These days, it is common for Christians to offer lots of complaints that our country is “no longer a Christian nation.” Whenever I hear these laments, I find myself wondering why political and cultural dominance is such a good thing.
What Does a “Christian Nation” Mean?
If a “Christian-dominant” nation meant that more people truly knew and loved Jesus and had experienced salvation because of the work God had done in their hearts, that would be a good thing. If it meant that more Christians were reaching out to a broken world with selfless service and love, that would be a good thing too.
But I’ve not necessarily always found that to be the case. Sure, the Christian worldview impacts a culture oftentimes in good ways. Moral standards tend to be higher, I suppose. People at least get to hear about the Bible. They are familiar with its themes and stories. They know lots of people who are Christians.
But there’s some real problems with cultural dominance too. First of all, when everybody calls themselves Christians, people can easily go through the motions of faith or talk a good talk, but experience no ultimate heart change. The Bible is clear that ultimately God prefers we are completely against Him or completely committed to Him. He doesn’t like mere Christian club membership.
In the letters to the seven churches in Revelation, God condemns those who are part of the church and try to ride the fence:
I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm–neither hot nor cold–I am about to spit you out of my mouth (Revelation 3:15-16).
Paul writes to Timothy about those who are “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:5, NIV).
Not only does cultural dominance encourage people to go through the motions of faith, but there’s also something about power and dominance that brings out the worst in people. Something about our sinful nature tends to make human beings walk in pride and push down others when we are in power. Phariseeism–that judgmental spirit that suggests we have got our act together and everyone else is going to hell in a hand basket–crops up.
The Upside-Down Dynamics of the Kingdom of God
Jesus’ teaching shows us that the Kingdom of God flips the power dynamics upside down. For example, Jesus told His disciples:
You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:42-44).
When I hear people lamenting about ways the Christian culture is no longer dominant in the United States, I have to say that it is rarely in this spirit. It is usually whining and complaining that “we” don’t get our way anymore. It is usually judgmentalism. It is a fear that is not God-fearing. It is fearing man. It is bitterness and a demand for our corner of the sandbox again. It is not broken-hearted longing for more people to know Jesus and His Word. It is not humbly hoping that we’ll have more people whose hearts Jesus has transformed so that we can serve others in love. It is me, me, me–from beginning to end.
Cultural Dominance Can Hide Spiritual Problems
My husband and I started our ministry in rural North Dakota. We met a lot of amazing people there, people who were patient with all of our “new pastor” baggage. People who encouraged us as leaders. People who expressed their faith in a gentle way and showed us and our daughter so much love. We loved seeing the way family was at the center of the culture and the quiet strength of a simpler way of life.
But there was a problem in North Dakota. It started with what you would think was a strength: it was a highly-churched area. Pretty much everyone had some tie to church. That didn’t mean they attended church, of course, but they were brought up in it or at least surrounded by it. More likely than not, they were a member of a local church. Sometimes we met people who felt the church should exist as some sort of social club to which they belonged, but to which they had no obligation. Sometimes these folks felt the church was a historical institution that made historical and social sense to belong to, that should simply be there for them for baptism, marriage, and burial. Maybe for Christmas and Easter. Sometimes these folks liked to have the power of making decisions for the church (through their vote or through membership on the church council), but with no commitment to growing in faith in any way–or even attending church. These folks felt they had just enough religion, but didn’t dare take on anything that would challenge them in their day-to-day lives. I want to be clear that there were plenty of people who weren’t like this, but there was a sizable group who were.
Just because people call themselves Christians, show up at the big celebratory moments, or maybe even warm a pew on Sundays in order to be seen by others in the community does not mean they have experienced the heart change of new life in Christ. It does not mean the Holy Spirit has given them the gift of faith. It does not mean that they are disciples of Jesus.
Here’s the thing: when we are culturally dominant, it can be oh so easy to hide the junk in our lives. It can be easy to stay in our little Christian huddle, our church club. It can be easy to think that our Bible pounding is actual devotion to God rather than a prideful attempt to stay at the top of the heap. It can be easy to skate by and pretend we have an active, growing faith when we are actually just going through the motions and trying to impress others.
The Power of the Cross
By contrast, think of where the Early Church found its strength. It was not in cultural dominance. In fact, when Constantine converted to Christianity and made it the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, true discipleship began to decline. The rise of Christendom brought about some of the greatest evils and abuses in the Church. The Inquisition. The Crusades. There were a lot of people who were members of the Church but who were ignorant of the Scriptures, living in superstition, and operating in direct opposition to the teachings of the Bible.
No, when the Early Church began, Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth:
Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God–that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord” (I Corinthians 1:26-31).
It’s Not About Us–It’s About Jesus
The Early Church knew “it’s not all about us; it’s about Jesus.” They had no need to call attention to themselves, to be politically dominant. If they wanted the Roman Emperor to come to faith it was not so they could be in charge; it was out of concern for his soul.
And what made people respond to these Christians? Their love and sacrifice. They were known for caring for the poor, for being willing to die for their faith, for being willing to be a little weird. They made an impact on their culture by reaching out to individuals with the hope and love of Christ.
Yes, they were willing to talk about sin and redemption. But not so that they could push everybody else down. They courageously declared that they were saved by grace alone, that they had done nothing to earn salvation. They declared their amazement that Jesus had saved such lost people as themselves. They gave of what they had with self-sacrifice, remembering that Jesus had given up all to make them spiritually rich. Oh what a testimony they had!
When we lament the loss of a “Christian nation” in our country, what if we stopped to think of the benefits that could come as we become less powerful? What if we accepted the position of humble service? What if, in the words of Jen Hatmaker, we stopped trying to be defenders of Christ and started trying to be His representatives? What if we made it all about Jesus instead of all about us?
Do you think a country of people who are skeptical about Christians might start paying attention? Little by little?
If there is any message I am hoping to convey to fellow Christians through this blog, it is this: humbly serve in Jesus’ name and make it about Jesus, not about you.
I ache to see Christians stop throwing hissy fits when we don’t get our way and start instead reaching out with love. I long to see us let go of our pride and selfishness and embrace a broken-hearted longing that people come to know Jesus. I long to see us quick to listen and slow to speak. I long to see us willing to apologize for the ways we have made it all about ourselves and our power. I long to see us let go of politics and prestige and realize they are dead-end streets, instead lifting high the power of the cross, strength in weakness.
Jesus emptied Himself for us. Will we follow Him and empty ourselves for a broken world?