What do we make of our cultural moment? You’ll hear the question in just about every gathering of evangelical Christians in America today. Some—particularly those of an older generation—think that the church’s relationship to society has inextricably changed, and that society cannot be “won back.” Others are more confident it still can be, and are working to that end.

The younger generation might agree, yet think that loss might actually be a good thing. They don’t wish to “take back America” but rather to engage the culture with “faithful presence.”

Who’s right?

Diagnose the Malady  

It is difficult, if not impossible, to form a reliable response unless the problem is rightly defined. Before asking “How are Christians to engage the current culture?” we must decide what we mean by the “current culture.”

Is it true that Christianity in America has never had it so bad, that Christians in America have been irretrievably moved to the sidelines? Or are such manifestations of handwringing and doomsday rhetoric more akin to self-fulfilling prophecies?

One way to decide is to look back. That much-derided tool—church history—provides us with precious perspective. When you read history, particularly in the original sources rather than through the lens of popular biographies, you find elements that speak to our situation. It’s certainly not new for Christians to think the end is nigh, for example, or that their situation is now so bad that the wheel of destiny can never turn back in their favor again.

Take two well-known examples. Martin Luther considered Islam’s pressure on Europe of such calamitous danger that it was hard to imagine “Christian Europe” would hold out. Or try reading what Christians were saying before the First Great Awakening (mid-1700s), and certainly before the Second Great Awakening (early 1800s). They thought the whole Christian project in America was under threat, and couldn’t see a way out of the malaise.

Of course, we know that’s not quite how the story ended, but they didn’t. I’m neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but one thing seems fairly certain: Barring divine inspiration, those who attempt to predict the future are more often wrong than right. All the statistical anomalies that “futurists” rely on take one data point, and another data point, and then extrapolate them into the future, assuming the trend will carry on more or less as it has so far. Of course, such predictions are often inaccurate. The future constantly surprises. Just look at President Trump, whose election precipitated much of this current conversation.

It’s far from obvious to me that things are only going to get worse. That may happen. Or it may not. If anything, what seems to occur among historical movements across history is a wave in one direction, then a reaction wave in another.  

His Commission, Our Mission

Having by now, through the tool of history, poured appropriate scorn, or at least humility, on all attempts to predict what happens next, we can better observe the pattern of the New Testament’s teaching. The book of 1 Peter, for example, is written to a people scattered by persecution and charged to have hope:

I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it. (1 Pet. 5:12)

Additionally, the Sermon on the Mount shows that Jesus well understood his people should expect hardship and persecution.

We are to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth. There will be opposition to those who shine the light of Christ in the face of an unredeemed world. Our mission, whatever the cultural trends, is Christ’s commission: to take courage and proclaim God’s gospel, for the sake of all nations, for God’s glory.

Editors’ note: On Friday, March 17, College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, will host One Night Centered on God to celebrate the ongoing power of Christ through 500 years of Reformation. Worship will be led by Keith and Kristyn Getty, and Jon Guerra will perform. Ed Stetzer, Ajith Fernando, Bryan Loritts, Phil Ryken, and Josh Moody will preach.