Finding Our Way in a Secular America

by on ; last featured July 4, 2019
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The secularization of our culture has created a maze of questions about the best way for Christians to be a shining testimony for Christ. Scripture has not left us without guideposts.

Since 1998, Beloit College in Wisconsin has released the “Mindset List,” posting things their new students have always or never experienced. For instance, this past year’s entering class of 2017 had “always been able to plug into USB ports” and had “never attended a concert in a smoke-filled arena.” Many items are innocuous, but some are pretty sad, including the class of 2016’s widespread ignorance of the biblical sources of terms such as “forbidden fruit,” “the writing on the wall,” “good Samaritan,” and “the Promised Land.”

Secularization is proceeding quickly, and it’s not accidental. Strong forces are pushing it on us. As Union University professor Hunter Baker defines it, “Secularism means that religious considerations are excluded from civil affairs.”1 And as British writer Harry Blamires explains, that exclusion constitutes an “assault,” one which “takes the form of an attempt to relativize whatever is fixed, whatever is firm, whatever represents the absolute and the transcendent in the presuppositions on which Christian civilization has been built.”2

I saw it hard at work when, as a bi-vocational church planter in a Chicago suburb, I did some substitute teaching in the local high school. One day, I taught an English class, where they were reading the ungodly book, Catcher in the Rye. I asked the class why the lead character, Holden Caulfield, was so angry and contemptuous, and they laid the blame on things like the inadequacy of his parents or the hypocrisy of society. When I suggested he might need God, a hand in the back of the room shot up. “You can’t say that!” I asked, rhetorically, why Caulfield could take God’s name in vain in the assigned book, but I couldn’t say a respectful word about God in the classroom. How was that fair?

Of course, the student had joined the longstanding crusade for the radical separation of church and state—indeed, of state and God. Since World War II, the courts have had a grand old time shoving Christianity further and further to the side. Now, many politicians, other cultural elites, and their admirers are happier to talk of “freedom of worship,” where believers are sequestered in their auditoriums and prayer closets (as they are in Muslim countries, where Christians are forbidden to witness in the streets) than to grant “freedom of religion,” where believers may offer their truth claims in the marketplace of ideas.

From Bible reading and prayer in public schools (Abington) to clergy-led prayer at public-school graduations (Weisman) and the teaching of Intelligent Design (Kitzmiller), the courts have been driving respectful recognition of the Creator out of the public schools. But it’s hard to say whether the courts are leading or following the culture.

Indeed, society seems perfectly capable of losing its own mind, and has been for a long time. Harvard’s early seals bore the words Christo Et Ecclesiae (For Christ and Church) and In Christi Gloriam (For Christ’s Glory) along with Veritas (Truth), and now it’s just Veritas. Those of us who were “baby boomers” grew up on Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver, but now the youth take their domestic cues from Two and a Half Men and Family Guy. Public museums offer smug accounts of evolutionary theory; universities require religiously oriented groups to open their leadership slots to homosexuals or lose their campus privileges; and the shocking rise of bestiality has forced state legislatures to restore the laws against the practice.

In the midst of such spiritual and moral decline, a lot of “bouncers” stand ready to toss out anyone who raises objections. And their strong-arm tactics are proving to be quite effective (though, as in the case of Duck Dynasty, they have to back off from time to time).

Cause for Encouragement?

With so much cause for concern, what encouragement can we find in the Lord? Well, of course, there is much. First, it doesn’t take much salt to preserve and season. We’re the people of the narrow way, a perennial minority. It’s been that way since the days of the early church.

Second, God is utterly sovereign in world history, and though we may be dismayed, He never is.

Third, as Romans 8 teaches us, all things work together for the good of the redeemed, and nothing can separate them from the love of Christ.

Negotiating Our Way

Granting all this, what shall we do about our neighbor and his children who are not saved? They have no comfort in the Lord, no hope of heaven. Of course, the basic and powerful answer is to share the gospel, in conversation, from the pulpit, in print, and through the electronic media, for “it is the power of God unto salvation.”

Then we must teach them “to observe all things” the Lord has commanded. These are foundational to delivering society from ruin. (J. Edwin Orr has been particularly helpful in showing, through his writings and lectures, how spiritual awakening can bring life to a nation, from top to bottom.) But are evangelism and discipleship the only answers?

Christians throughout the centuries have thought not. Rather, they have adopted a number of biblically based strategies for engaging the culture at large. In his 1951 classic, Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr sketches five of them. He calls them motifs. Of course, one may be more compelling or promising in any given locale or era, but all of them may well be in play at any given moment and place as God’s people are called and inspired to employ them. Let’s take a quick look at their implications for our ministry in an increasingly secular culture.

Christ Against Culture

On this model, the world is sullied and dangerous, and we should set ourselves apart from it as much as we can. Think of the Amish, with their relative indifference to politics, the entertainment industry, and much of modern technology. (You don’t see many Hutterite congressmen, film critics, or computer techs.) They draw naturally on verses which warn against “unequal yoking with unbelievers” and which urge separation (2 Corinthians 6:14–17).

As the Amish strive to implement these verses, their impact is primarily by example, but not simply in terms of what they refuse to do. They are also known for peculiar acts of grace, as when, in 2006, the Old Order Amish of Nickels Mines, Pennsylvania, extended great kindness toward the family of the disturbed young man who had murdered five of their girls in a schoolhouse shooting.

Of course, you don’t need to be Amish to distance yourself from aspects of the culture that compromise your walk and sap your spiritual strength. The Spirit generates a heart for holiness in the redeemed. He also produces supernatural grace for everyday dealings with nonbelievers, opening doors for witness to the transforming power of the gospel. Thus you become known not only for your rectitude but also for your love for others in Christ.

Christ of Culture

This approach urges the world at large to acknowledge the contributions of Christians, even as the saved show respect for the accomplishments of nonbelievers, who also bear the image of God. James 3:9 specifically condemns those who use their tongue to “curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God.”

In this connection, it was fitting for the notorious atheist Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) to say, “You are not educated if you don’t know the Bible. You can’t read Shakespeare or Milton without it.”3

Similarly, we can be grateful for Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web, which carries Jefferson was a deist and Berners-Lee an atheist, but they worked with God’s endowments—talents, resources, and to some extent, the “Torah” written on their hearts (Romans 2:14–15). There’s a lot of good material out there that Christians didn’t create, and we can thank God for it, even as we use it.

Our sincere respect for the talents of non-Christians makes us winsome evangelists. Creationists readily keep up with the latest scientific discoveries in every field and incorporate them into their research and talks about the Creator. By recognizing their abilities and discoveries as gifts from God, we honor God and encourage conversation rather than closing it off.

Christ and Culture in Paradox

As eager as we are to live unadulterated lives, there is often a “fly in the ointment.” Think of those saints who “served in Caesar’s household” (Philippians 4:22). They knew that much the emperor stood for was unholy and that their labors strengthened him. Still, as Paul counseled in Titus 2:9–10, Christian servants were to be exemplary, amiable workers, “adorning” the “doctrine of God our Savior in all things.”

If we waited until everything was perfect and assured, then we’d be paralyzed. So we have to venture out the best we can, knowing that some disappointments are inevitable. In all this we can take comfort in Jesus’s prayer in John 17:15–18, not that we would be taken out of the world, but rather that we would be protected from evil when launched into the world.

I’ve thought of this on the several occasions that I’ve led seminary bike teams across Iowa on RAGBRAI (The Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa), with about 10,000 riders for seven days over 500 miles. Though there is a lot of family fun, what you see is not always “warmly evangelical.” There are beer parties in the campgrounds at night; some teams have lewd names painted on their buses; the sponsoring newspaper has a sometimes objectionable ideology; and we do some riding on Sunday morning when most Christians are in church (though we try to link up with services along the way).

Nevertheless, we think it is a good thing to ride in the midst of this crowd, not only for the physical fitness we cultivate as stewards, but mainly for the witness born by our jerseys (with the unmistakably Christian seminary logo) and by the laminated gospel cards we hand out along the way.

Christ Above Culture

Pushing beyond the “Christ of Culture” position, we assert that culture at its best is infused with Christian values. Of course, as Creator and Redeemer, Christ owns everything (Romans 11:36). He has a right to be over every culture in its practices and beliefs. And, without being theocrats, we can urge our fellow citizens to draw on the wisdom of Scripture to elevate and preserve the common good.

In this connection, I’m pleased with the Christmas tree lighting at the White House, the Decalogue displayed in public buildings, the Constitution’s granting the President ten days, “Sundays excepted,” to sign a bill (see Article 1, Section 7), and the stamp bearing the image of Mary and Jesus at Christmas time.

On this model, I prepared a witness flyer based on street names in Evanston, Illinois, where I was a church planter. Though the town was proudly unbiblical, the first to cast the Boy Scouts out of the United Way (because they wouldn’t have homosexual leaders4), its civic roots told another story. Befitting its Methodist beginnings, Evanston had named streets for a number of clergy, and I simply found gospel quotes to match them. For Francis Asbury, I cited a journal entry regarding his sermon on Romans 1:16. For John Wesley, I quoted from one of his messages, “Look unto Jesus.” Our tack was to remind our neighbors that they were indebted to the zealous Christian faith of the town’s founders.

Christ the Transformer of Culture

William Wilberforce is the model who comes most readily to mind; it took him 35 years of advocacy in Parliament to effect the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Transformers echo the voice of Amos, who declared God’s stern judgment against the “cows of Bashan, who are on the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to your husbands, ‘Bring wine, let us drink!’” (Amos 4:1–2).

Aided by ceramics manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood, who produced thousands of medallions depicting a shackled slave and reading, “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” Wilberforce began in the minority, but his steady work paid off. Similarly, in our own lifetimes, decades of work by the pro-life movement have at least reduced the rate of abortion in America.

This is a time for bold talk, but “with grace, seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6). As Russell Moore of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission puts it, we should be the “prophetic minority”—standing up for truth and righteousness, even when outnumbered—not the “silent minority” or the “cranky minority.”5

So, yes, there is plenty to do, and there are plenty of ways to have at it as we who fear the Lord “seek to persuade men” (2 Corinthians 5:11) of the truth of Scripture, including the plain teaching of Genesis with its doctrinal implications for all of Scripture and life.

Mark Coppenger is Professor of Christian Apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of Moral Apologetics for Contemporary Christians: Pushing Back Against Cultural and Religious Critics. He blogs at and tweets @mcoppenger.

Engaging Culture as a Creationist

by Mike Matthews, Answers editor in chief

To see how all five “motifs” for engaging culture come into play, consider how they apply to the cause of young-earth creationism. We want to keep a delicate balance, staying separate from sinful behavior and secular outlooks, while exalting Christ and the truths of His Word “with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15).

Motif 1—Christ Against Culture

Our willingness to be different—openly different—exposes people to the reality that the secular worldview is not the only alternative. Our public stand is a guaranteed conversation starter that can take many forms. It may involve private gatherings with neighbors or family, letters to the editor, or comments in the classroom and at work. At other times, we may support Christian research institutions and publishers that run counter to the prevailing culture. In each case, we faithfully endure the scorn of the cultural elites as we stand against their massive indoctrination program in the universities, museums, and media.

Motif 2—Christ of Culture

We need to show our secularized culture how modern science is rooted in a biblical understanding of the Creator. We remind people that central figures of Western Civilization, such as Isaac Newton, were themselves young-earthers. Our own love of great culture and science shows that creationists truly love the good work that modern scientists are doing. Our disagreement is not with science per se, but the mistaken assumptions about early history, which fall outside of observable science.

Motif 3—Christ and Culture in Paradox

As we work and serve in our communities, we run into difficult situations and find ourselves joining in common cause with people who do not believe exactly as we do. Creation scientists often work with secular colleagues on valuable research projects. Many people in the Intelligent Design movement are not young-earth Christians (or even believers), yet we may find it helpful to use their books and videos to highlight “irreducible complexity” or the logical fallacies in Darwinism.

When it comes to the public square, some young-earth creationists may choose to join others in defending the liberty of Christian teachers in science classes, sometimes feeling the paradox of cooperation with those of somewhat differing convictions.

Motif 4—Christ above Culture

God’s creation of the world in six literal days—“the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them” as it says in the Decalogue (Exodus 20:11)—is possibly the most countercultural belief we can hold today. The very fact that we hold this view, and embrace all that it implies about marriage and life, is enough to show the world that Christ has the right to rule this world and each individual life.

Given the current animosity toward Christianity and the Bible, we aren’t likely to win any overt arguments to put Christ first in public life. But we do have the opportunity—and obligation—to seek to persuade the church that the biblical account of creation stands above culture, and that submission to the secular alternatives is foolish and theologically untenable.

Motif 5—Christ the Transformer of Culture

We understand that the real force that changes people and cultures is the faithful proclamation of God’s Word and the working of the Holy Spirit, as God’s people pray and faithfully share about Christ and His role in history. So creationists employ a range of teaching tools—hosting Grand Canyon trips, engaging in public debates, taking friends and workmates on field trips to museums, etc.—to transform public opinion on the matter.

These efforts help remove stumbling blocks that keep people from acknowledging the Bible’s authority and responding to the gospel. Our primary concern is not to convince a secular culture to become creationists, but to make disciples of Christ, the Creator and Savior of the world.

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  1. Hunter Baker, The End of Secularism (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2009), p. 25.
  2. Harry Blamires, The Post-Christian Mind (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2001), p. 59.
  3. Legatees of a Great Inheritance: How the Judeo-Christian Tradition Has Shaped the West (Kairos Journal, 2008).
  4. Editor’s note: In 2017, they changed the membership standards for leaders. For updated Boy Scouts policies, visit their website.
  5. “Fear Not: Moore Encourages Churches to Engage Culture,” interview with Kevin Ezell, On Mission 17:21.


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