Escape or Engage?

We must learn to use some new weapons in the future (weapons we actually should have been using in the past) if we are to engage the culture. | by Leonard Sweet

A missional people and a missional church don’t get to pick their day and place. Like the prearranged marriages of times past, someone else (God) chooses your love, and you love God’s choice. Anything less is a church out of place, and a displaced church cannot be a doxological church, since nearness to God is at the heart of the value of a place. There is a field of study called psychogeography: the effect of place on human emotion and behavior. We need a new branch of study called theogeography: the effect of place on faith, community, and mission.

Volcanic eruptions prompt evacuations. Few things are harder in life than moving from settled positions where we feel safe and comfortable to unknown territory where we must find our places and set up new positions. The church now finds itself being evacuated from its established perch in society and must find new homes, all of which are in precarious danger zones. These evacuations taking place are not just cultural but also intellectual.

Question: The number of people on Twitter who follow a

religious leader, house of worship, or pastor?

 Answer: Two percent.

See Pinetops Foundation,
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Christianity is the future’s go-to honeypot for ridicule and abuse. In the aftermath of volcanic eruptions, the belief that the Bible is a sacred text with salvific solutions for a world gone wrong appears in the same category as the belief in fairies, leprechauns, and unicorns. Already more Brits are convinced of the existence of ghosts than they are of a divine Creator or even of heaven.24

In our lifetimes we’ve gone from “Please pray for. . .” to “If you’re the praying type, you might consider praying for. . .” to “No more thoughts and prayers” or “Your thoughts and prayers are as effective as tots and pears.”

The gospel has always gone against the grain, but the grain has been friendly grain until now. From here on out, it’s hostile grain.

When North American Christians do anything in the future in public or even semipublic arenas, they can expect fire fountains to erupt from the pent-up anger seething at the bowels of the earth. Any Christian practice will be problematic, from praying in public to making the sign of the cross.

This hostility is extending beyond Christianity to religion in general. One of the most popular answers to the question “What is the one single thing anyone could do to make this world a better place?” has become “End all religion.” Indeed, in a recent and disturbing development, advocates for human rights may or may not include “religious freedom” in those “human rights.”25

Increasingly, numbers of people are being raised in households where Christians in particular, and religious people in general, are viewed as inferior in every way: morally, intellectually, socially, and culturally.26 This flippant dismissal of people of faith is not unheard of in history. Scottish biographer James Boswell (1740–95) hurried to the deathbed of philosopher David Hume (1711–76) and found him “lean, ghastly and quite of an earthy appearance.” Boswell unabashedly asked Hume about his views on the afterlife, and Hume admitted that philosophers John Locke and Samuel Clarke had turned him off to faith. Besides, Hume added, “the Morality of every Religion was bad.” When Hume heard someone was religious, he immediately assumed “that he was a rascal.” Boswell then pushed further and asked if Hume wouldn’t like to see some of his friends who had recently died again. Hume owned that he would but added that none of them “entertained such a foolish, or such an absurd, notion.”27

Catholic schools are under attack in Great Britain for being “socially divisive” and for running “monofaith” establishments. They are now under quota constraints to accept no more Catholic students than would constitute 50 percent of its student body. This “faith cap” is to preserve “social cohesion and respect,” even though this means Catholic schools are being asked to discriminate against Catholics. The Catholic church has agreed to compose its student body of up to 30 percent non-Catholics, but that is not enough for the government.28

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We can expect religiously motivated violence to increase and the free exercise of religion to be constrained at every turn. Religious freedom itself will be an increasingly contentious notion. In the 195 countries of the world today, diversity and pluralism are losing out to the imposition of a religious monoculture29 or a ban on religion, which is itself a religious position.

For example, France has banned all “conspicuous religious signs” as a new dress code for members of its parliament. No crosses, no menorahs, no crescents, no symbols showing personal religious beliefs are allowed, and a neutral dress code is enforced.30 Ironically, early Marxists argued against such restrictions of religion, advocating for the freedom of religion because ultimately they believed freedom of religion would free people from religion.31

Government is not the major offender in twelve of the twenty-three worst countries for the waning of religious freedom. The primary culprits are “non-state militants,” another name for terror groups and the new Puritanism across all religious traditions. For some, the free exercise of religion is “blasphemy.”32 There are also many nations (Indonesia, for example) who profess tolerance and acceptance of religious diversity, but never a word is spoken publicly against attacks on Christians and other religious minorities.33 Some Indonesian Christian churches include in their weekly liturgy a “Martyr’s Moment” to remember those in their communities who died or had their houses burned because of their faith.

Being a Christian will “appreciate” in cost, and there are no “trivial” costs. A “cost” can be as high as losing your head, but a cost of loss of friends, rejection by family members, and mockery by society are still real hurts, real costs causing real pain, and you really feel all these losses. This new hostile environment will lead to “bivocational ministry” (a dangerous term, since there’s only one calling) as the new norm for the church, largely surpassing that of the “professional” paid pastor, although the pastoral role and the culture of church will need to change to accommodate the new realities.

If we were to go ahead with a purge of religious ideas from our account of

 human worth, human dignity, and basic equality, it is an open question

 how much that purge would take with it.

NYU philosopher Jeremy Waldron,

ONE ANOTHER’S EQUALS

Pastors as Development Officers

Given this climate of hostility, no longer can the church count on special favors from the state in any arena, especially and including finances. The end of tax-exempt status for religion is within view. This means that pastors and churches must rethink the whole arena of “stewardship” and fundraising.

Elsewhere we have framed this transition as the shift from “stewardship” and its theology of giving to “trusteeship” and its theology of receiving. In stewardship one gives to God a portion of what one has. In trusteeship one receives for oneself a portion of what is God’s. “Freely you have received; freely give,” Jesus said.34

The Greek word oikonomos, from which we derive our word economy, is comprised of two Greek words: oikos=house;nomos=rules or laws. An oikonomos is someone who manages the house or oikos (property) of the owner according to the nomos of the owner. Christians frequently act as if we’re the owners. But it’s not our property. It’s not our estate. It’s not our wealth. It’s theologically incorrect to say “ours” about anything we have, because followers of Jesus own nothing. We are trustees for the true owner. The money may be in our bank accounts; the title may be in our names; but we are only the trustees of what is in the bank or on the deed.

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Everything that is not given is lost.

Indian proverb

No one “gives” to God. We only “give back” to God. “All things come from You, and of Your own have we given You.”35 The implications for the future of traditional churches are revolutionary:

  • Every pastor is now a fund-raiser and is never not involved in a capital campaign.
  • Every church needs a cash cow and every pastor a second occupation.
  • Every church needs to digitize their giving as much as possible and use offering plates only symbolically.
  • Every church needs to get used to paying taxes.
  • Every house of worship needs to be prepared to be a “housing project”—providing space for marginalized people such as immigrants, the homeless, the sick and dying, and the elderly.

The very ability of the editors of GQ magazine to take on an established canon and replace it with their own divinations is a gift of Christianity to the world. Toleration and liberality come of a Protestant concern for the individual’s unmediated access to the divine. The rejection of public power to enforce religious orthodoxy has its historical origins in European Protestant traditions. Even atheists who claim to live a “moral life” are living a morality shaped and “haunted”36 by centuries of Jewish-Christian teaching. As Matthew Parris wrote, “Whether or not we ourselves believe in God, we’ve all soaked up the ethical teachings.”37

One of the most hapless figures in church history is Michael Servetus, the Spanish theologian, physician, and Renaissance humanist. In fleeing the Catholic Inquisition in 1553, he made the mistake of hiding out in John Calvin’s sanctuary—Geneva, Switzerland. Servetus’s views on the Trinity made him as despised by the Protestants as by the Catholics. When Calvin found out he was hiding in Geneva, he had him hunted down and imprisoned and then personally masterminded his prosecution as a heretic. Servetus was burned at the stake ten weeks later.

Other wings of the Reformation movement were aghast at what Calvin had wrought. One of the outraged was French Protestant preacher Sebastian Castellio (1515–63), a onetime apprentice of Calvin who fell out with his mentor when he was the only clergyman who remained in Geneva to care for the sick and the dying after an outbreak of the plague in 1643. Castellio responded to Calvin’s denial of freedom of religion with a statement that strikes at the heart of all human freedoms: “To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine. It is to kill a man.”38

Escape or Engage?

The temptation of the church of the future will be to escape, not engage, such an unsafe culture. Or if it engages, to let the world set the terms for weapons. But as Castellio himself wrote, “When Servetus fought with reasons and writings, he should have been repulsed by reasons and writings.”39 We must learn to use some new weapons in the future (weapons we actually should have been using in the past) if we are to engage the culture.

Besides, we are not given a choice of only going into those nations and cultures where the soil is open and receptive to the gospel. The great commission is a command to “go into all the world,”40 not just places where the soil is already tilled and the climate is conducive. All soils have one thing in common: They need to be seeded by the Good News. But every soil differs in color, topography, living organisms, and mineral content. The point of Jesus’ story about the four soils41 is not that we shouldn’t plant in problem soils but that we need to know what we’re up against. The church of the future will need more R & D than ever before if it is to keep its divine appointments.

There are times when fear is good. It must keep its

watchful place at the heart’s controls.

 

Aeschylus,

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THE ORESTEIA

Volcanic soil is some of the richest soil on the planet. Lava burns the ground at first but then enriches the soil with fertilizing elements such as iron, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, and the blood of the martyrs. A slow process called chemical weathering turns a destructive eruption into an enlivening enrichment, a luxuriant lava soil in which things like coffee, tea, and chocolate thrive. Hawaii’s Kona coffee is prized worldwide because soils that began as pumice from volcanic eruptions produce better coffee than soils that began as sediments deposited by rivers.

There are privileges that come when the church has a limited and liminal role or is lambasted and flamed—the privileges of suffering, sacrifice, constant misunderstanding, and forgiveness.42

One of our heroes is Eivind Berggrav (1884–1959), the Norwegian Lutheran bishop who resisted the Nazi occupation of Norway and refused to cooperate when he was instructed to change the liturgy to reflect the politics of National Socialism. When threatened by his Gestapo interrogators—“We will have you shot”—the bishop calmly replied, “Go ahead. Shoot me. And what will you do then?” That kind of confidence only comes from Christ.43

Taken from Rings of Fire by Leonard Sweet. Copyright © 2019. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries.


  1. See Susan Owens, The Ghost: A Cultural History (London: Tate, 2017).
  2. See Tim Shah and Tom Farr, “Defending Religion in the Public Square,” New York Times, December 27, 2011, https://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/12/22/is-americans-religious-freedom-under-threat/defending-religion-in-the-public-square.
  3. I know this firsthand, since I am married to a person who was brought up in just such a pagan household.
  4. The interview took place in 1776 and is recounted in Peter Gay, “A Passion for Liberty,” review of Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World, by Roy Porter, Times Literary Supplement, October 6, 2000, https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/private/a-passion-for-liberty/.
  5. See Bernadette Kehoe, “Cardinal Rejects Accusation that Faith Schools Are Socially Divisive,” Tablet, April 7, 2018, 29.
  6. 29. Pakistan literally means the “land of the pure [Muslim].”
  7. Tom Heneghan, “French Parliament Bans ‘Conspicuous Religious Signs,” Tablet, January 30, 2018, https://www.thetablet.co.uk/news/8477/french-parliament-bans-conspicuous-religious-signs-.
  8. John Molyneux, “More Than Opium: Marxism and Religion,” International Socialism 2, no. 119 (Summer 2008), https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/molyneux/2008/xx/religion.html.
  9. For illiberal liberalism and a new Puritanism, see John Gray, “The Problem of Hyper-Liberalism,” Times Literary Supplement, March 27, 2018, https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/john-gray-hyper-liberalism-liberty/.
  10. Elizabeth Pisani, Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation (New York: Norton, 2014).
  11. Matthew 10:8.
  12. 1 Chronicles 29:14, NKJV.
  13. Rowan Williams, quoted by Telegraph View, “Wise Words from Rowan Williams on Christianity in Britain,” Telegraph, April 27, 2014, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/10789477/Wise-words-from-Rowan-Williamson-on-Christianity-in-Britain.html.
  14. Matthew Parris, “Millions of Us Honestly Don’t Know What Our Duty Is to Migrants—and Christianity Doesn’t Help,” Spectator, September 5, 2015, https://www.spectator.co.uk/2015/09/millions-of-us-honestly-dont-know-what-our-duty-is-to-migrants-and-christianity-doesnt-help/. Alister McGrath has also made the case that Western culture is living off the borrowed moral capital of a religion it rejected, in his Why God Won’t Go Away: Engaging with the New Atheism (Nashville: Nelson, 2011), and The Big Question: Why We Can’t Stop Talking about Science, Faith, and God (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015). See also Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2017).
  1. This sentence serves as the title of a chapter in Dominic Erdozain, The Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
  2. Sebastian Castellio, quoted in Stanford Rives, Did Calvin Murder Servetus? (North Charleston, SC: Booksurge, 2008), 344.
  3. Mark 16:15.
  4. See Matthew 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8:4-15.
  5. In April 2018, Facebook banned a Franciscan ad showing Jesus on the cross because it was “shocking and excessively violent.”
  6. Edwin Hanton Robertson, Bishop of the Resistance: A Life of Eivind Berggrav, Bishop of Oslo, Norway (St. Louis: Concordia, 2000).
  7. Lisa Cron, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence (New York: Ten Speed, 2012), 6.

CGM

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