The current post-modern culture shift threatens Christianity as we know it. What are the problems and challenges posed by the rising tide of atheism and secularism? How can Christians faithfully respond? Where can we find opportunities?
A Rising Tide
I have heard that you should not turn your back on a rising tide. My husband and I were at the North Carolina shore visiting family. Planning to enjoy a day at the beach, we chose our position near the water, securing our umbrella and our beach chairs, spreading a blanket and planting my beach bag. We left our things and enjoyed a lengthy walk along the shoreline, down to the pier and the light house.
Returning towards our spot on the beach, we noticed several items drifting in and out of the waves as they gently broke upon the sandy shore. Someone’s umbrella was being tossed around in the ocean. Someone’s beach chairs were being carried out to sea and pummeled by waves. The extensive contents of someone’s cute beach bag were scattered all over the sand.
It did not take long to recognize that it was our umbrella, our beach chairs, our blanket and my cute beach bag. Everything was strewn about the shore and covered with water. The rising tide had covered our well selected spot on the beach and begun to carry our things out into the ocean.
The Progress of Secularism
For Christians today in Western Europe and North America, the rising tide of secularism can feel somewhat like that. It seemed like we had established our place in this culture. Christians enjoyed a prominent position for centuries. We planted our things and felt secure.
We recognized the secular tide was rising, but when we turn our backs we find ourselves surprised by the progress it has made. What Christians have established and depended on in this world seem to be upend in the coast line, pummeled by the waves on the secular shore. Don’t turn your back on a rising tide.
Problems and Challenges of the Secular Culture
What are the major culture shifts currently experienced in post-modern North America and Western Europe?
- Atheism. Those who identify themselves as having no religion, atheist, agnostic, deist or theist is on a sharp rise. Atheists point to the history of religion and identify centuries of suffering, violence, war, corruption and hypocrisy – the world has tried religion and it has failed to save or improve us, therefore let’s try reason now. There is an increasing confidence in technology and scientific discovery to save us – we are a generation that does not need God.
- Distrust of Institutions and Authority. Our post-modern culture has become increasingly distrustful of large organizations and that includes organized religion. Questioning authority is a priority – and that includes the authority of scripture and the development of the biblical canon.
- Rationality. The post modern world relies on rationality and scientific proofs for the validity of everything. All beliefs are subject to scrutiny and criticism. Religion’s claim to truth is tested in the public world of facts where science operates. On a popular Atheist website, the author asks the question “What do Atheists think about Christians?” He responds, “What do I think of someone who believes that supernatural entities (e.g., gods, demons, angels, etc.) exist and have an important role in human affairs? I think they are wrong. Specifically, I think they are making a mistake by believing rather extraordinary things without sufficient evidence. By definition, this makes such beliefs irrational. The individuals who hold such beliefs may be quite intelligent, but these specific beliefs are not rational.”
- Privatization of Religion. Our culture has separated the public from the private. Individuals make decisions about faith and religion in an increasingly private way and do not discuss their faith life with others. For the practicing Christian that means keeping our faith to ourselves and not discussing anything about religion in the public arena.
- Moral Relativism. Post-modern culture suggests that morality is determined by the individual. I decide what is moral for me; you decide what is moral for you. As long as people do not judge one another everything works okay. One person should not impose their idea of morality on another. Tolerance of differing moral views is the norm.
Popular Cultural Expressions Portray the Church Negatively
You will notice these post-modern themes in nearly all of today’s movies, television shows and bestselling books. In popular cultural expressions the church or Christians are often portrayed in a negative light. Beyond thinking that religious belief is foolishness, post modern secularists are wary that Christians have made the world worse. The rising tide of secularism contains more than concern or criticism, but a virulent attack on Christianity – undermining basic beliefs.
Paul Was a Missionary – So Are We
For the first time in Western Christian history we are missionaries in our own culture. When I grew up in my small home town church we collected funds to send missionaries to faraway lands and share the gospel. Now we have the unique opportunity in a growing secular, atheist and pluralist nation to be missionaries in our own back yard.
As missionary, Paul traveled to lands to tell the message of Jesus Christ. Paul traveled to Corinth in the Roman province of Achaia. Corinth was one of the most important cities of ancient Greece. A large, modern, industrious city, Corinth was highly populated and filled with ethnic diversity. It was known for its worldliness and immorality. As a missionary, Paul brought his message to Corinth (Acts 18:1-11) in 51 C.E. and evangelized a small group of Christians. Paul stayed with them about eighteen months teaching and preaching about Jesus and the message of the cross. After he left them and went to Ephesus, he wrote them a letter.
Paul’s Message Is about the Cross
In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul establishes his message about the cross. Paul has been raised to respect profound Greek learning, the rhetoric of Aristotle, the support of truths with logical argument. Yet, the message of a crucified God that came to save the world – baffles human reason.
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18 [NRSV]).
Who can understand this foolishness? An anointed Messiah, the Son of the all mighty, all powerful God of the universe empties himself of divinity to experience the messiness and weakness of human existence. God almighty creator of all things chooses to enter the world through the womb of a poor girl named Mary, born in a feeding trough for animals and raised by two simple, uneducated teenagers.
Who can comprehend a fully divine savior who empties himself of divinity to become fully human and experience humanity in all its messiness and meanness? Who can understand a divine Messiah who spends time with outcasts, eats with sinners, and reaches out to the poor and the marginalized?
This divine king Paul preaches about lives his life as a poor, homeless, itinerant preacher. This mighty powerful Savior of humanity rides into Jerusalem meek and humble on a donkey. This powerful God dies the death of a criminal – executed on a cross a symbol of shame and torture – to save us. What kind of God is this?
The message of the gospel may seem like foolishness, but it has power all its own.
Fresh Opportunities to Approach the Tide
How will we approach the rising secular tide of post-modern culture? By taking the message of the cross straight into the approaching waves. The secular, post-modern world will hear anew the powerful, incomprehensible, beautiful message of Jesus Christ. We may consider secularism a threat to our Christian existence, or we may recognize that the threat is actually an opportunity.
- Think like a missionary. As missionaries the first thing we must do is understand the culture and learn its language just as if we were going to another country. We must not be afraid of the culture, but learn about it, study it and be prepared to interact with it. This is an era of evangelism that begins with relationships. Paul went into cities and towns as a tent-maker. He worked alongside of people and made relationships with them. He did not rely on preaching in the synagogue or from a pulpit to reach people. Those of you who work alongside those who do not believe in Christ have the same opportunity to be missionaries in today’s context. That begins by building genuine authentic relationships. Additionally it means keeping clear boundaries with the morality of secular culture and being clear about how we are to live as disciples of Jesus Christ in the world.
- Live a life that speaks the Gospel. What non-believers notice the most about Christians is their behavior. How you live your life everyday is what is most important. Live a life for the world to see – your coworker, your neighbor, people you shop alongside in the grocery store and who you exercise next to at the fitness center. When others see your love it points them to the love of the one in whom you believe – the love of Jesus Christ. John Wesley called that conspicuous sanctity – when we come to the Holy Spirit and allow God to mold us and improve us, we cannot help but shine as lights in the world – lights that point to Christ. The time you spend seeking God in prayer and pouring over the scripture every morning will stay with you all day – others will see your light.
- When you have opportunity to share – share your story. Many of us have had so few opportunities to speak with non-Christians that when a non-believer asks us questions we don’t know what to say. Share Your Stories. Tell the story of Jesus. The story of Jesus is simple and has a power all its own. What Paul and the early apostles did and what missionaries have done throughout the centuries of Christianity is tell the story of Jesus. Share your faith story. You have experienced God in your life – you have experience the Holy Spirit’s presence. You have had God’s promises fulfilled in your life. You have had prayers that were prayed and answered.
The secular tide will continue to rise in America. We can be afraid of it, complain about it, run away from it, put our heads in the sand, and move our sacred things to higher ground, or we can jump in, go for a swim, bringing the anchor of our faith along with us while shining the bright light of Jesus Christ into dark secular waters.
Preached by Rev. Jan Jokinen Davis at First Rowlett UMC on Sunday February 1, 2015. The Culture Shift sermon series was inspired by Doctor of Ministry Course taught by Dr. Billy Abraham “Evangelism and the Modern Culture” Perkins School of Theology, SMU.
 William Abraham, Evangelism and the Modern Culture class lecture, Doctor of Ministry Course Perkins School of Theology SMU, January 2015.
 Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks – The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986) p. 6.
 Atheist Revolution. What do Atheists think about Christians? http://www.atheistrev.com/2009
 Ibid, Abraham.
 Ibid, Newbigin, p. 3.