Responding to the Post-Christain Culture

The biblical response to the post-Christian culture is two-fold, as described by Robert Webber: 1

The Call to Stand Over Against Culture

The first issue to deal with is how and where the Christian faith radically differs from the present assumptions of culture. Three matters in particular stand out: philosophical, ethical, and spiritual relativism.

Philosophical relativism is the teaching that there is no one story that explains the world. This relativistic view of life has filtered down into every aspect of life. In religious conversations, it is not politically correct to say that there is one way, the way of Jesus. There is nothing that will raise the ire of someone more than this teaching. I remember, for example, years ago when the hundredth archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop Ramsey, was in the United States and was interviewed on the Johnny Carson Show. The next person to be interviewed ignored Johnny Carson and instead turned to the archbishop and said, “Archbishop, there is one thing about your viewpoint I don’t like. You say there is only one way to God. I don’t believe that! I think there are many ways to God and to assert exclusivity is arrogant.”

I wondered what the archbishop would say. “My dear,” he said, “I have never said there is only way. It was Jesus who said it. As a follower of Jesus, I have no right to contradict him. I am called to be faithful to him and to his teaching.”

The archbishop gave a good answer and really the only appropriate biblical one. In the end, Christianity has an exclusive message. “I am the way, the truth and the life,” said Jesus. As Christians we have no freedom to change his message into, “I am one of the ways.” In modern philosophical thought, the assertion that Jesus is the way puts the faith into a counter cultural position.

This is equally true of the Christian rejection of ethical relativism. “Do your own thing so long as you feel good about it,” or the postmodern shrug followed by, “Whatever,” is not a Christian view of things. Sure, there are matters that do fall into these categories, but the Christian faith is clear about what needs to be “put off’ and “put on.” As Ted Koppel once said of the Ten Commandments, “They are not ten suggestions, you know.”

There are many lifestyle matters that are central to Christianity. What Moses, Jesus, or Paul taught about the way of righteousness are not matters to be disputed and relativized but obeyed and lived.

The third type of relativism that Christians reject is the spiritual relativism of the day. Christianity holds to a very different view of creation, redemption, and spirituality than that of the New Age. David Pendleton, a young evangelical minister in Kansas City who ministers to many younger people, told me he will not use the words spiritual formation because of its distortion by New Age proponents. To differentiate Christian spirituality from New Age spirituality, he uses the term Christian formation.

Christians cannot embrace philosophical, ethical, and spiritual relativism. Christians have a story about the world that goes from creation, to tlie fall, to the incarnation, and to the new heavens and the new earth. If this story is relativized, we tear at the heart of the Christian message. The same can be said about Christian ethics. Christians affirm an objective standard of right and wrong articulated in the Bible and upheld by the experience of God’s people throughout history. In the face of ethical relativism Christianity is dramatically counter cultural. The same is to be said about the prevailing New Age spirituality. It is not Christian in its foundational beliefs. Christian spirituality stands over against the popular spiritualities of the New Age Movement.

Making disciples in a post-Christian world is a counter cultural activity: Christians are to hold to the conviction that Christianity is the one true faith, affirm ethical absolutes, and embrace a unique spirituality that is not to be confused with New Age God talk.

The Call to Make Connections with Culture

Second, there is another side to a Christian relationship with culture that has to do with current cultural revolutions. The missional church makes a distinction between those areas of cultural change that demand a counter cultural response and those areas of change that primarily alter the social context in which the church does ministry. Christians do not reject changes that do not affect the nature of the faith. Instead, the church engages with these shifts in culture.

To put it another way: How do the current revolutions that are bringing us into a new cultural situation provide connecting points for Christian communication? What cultural revolutions can Christians affirm and take into account in the communication of an unchanging message? There are at least seven changes in culture that Christians may affirm and with which they may engage.

The first is the death of the Christian era and the rise of the post-Christian era. When Constantine became a Christian in 311 A.D., he put the church in a privileged place. The church gradually made alliances with the state, and the concept of a Christianized state was born. In the United States the state has generally supported the church, and the church in turn has served the state as its chaplain, enjoying a privileged place in society. However, that place of privilege is now decreasing due to the impact of secularization and the subsequent rise of numerous religions. The connecting point for the church is that it is now in position in which it can be more clearly defined as counter cultural. In order for the church to make a connection with post-Christendom, it must recognize the death of the so-called Christian era, affirm that the church now exists in a post-Christian world, and make a commitment to minister to this world.

The second revolution is the current epistemological shift. The modern reliance on reason and science has been called into question by the changes taking place in science and philosophy. In the modern world, Christians followed the rational and scientific method of knowing truth and built systems of knowledge based on methodologies drawn from science and reason. Some evangelical Christians today regard the rational and scientific support of the faith sacrosanct, but the next generation leadership does not affirm this position. For the most part, the new generation of leaders prefers to present Christianity through narrative forms of theology and an embodied apologetic. These new (actually very old) ways of presenting the faith obviously affect the way evangelism and discipleship is done in this post-rational and post-scientific dependent culture.

The third significant revolution that has changed the way Christianity is presented is the communication revolution. Communications have always impacted the way the church delivers its message. For the first thousand years the church’s faith was expressed orally, especially through the liturgy. The advent of print shifted Christian communication to the verbal, more cognitive side. Protestant worship has been particularly cognitive. The birth of television has restored imagery, and the arts and the arrival of the Internet have moved society to a more interactive approach to communication. The rise of the visual, symbolic, and interactive nature of communications affects the new approach to evangelism and discipleship.

Next is the globalization of our world, which has resulted in the diversity of people in our churches – the diversity of color and of age. The church now has the opportunity to express its global nature. The body of Christ is from “every tribe and nation,” and it represents every age group. A concerted effort on the part of the church to break with the old notion of a targeted audience and generational ministries will allow the church to be a community of people who represent the global nature of the body of Christ. Here again is another way to connect with this culture.

The environmental revolution also provides a point of contact for today’s Christians. The first article of the Apostles’ Creed is, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” In a recent discussion with Steve Hulsey, a postgraduate student at Fuller Seminary, he pointed out that we evangelicals typically begin our discussions with non-Christians by pointing out our fallen human condition. Steve rightly argued that Christianity begins with God, creation, and the fall. In the postmodern world there is a need to start with God’s act of creation, God’s love of creation, and with God’s intent to rescue the created order. In this way, Christians are able to connect with the new concern or the care of creation. (This point of contact in no way denies our fallen condition.)

The war on terrorism represents an opportunity for the church and its witness. It is no longer uncommon to speak of evil and to point to the evil and hate that lurks in people’s hearts. Terrorism has had the effect of pointing to the fallen human condition. While this message seems to focus on the terrorist in particular, its obvious application to the human condition of us all is apparent. Here, then, is another point of connection between the Christian faith and our current postmodern culturally condition.

The technological revolution has also affected the shape of culture and our everyday lives. New technologies have reshaped global culture and the economy of the world. It has affected how local business is conducted, how relationships are established and maintained, and how the church engages with culture. The church must connect with this culture, showing both how technology may be used in a redeeming way and how technology may demonize and control our lives.

1 Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Evangelism (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), pp. 123-25.

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