Back in February, The New York Times Magazine ran a story about a Christian family from Allentown, Pennsylvania. The lead for the article read as follows: “Abandoning the fight for a Christian America, fundamentalists are retreating into their own homes.” The story went on to describe how one family of nine lives the Christian life within the walls of their white farmhouse.
The family’s goal is “not to participate in those parts of the culture that do not bring glory to God.” To that end, they do not go to the mall. They do not watch television. They do not listen to popular music. They do not go on dates, although when the children grow older they will be allowed to enjoy courtship under parental supervision. They do not play sports because, says mother, the team environment breeds “behavior that we would not deem Christlike.” The children do not even go to Sunday School, so as to avoid the evils of age-segregation in the local church.
The New York Times Magazine interviewed the family from Allentown because they represent a significant change in Christian attitudes about American culture. There was a time when American culture was Christian, when the biblical worldview shaped the public agenda. Obviously, that is no longer the case, which is one of the reasons I try to open this window on the world every week. We are living in increasingly post-Christian times.
Since the 1970’s, many evangelical Christians have tried to regain cultural territory by pursuing political power. In many ways, that strategy has failed, with the result that evangelicals are now starting to give up on political solutions to cultural problems. This analysis is confirmed by a recent editorial in Christianity Today (September 6, 1999), written by the political strategist Paul Weyrich. Although Weyrich was at the forefront of Christian political engagement during the 1980’s, he now advocates what he calls “a strategy of separation,” in which Christians “bypass the institutions that are controlled by the enemy.” “We need to drop out of this culture,” says Weyrich, “and find places, even if it is where we physically are right now, where we can live godly, righteous and sober lives.” The family from Allentown has followed Weyrich’s advice: They are separating from, dropping out of, and bypassing American culture.
It is a good thing for Christians to recognize the limits of politics. We are called to be good citizens, but we must never look to the government for salvation. We are called to build the kingdom of God, not establish a Christian America. The question is, To what extent are we called to separate ourselves from American society? Does Christ call us to be “onward Christian soldiers,” or “inward Christian soldiers?”
This is a question Christians have always faced: How can we be in the world without being of the world? This is something Jesus prayed about when he went to his Father to intercede for the church. Jesus said to the Father, “[My disciples] are not of the world, even as I am not of it” (John 17:16). Yet he also said this: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one… . As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17:15, 18). In other words, our Lord has prayed that we would reach the world without becoming worldly.
It is not easy to know where to draw the line between being in the world and being of the world. Some separation is required. There are places it is not wise for Christians to go. There are things it is not good for us to see or to hear. As a result, we often find ourselves out of step with American culture. The piece in The New York Times Magazine notes, with some amazement, that Christianity is now a counter-cultural movement. In the 1960’s, the counter-culture questioned authority. Now everyone questions authority… except Christians, and that makes us counter-cultural.
It is one thing to stand against sin, but it is another thing to drop out of American culture altogether, which God has not called us to do. There are ways in which the family from Allentown is not so much counter-cultural as it is anti-cultural. I am reminded of medieval times, when the church retreated to its cloisters and its monasteries. The remnants of Christianity were preserved, but Europe was abandoned to its sins.
It is not my job as a pastor to decide where Christians should shop, or which TV programs they should watch. These are matters of freedom, which each Christian has the responsibility before God to determine. It is my job, however, to remind you that while Christ calls us to separate ourselves from sin, he does not call us to separate ourselves from sinners. Quite the opposite. And I worry that Christians are retreating from American culture at a time when people so desperately need the gospel. Christ does not call us inward, but onward and outward, to reach our friends and our families with bold, persuasive, thoughtful, and compassionate Christianity.
Do not remove yourself from places where you have opportunities to stand for Christ against the sins of the culture. If you are a Christian, you are called to coach Little League, but not to yell at the ump; to work for the corporation, but not to disparage the management; to exhibit work in the art show, but not to give in to despair; and so on. When we engage in these kinds of activities, we always run some risk of becoming worldly. Nevertheless, we do them because we are called to be in the world to the glory of God.
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