A few years ago a debate was arranged between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens on whether religion is a force for good in the world. In the lead-up to the debate, the international organisation Ipsos carried out a poll to see what various countries around the world believed about that same question. They polled over 18,000 people and a majority (58%) believed that “deeply held religious beliefs promote intolerance, exacerbate ethnic divisions and impede social progress in developing and developed nations.” This is a poor outcome but even worse was the response of Western nations to another question, “Is religion a force for good?” In Australia only 32% agreed, in the UK 29% and Sweden an appallingly low 19%. It would seem that religion has a significant image problem!
If you read local press you will not be surprised by this outcome. In fact you may believe the situation is actually getting worse. Recent Fairfax media articles suggested that Christians who were opposed to the redefinition of marriage were “haters” and even “religious Taliban”. These are strong statements of criticism and could even be defined as vilification. The question is how do we respond? What can we do?
One obvious approach is to attempt to turn the tide by changing the image. We could look for inroads into the marketplace of ideas with a positive picture of the Christian church and attempt to shift people’s thinking. This is not an easy task, given the multiple negative attitudes at present. Instead we tiptoe through the minefield of community debate, careful not to step on anyone’s toes or say anything that will blow up your carefully constructed position. It’s about staying popular with the “right people” so your voice is accepted as credible and your opinions taken seriously. This may seem wise and thoughtful, and certainly accords with the idea that Christians should be winsome in our community. But the question is whether this is possible or even a biblical attitude?
UK Christian leader and author of Christianity Explored, Rico Tice has recently released a short book, Honest Evangelism. In the first section he looks at the classic verse in 1 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.” Tice makes the point that we all seem to think this verse refers to the times when people ask you why you follow Jesus and where does your hope come from … if only they did! But the context of this verse in 1 Peter is referring to a small, persecuted church struggling to survive the torrent of opposition coming its way (1:6, 2:15, 4:12). As Tice writes “He’s [Peter] talking about being prepared to answer people when they say: ‘The way you live offends me, and your belief seems ridiculous to me.’” These are the questions we will be asked to answer in the present reality.
Another insightful reflection on Christianity, which in part deals with the challenge of being popular, is by New York Times writer Ross Douthat who analyses the decline of the US church in his book, Bad Religion. He looks at different responses to the decline, which was partly created by the sexual revolution, when a new generation redefined sexual relationships due to the contraceptive pill and distanced itself from the church. One response from Christian leaders was to redefine what the Bible had to say and find ways to incorporate the current sexual freedom into Christian lifestyles. It seemed like a good idea at the time for many but in fact it had the opposite effect – those churches failed.
Today, the greatest pressure on the Christian church in the West is to find ways to incorporate gay morality into its teaching. It is exactly the same issue faced by the church of the ‘70s repeated again. Why do we think the result would be any different today compared to the prodigious decline of the churches and denominations that followed that route back in the ‘70s and ‘80s? It is a complete failure of logic as well as biblical scholarship to suggest that changing our values to suit popular sentiment will create a wave of people entering faith or the church. In fact it may be the opposite. When the Episcopal Church in the USA ordained a practising gay bishop the most telling response was from the atheist and gay writer, Matthew Parris who back in 2003 pointed out how far from the teaching of the Bible this move was. He wrote, “Revelation, not logic, must lie at the core of the church’s message. You cannot pick and choose revealed truth.” He was completely unimpressed by a church that tried the popular route to gain community affection.
The future of the church is not to fall into line behind popular sentiment, or keep quiet in the hope that everyone will start to love us. I agree with being winsome but that won’t create a tsunami of people coming to faith. Only the gospel does that! As the apostle Paul experienced and knew to be true, the gospel – Christ crucified – will be “a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles”. (1 Cor 1:23) It may be time we get used to that again.
Karl Faase is CEO of Olive Tree Media.