The 1990s were halcyon days for evangelicalism. An entire genre of music emerged from infancy, its artists selling millions of records to Christian youth while also performing at amusement parks and occasionally even crossing over to “mainstream” radio stations. Christian bookstores popped up in many towns, and Christian television channels became part of basic cable packages. Across the fruited plain, megachurches broadcast their Sunday services and embarked on building campaigns, further raising their visibility. The church was right at home in American culture.
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.
Perhaps no single phenomenon captured the sense of a place in this world better than the WWJD bracelet. The creation of a youth leader, it was a reminder to teens that they should consider a key question before acting: What would Jesus do? Before long the WWJD bracelet was everywhere. Far from being controversial, wearing one was almost chic. It quickly became well-known enough outside Christian circles to inspire parodies reminiscent of today’s Internet memes. The blank in “What would ____ do?” could be filled to humorous effect by everything from figure skater Brian Boitano to Tyler Durden, a character from the novel “Fight Club.” As the number of bracelet wearers grew, so did the range of possible meanings, until sporting one became something of a spiritual-cultural Rorschach test. Was it a devotional aid for the pious? A bold proclamation of personal faith? A trendy fashion statement? All of the above?
The WWJD bracelet will probably not be remembered as a terribly important cultural moment for Christianity. But it was a cultural moment nonetheless, illustrative of the way the church and its resident society interact with each other. Almost everyone would agree that Christianity has impacted American culture. There is obvious superficial evidence built on our street corners, written on our currency, and incorporated into our annual holiday calendar. It is not always easy to remember the more profound influences. It is harder still to trace the culture’s effects in the opposite direction, or to see where cultural values have surreptitiously supplanted biblical ones. In a time when orthodox Christian morality is increasingly becoming a minority viewpoint, such clarity is vital for believers wishing to maintain their saltiness.
The Church Changing Culture
The world is a different place — a better place — because of Christianity. This is an audacious claim, but one well-supported by history, as Alvin Schmidt points out in his 2001 book “How Christianity Changed the World.” Schmidt presents a sweeping case not only that the church has benefited society (especially in the West), but that Christianity itself is the underpinning of the cultural values we hold most dear. Many advancements in public health, women’s rights, scientific exploration, artistic expression, and political freedom have stemmed from Christians seeking to apply the Gospel.
Many advancements in public health, women’s rights, scientific exploration, artistic expression, and political freedom stem from Christians seeking to apply the Gospel.
Not all readers will find Schmidt’s arguments equally convincing. That is particularly true for secularist skeptics. Part of this is because, as Schmidt himself concedes, Christianity has rarely been unified in promoting human flourishing. The humiliating truth is that church leaders have very often misused Scripture to oppose the very social progress other Christians have sought to bring about. The shameful defense of slavery by Christians in the South is perhaps the clearest American example of this, but it is far from the only one. Of course, none of this changes the fact that Christian thought has consistently motivated agents of cultural change.
Another reason Christianity’s cultural influence can be hard to accept is its pervasiveness. As one example, Schmidt goes to the value of human life itself. According to the British historian W.E.H. Lecky, “Infanticide was one of the deepest stains on the ancient civilizations.” Having multiple children (especially female children) presented a social and economic hindrance in the urban Greco-Roman world. It was thus not uncommon for infants to be abandoned or drowned. “It was this [im]moral practice,” Schmidt explains, “that the early Christians continually opposed whenever they encountered it. … They, however, did more than just condemn child abandonment. They frequently took such human castaways into their homes and adopted them.” Even emperors were amazed at this countercultural activity.
After the time of Constantine, when Christianity obtained legal legitimacy, believers further pursued recognition of the dignity of life. “Allowing individuals to be deliberately killed for people’s enjoyment has not again been permitted in Western societies since the Christian emperors outlawed the gladiator contests,” writes Schmidt. Christians also spoke out against the Roman myth of honorable suicide, and they established charitable hospitals, the likes of which appears never to have existed before Christianity. As difficult as it is for modern minds to believe, a deep societal respect for human life and wellness was not, in fact, an obvious outcome of advancing civilization; rather, it resulted from the intentional efforts of Christians.
Culture Changing the Church
If Christianity has influenced culture so profoundly that its influence is now nearly invisible, then the reverse is also true. It would be difficult to argue, for instance, that Christian celebrations of Christmas have not been changed by the cultural Santa Claus (as distinct from the Christian Saint Nicholas). Going back further, even the timing of the Christmas holiday is likely connected in some way to cultural understandings of the emergence of light after the winter solstice. On its face, none of this is necessarily a bad thing. However, it ought to give pause to a people commanded to remain unstained by the world.
One modern attempt to respond in obedience to this command has effectively been to create a “Christian” version of American popular culture. We have Christian music, Christian movies, and Christian schools. We have Christian sports leagues, coffee houses, and craft breweries. Some of our church facilities look like mixed-use developments. Some of our worship services resemble rock concerts. And many of our pastors and worship leaders have beards, tattoos, and tweed jackets with elbow patches. If we are not of the world, then we are like the world.
A broad-brush condemnation of all this would be misguided. God has designated the church as the body of Christ on Earth. He works in and through its idiosyncrasies, even when they are actually foibles. But it would also be a mistake to accept it all uncritically, as if the Christian subculture is the best embodiment of the biblical ideal of a city on a hill. There is probably more to it than that. One PCA pastor, commenting on the tension between mainline and evangelical churches in America, makes this observation: “Both sides view the other as a complete sellout to the culture! Evangelicals see mainline churches abandoning the moral imperatives of the Gospel in order to be socially acceptable. Meanwhile, mainline churches think evangelicals have caved to consumerism in order to be seeker-friendly.” It would be ironic indeed if much of the evangelical church’s ministry model turned out to be merely another form of syncretism.
Worse still would be a realization that we have altered core teaching in response to cultural influences without realizing it. In “Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel” (published in 2015), Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore raises this question repeatedly, nowhere more pointedly than in a chapter on sexuality, marriage, and family. Moore recounts the story of encountering a middle-aged couple who continued to discourage their son from marrying his girlfriend, even though they had been dating for several years and were now in their mid-20s. The parents’ rationale was that because their son and prospective daughter-in-law were both still in graduate school, marriage would not be “prudent.”
“It could be that these parents — like many in contemporary evangelical Christianity — found fornication a less awful possibility than financial ruin,” Moore writes, noting Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 7 that marriage, rather than a prolonged (and likely futile) attempt at self control, is the appropriate state for a mature, single, believing man and woman who are sexually attracted to each other.
Moore sees other ways that current preaching on sexuality follows the culture rather than the Bible, one of which is an overemphasis on physical pleasure as the source of marital bliss: “When we reduce marriage to endless sermon series on ‘Putting the Sizzle Back in Your Spouse’ and ‘Ten Tips for Couples for a Hotter, Holier Romance,’ are we not contributing to the very same emphasis on hormonally-driven acquisitiveness as the culture, rather than on the model of a Christ who displays not just affection but cross-carrying fidelity to His Bride?” This kind of teaching also subtly downplays the link between marriage and procreation, which Moore suggests is a further result of yielding to cultural ideas. “Like most Protestants, I do not think that the use of (non-abortion-causing) contraceptives is a sin,” he says, “but that does not mean that we should not question the way we, like the culture around us, have adjusted to view children as a threat to our freedom and our way of life.”
If the church is to impact culture in a truly Gospel-oriented way, then it must begin by asking itself some hard questions of the sort Moore suggests — a kind of corporate removal of the log in its own eye, an unraveling of the conflation of cultural and biblical ideals. Though there are many opportunities for this, the realm of marriage and family is a good place to start. “In a world in which a Christian family ethic is strange and otherworldly, the church is forced to articulate a Christian vision of the family that is not chiefly about ‘moral’ issues but about gospel issues,” Moore says. “Moreover, this can force the church … to see what’s ‘American’ about our families, and what’s truly Christian.”
The Right Mission?
Before undertaking any intentional culture-changing efforts, however, there is another question worth considering: Is such reformation an appropriate role for the church, or is it a distraction from our primary mission of disciple-making? One response to the “culture war” motif is that the church’s war is one of winning souls, not transforming culture. The Bible tells us that the world will hate us and that we should not expect unbelievers to behave as believers. If anything, we should expect things only to deteriorate further before Christ’s return. Through evangelism and discipleship, the church rescues people from the culture rather than redeeming the culture itself.
This point of view is attractive to people tired of social conflict, especially those who have seen it distract from spiritual issues. But it misses an important Scriptural theme regarding God’s people. Theologian John Frame describes the Creation Mandate — the command to fill the earth and subdue it — as a call to create and build culture. This call survived not only the fall of man, but also the collapse of the nation of Israel. In Jeremiah 29, the captive Israelites are told to seek the peace and prosperity of Babylon, the very city named in Revelation as a symbol of the most hostile culture imaginable. People such as Daniel lived out this idea in the service of several pagan kings. In the New Testament, Matthew’s Gospel records Jesus’ declaration that His followers are salt and light, meant to season and brighten their social networks to God’s glory. His statement also includes a warning to those found useless for this purpose.
“The Gospel creates new people, people radically committed to Christ in every area of their lives,” Frame said in 2004, further explaining that the Great Commission is an expansion of the Creation Mandate, not an abrogation of it. “People like these … will plant churches, establish godly families, and will also plant godly hospitals, schools, arts, and sciences.” None of which is to suggest a centralized campaign to create a theocratic society through the exercise of political power. Rather, cultural redemption — limited as it may be before Christ’s return — is a natural outcome of kingdom life. As Schmidt put it in his book, “It must be noted that the early Christians, who were persecuted for three centuries, never set out to change the world. The changes largely occurred as a by-product of their transformed lives.”
A Prophetic Minority
If, then, Christians are to influence the world around them, how should they go about it? American democracy presents as one possibility the chance to work through politics as a means to legislate cultural change. This has proven both irresistible and problematic. Certainly we should expect the nation and its political system to benefit from the participation of sincere Christians as voters, activists, and candidates, and there are many positive examples of this. But the pursuit of power increases opportunities to mistake cultural viewpoints for Christian ones, intensifying the risk of confusing them. The “evangelicals” who have supported Donald Trump in this year’s Republican primary seem to have been motivated mostly by cultural factors — populism, patriotic fervor, a sense of betrayal. If so, it shows that the very term “evangelical” now connotes something far beyond conservative biblical theology and is thus most useful as a cultural category rather than a religious one. Politically speaking, Christianity is not accurately reflected in any particular voting bloc.
Russell Moore suggests “a different form of engagement, one that is more explicitly Christian while at the same time more open to alliances with those who are not.” We are no longer a “moral majority,” he says, if indeed we ever were. Moore argues that we should see ourselves instead as a prophetic minority. Whether we realize it or not, this gives us great freedom in what we choose to do to improve our culture and with whom we choose to do it. We can speak truth and love into almost any context without fear of what it means to our image or position. Even the scale of our activities becomes less important than the motivation. “Our call is to an engaged alienation,” Moore says. This means being under no illusions about our popularity, but also being courageously kind. It is much more in the vein of the Israelites during the Babylonian captivity or the early Christians before Constantine.
Nebuchadnezzar observed both Daniel’s faithful service and his prayers to the one true God. The Romans knew the first Christians by both their refusal to worship idols and their adoption of abandoned babies. In both cases, the impact was enduring. Our fellow American citizens certainly notice the strangeness of our views on morality, among other things. If, in addition to our conviction, they also see our desire to make the world better, they will be curious. And when we are transparent about our motives — to bring glory to the God who saved us — we will be witnesses to the truth of the Gospel, obeying both the Creation Mandate and the Great Commission at a stroke.
Phil Mobley is a researcher and consultant living in Atlanta. He has a tattoo but lost his WWJD bracelet years ago.