Contrasting Visions of Christianity in Post-Christian America
By Bob Christensen
As a member of Perimeter Church, a few weeks ago my wife and I were privileged to hear the new All-In vision for Perimeter from our lead pastor and founder, Randy Pope. I also finished reading “The Benedict Option, A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation” by Rod Dreher, and last week I was privileged to hear Rod Dreher as he addressed a full house at The Areopagus forum, also held at Perimeter church.
The two visions for the Church offer a stark but intriguing contrast.
The Benedict Option is an analysis of American culture and politics and the Church, and a vision for the future of Christians in Post-Christian America. His vision is that the Church should implement forms of the ancient Benedictine Order – rules for Christian life in a Benedictine monastery, written in the sixth century. I will offer a more detailed response later – for now let me summarize my reflections on the book. It is
- Realistic about Christianity and culture but one-sided and narrow
- Defeatist in its attitude
- Helpful but inadequate as a guide for American Christians
Dreher Vision: Realistic but Narrow
Dreher courageously states what most Christians are unwilling to admit. Among his most memorable “reality” quotes (emphasis mine):
“The culture war that began with the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s has now ended in defeat for Christian conservatives. The cultural left—which is to say, increasingly the American mainstream—has no intention of living in postwar peace. It is pressing forward with a harsh, relentless occupation, one that is aided by the cluelessness of Christians who don’t understand what’s happening.”
“The spiritual crisis overtaking the West is the most serious since the fall of the Roman Empire near the end of the fifth century.”
“In the wake of Obergefell [the Supreme Court decision endorsing gay marriage], Christian beliefs about the sexual complementarity of marriage are considered to be abominable prejudice—and in a growing number of cases, punishable. The public square has been lost.”
“But American Christians are going to have to come to terms with the brute fact that we live in a culture, one in which our beliefs make increasingly little sense. We speak a language that the world more and more either cannot hear or finds offensive to its ears.”
Quotes from Dreher, Rod. The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (p. 85). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
I take issue with the authors view that the culture war is over and it ended in defeat for Christian conservatives. We have lost some battles decisively, yes. But the war is still raging – the battles are hotter than ever. This culture war was not started by Christians – it is best understood as a war on Christian values and beliefs by progressives. The battles are attempts to eliminate the practice of Christianity from the public square, from public education and government and now business as well. The war will not end until Christianity is extinguished (their view) or the militant secular forces are defeated.
I think that Dreher’s book ignores many positive social forces that have significant cultural effect
- The large and robust movement of Young Evangelicals with great passion for Jesus, worship, service and social justice
- Evangelical growth both in the Mega-church movement and in small congregations
- Increasing depth of teaching and emphasis on discipleship in many churches
- A long list of successful court cases supporting freedom of speech and freedom of religion, including at the Supreme Court (with many yet to be litigated)
- Conservative wins at the polls although the Red / Blue split is deeper than ever – the country is deeply split – new political battles with wins and losses on both sides demonstrate that the war continues – it is not over
- Conservative media – outlets that did not exist 20-30 years ago – including a wide variety of voices and audiences. A very significant cultural and political force.
- The “Trump” phenomenon as a reaction against cultural elites and the policies of Political Correctness.
Christians have many untapped resources that have the potential, in the power of God’s Spirit, to turn the tide and to renew American culture and politics. But will we? Will Christian leaders arise and unite the Church to engage the culture with courage and wisdom?
A Defeatist Vision
With deep apologies to the author, my mind runs to the awful scene in the Lord of the Rings third volume “The Return of the King” – that scene in which the defeated, cowardly Steward of Gondor, Denethor II, throws himself on a funeral pyre.
My fear is that Christians – especially young Christians – will hear Dreher’s call to retreat and the admission of defeat (the culture war is over – we lost – get over it) and will just go on ignoring it (which they are strongly inclined to do because nobody likes war or personal sacrifice or risks to job or reputation). So the Benedict Option may have the opposite effect of its intention, which is to call every Christian to action – to prepare for attack, to get trained and strengthened, to plan for survival.
Dreher doesn’t admit ultimate defeat but the book does not have the clarion call of a Gandalf or an Aragorn – he does not actually call us to battle as much as he calls us to retreat. For Goodness sake (literally) – we need courageous leaders, sound strategies and a clear, powerful call to arms. Yes we have lost public battles. Yes we have lost majority public support on many issues. Yes the trend is all against us and the pace is accelerating – except for occasional odd, surprising, public upheavals and reversals, such as the Trump vote. It turns out there is a very large number of people who are not bowing to the gods of the left.
Of course, Trump may do more harm than good, that story is not completed yet. But can we deny (should we deny) that God may still be at work (strangely) in American culture and politics? I’m sure that Dreher does not deny that – but he basically offers no hope for cultural renewal – America will become a totalitarian state run by barbarians. Christian persecution will dramatically intensify as the Left dominates not only education but business and government.
To carry the LOTR theme a bit further – I’m convinced that Tolkien, in writing a mythology for the English-speaking peoples, created models for us in times like these: the “Fellowship” – a small band of extraordinarily diverse, mostly ordinary people; Frodo and Sam – simple but faithful in the face of insurmountable odds. Can we not find the courage and faithfulness of Sam and Frodo? Will the Lord not provide courageous leaders like Aragorn, Gandalf and Théoden? Perhaps Dreher is one of those leaders. Time will tell. I am certain that Dreher resonates with this theme (my criticism is not with his courage but with the tone of his message) – it is the essence of his call to Christians in Post-Christian America – a call to faithful resistance.
None of us know how this will end. We are in the middle of the war – think of London in 1943. What is important is that everyone understand what’s going on and get engaged. Talk of defeat provides cover for Christians that are looking for an excuse to sit it out – to retreat even further from constructive engagement with the world. And it emboldens our enemies.
Biblically, the Christian’s primary relationship with culture is defined as A) do not be conformed to the world and B) be Salt and Light – penetrate darkness with truth, preserve society from the rot of sin. I see no retreat there although certainly we must be wise and loving and strategic in our saltiness – just like Christians in many countries around the world who are scorned and sometimes persecuted for their faith.
The final issue that I have with the Benedict Option is that the strategies and tactics are mostly small, local and personal. Many examples are from Benedictine monasteries. There are many Protestant churches and non-profits doing amazing work – society and culture-forming work, around the world. The book and the Benedictine Option movement would be more helpful if a wider range of Evangelical organizations and strategies and movements were included (in the next section I outline one such church). The book suffers I think from the author’s limited, mostly Catholic and Orthodox, experience.
Randy Pope: The Perimeter Vision
Now to contrast this with Atlanta’s Perimeter Church, where I am a member.
Most certainly, God has raised up Randy Pope and given him a powerful leadership role in His Church not only in Atlanta but around the world. What is Randy’s vision for the church – and it’s role in the world?
Perimeter’s All-In vision and strategy is powerful, amazing – if you haven’t heard it I encourage you to view it online at www.perimeter.org/allin. It is a vision “so big that it is doomed to fail if God is not in it!” In brief, Perimeter’s All-In Vision for the next 2 years has 3 key strategies with an overall aim to “make the Bride of Christ as beautiful as we can with the people we have.” It is to build a community of strong Christians, deep in discipleship with a Scriptural worldview, loving and serving with the love of Jesus. The primary areas of mission include
- Partnering with dozens of non-profits to provide Community Services
- Education – in public schools: tutoring, mentoring, homework clubs + private Christian school/homeschool
- Poverty – providing food, shelter, housing, life skills and education to the needy in our communities
- Justice – eliminating child trafficking, ministry to refugees, promote sanctity of life
- Family – parent training, safe families, foster care and adoption, marriage training and mentoring and intervention when needed
- Planting churches – over 30 churches planted in greater Atlanta
- Global outreach through strategic partnerships
- Partnering to send 50 missionaries overseas, pastor training
- Relief work after hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes
- Care of widows and orphans and refugees
- Mercy and Justice
- Education – 17 year project to develop a model school in Tanzania
- Life-on-Life Missional Discipleship
- A 3-year intensive small group + individual study program in Bible, theology and worldview
- Over our 40-year history have discipled hundreds of thousands of Christians in 25 countries
- 5-year goal is to implement discipleship training in 2,000 churches with 1 million Christians trained
- 20-year goal is 50 nations, 5k churches and 10 million disciples trained
- Channels of Cultural Influence – in partnership with local churches
- Train people who work in channels of cultural influence to have a Christ-centered world and life view for the glory of God, the good of their neighbors and the common good of the city. To view work as a vocation, a calling from God, and to be faithful disciples at work.
In many ways Perimeter has been implementing key BO principles for 4 decades.
- Perimeter church culture is strong and deep – in many ways it exemplifies the BO goal “a Christian way of life that stands as an island of sanctity and stability amid the high tide of liquid modernity.” Many of the issues that Dreher raises about American mega-churches simply do not apply to Perimeter.
- Perimeter school is an example of the BO vision for schooling – incorporating elements of home schooling and an emphasis on parents role.
- Biblical morality is clearly taught including sexual morality.
- Strong emphasis on youth, training young leaders and evangelizing youth.
- Vibrant outreach to local communities with Service Ministries and Unite! – Perimeter has earned an excellent reputation and has a strong influence.
My Analysis – A Comparison of Visions
The most striking contrast between these two visions is the attitude – pessimism versus optimism. Perimeter’s vision is positive and constructive – the emphasis is on Influence and Impact in society. The plans run deep. Strategies are proven and backed with specific plans, people, budgets and timelines. It is a big vision – a giant vision – that requires faith, but it is an actionable vision that can and will be implemented.
However, Perimeter’s approach to the culture war (and certainly to politics) seems to be, primarily, to avoid it, ignore it – just don’t go there. Social justice issues are carefully chosen to be non-controversial – the left doesn’t care if Christians oppose modern-day slavery – but we wouldn’t want to offend them by publicly opposing other immoral and destructive social trends that they consider sacred. One pastor described the Perimeter strategy as “we are going to mentor their kids in elementary school and show them so much love that they won’t want to persecute us.”
While that’s a good and loving attitude I don’t think it’s a winning strategy. In the secular war being waged against Christianity it is not the parents that will impose their will, it is the totalitarians of the left who care not a bit about our loving service.
Is avoidance a wise course, given Rod Dreher’s analysis and projections of coming persecution? One way of seeing it is that it is exactly what Dreher proscribes: retreat from public battles, build strong and healthy sub-cultures that loving serve hurting people in our local communities. In this way of thinking, Perimeter doesn’t need to retreat – because we never directly engaged in the cultural battles to begin with. Or rather, we have carefully selected our battles – abortion and sex slavery for example. There is much more to think about regarding the strategy… this too must await another blog post and another Areopagus forum (see below).
Is the American Evangelical Church preparing our members, and especially our young people, for the secular onslaught? I think the answer is “Not very well.” Two quick examples will make my point.
First, by not openly discussing and preaching about the culture war, most people are unaware and uninformed. So when our kids go off to college (or increasingly now, to High School) – they are not prepared for the attacks and challenges they face. Biblical values rapidly fade and are replaced by the very attractive, subtly crafted values of the world. Eventually many leave the faith.
Dreher’s comments about Evangelical college students should scare us to death (ignorant, shallow, unprepared). Most cannot give a credible answer to the simple question “Why do you believe in Christianity?” Yet that is exactly what we are instructed to do by the Apostle Paul in I Peter 3:15 “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” The percentage of college freshmen that self-identify as “no religion” has risen from 10% to 30-40% in the last 2 decades because they have no roots – no Biblical theology, no Christian history, they see Christianity as primarily about relationships, etc.
Second, as Dreyer points out, we are not defending ourselves or our children from the power of media manipulation. Video impacts our emotions directly – bypassing our reason. We instinctively believe what we both see and hear. So, because we are not prepared for it, we unthinkingly adopt many of the views, beliefs and values that are embedded in Facebook posts, “news” websites and TV and movies. It happens to Christian adults and to our young people. The “world” gets in our heads, affects our thinking, beliefs and values..
I ask you – is your church youth group preparing your children and grandchildren to survive the media tsunami? Can they defend themselves from emotional manipulation by the media? Are they even aware of the depth of the manipulation of attitudes by social media?
I think electronic media is a primary battleground for the future of the Church, and for the survival of civilization. Discipleship training needs to examine the worldview messages that are promoted in media and the ways that we think about and consume media. We need new mental and spiritual disciplines to survive.
Electronic media is changing how we think – replacing reason with emotion, and in the process creating robots that can be easily manipulated with emotional advertising. We must build young adults who can think and reason and articulate and defend truth. They will stand tall as leaders because they have roots, convictions and connections to Reality.
Randy Pope’s faith-based strategies should inspire us to invest in creative new approaches to bring the Gospel to bear on all of society including our leading cultural institutions. Rod Dreher’s prophetic book should shake us to our foundations and will, we pray, help arouse a sleeping giant – the Church of Jesus Christ. Immense, unthinkable suffering and loss, physically, morally, economically and spiritually, will be the result of continued slumber.
“How should Christians live in post-Christian America?”
Please plan to hear Ken Myers, founder of The Mars Hill Audio Journal, at the Areopagus this Thursday, Nov. 16.
Ken Myers Founder, host and producer of The Mars Hill Audio Journal
“Repairing the Damage of Modern Culture”
Thursday, November 16th
Perimeter Church 7:30
$5 students/$10 adults/$15 couple
How can Christians live more thoughtfully, more responsibly, and more effectively in the midst of a society and culture that has become increasingly toxic and immoral?
Ken Myers is the longtime host and producer of the highly-acclaimed Mars Hill Audio Journal and one of the most perceptive Christian cultural observers of the past 25 years.
Rod Dreher said Ken Myers has been a great inspiration to him. In fact, Rod dedicated “The Benedict Option” to Ken.
Ken Myers is one of the leading cultural apologists of our time!! Learn more about his work here: https://www.marshillaudio.org
I am looking for Ken to describe some new ways of thinking, some new strategies and approaches, for Christians in these areas of cultural influence:
- Higher Education
- Public Education especially High School and Jr. High
- Movie industry and Television
- Social Media
- Politics and Law
Bring your questions! See you there.