let your hearts be troubled. Just as the Lord removed Naomi’s bread-winners to draw her to the Bread of Life (Ruth 1-2), He is removing our cultural garb in order to more clearly and fully clothe us in Christ. This journey will be painful. We will be like Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, having our scales torn away by the One who alone can make us safe.
Pray for the mob that stands against you, just as our Savior did. Then focus on the individuals who turn to you and ask for the water of life. Don’t forget—even as the human race killed King Jesus, a thief tasted paradise, a centurion awoke, and the world shook.
Stephen Roberts is a US Army chaplain and has written for The Washington Times and The Federalist.