How can we best commend the gospel to the political and cultural elites in our post-Christian, secular, and progressive liberal contexts? This is a question evangelicals are facing in all Western countries, but especially in Western Europe.
Tim Keller recently provided a masterclass in gracious apologetics when he spoke at the Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast in the Houses of Parliament in London. His address—“What Can Christianity Offer Our Society in the 21st Century?”—ought to be watched by pastors, lobbyists, and church members alike, as it will equip them with fresh arguments and models how to speak well of Christ.
The event took place in Westminster Hall, which was built in 1097. It was attended by 170 members of Parliament (MPs) and members of the House of Lords, which are the upper and lower chambers of the United Kingdom Parliament. The audience included several senior members of the British government, including Prime Minister Teresa May. Keller sat between May and Robert Johnson, the American ambassador to the Court of St. James.
Evangelicals in the UK
It’s highly unusual for an avowed evangelical to have the opportunity to speak to the upper echelons of the British establishment. Although there is no formal separation between church and state, and there are established churches in England and Scotland, public life in contemporary Britain is in practice highly secular. National religion at public events and in the media tends to be either banal, moralistic, or liberal.
According to the best statistics, no more than 3 percent of the population of 65 million are evangelical Christians, and the UK has the world’s ninth-slowest-growing evangelical community, with annual growth currently less than 0.0 percent. All mainstream political parties support a progressive agenda on issues such as same-sex marriage and transgender rights. Moreover, evangelical Christians have felt increasingly marginalized and have experienced the restrictive effects of equalities legislation and the prohibition of “hate speech,” which has made some fearful of practicing their faith and speaking the gospel.
Evangelical Christianity is perceived by many to be obscurantist and intolerant, especially toward women and the homosexual community. Many mainstream churches are deeply divided on these issues, with “traditionalists” largely lampooned for holding to historic biblical morality. Aggressive secularists want to see religion excluded from the public square, and many, in light of Islamic terrorist atrocities at home and abroad, have concluded that religion is dangerous to the cohesion and safety of society. Evangelicalism has now become associated in the public mind with America’s Trump-supporting Religious Right, which is viewed almost entirely negatively this side of the Atlantic.
This is the context into which Keller spoke, and both the content and also tone of his speech show why he’s exactly the right person to have done so. He’s the opposite of the British prejudiced caricature of an American evangelical preacher. He’s urbane, cultured, in touch with the latest academic research, and reasoned and reasonable in the way he speaks. He even looks similar to the British actor Sir Patrick Stewart! All these factors help gain him a hearing. He can’t easily be dismissed.
Christianity Is Good for the UK
The central thrust of Keller’s speech was that Christianity has been, and can be, good for British society. His text was Jesus’s command that his disciples be “salt and light.” He started by showing how Christians had shaped British culture over the centuries, transforming the honor/shame culture of the Anglo-Saxons with the other-centered ethic of love now taken for granted in our law and society. The virtues we rightly prize so highly today—including equal dignity for all men and women—are the result of Christianity. Moreover, the concept of universal human rights originated in medieval Christianity. Christians were the first people in any society to oppose the institution of slavery as a matter of principle, and women’s suffrage has Christian origins. Keller went on to show that these values ultimately depend on the ethic of self-sacrifice typified by Jesus and echoed by his disciples.
Keller is at his best when diagnosing the malaise and inconsistencies of contemporary ethics and ideologies. He deftly summarized the arguments of public intellectuals and philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Charles Taylor, Jurgen Habermas, Kyle Harper, and Larry Hurtado in a way anyone could understand. He showed it’s impossible for a culture that pursues self-actualization and self-realization to also keep pursuing justice and the elimination of poverty and inequality, as these can only be achieved by self-renunciation.
His speech was primarily an exercise in pre-evangelism rather than direct evangelism, and had echoes of Paul’s methodology in his Areopagus address in Acts 17. However, Keller used a story about the remarkable way the Amish community responded to a mass school shooting to point clearly and unambiguously to Jesus, showing how their culture was based on “being saved by what Jesus had done.” He highlighted the bankruptcy of works-religion in contrast to the saving death and resurrection of Jesus in our place.
Finally, he ended with a not-too-veiled call to the politicians present to uphold religious liberty for Christians by continuing to allow them to be different, rather than forcing them to conform to the wider culture. Christians have been most beneficial to societies when they have kept their distinctness, their “saltiness.” This is an urgent issue in the UK, where the drive for “diversity” has sometimes seemed to privilege all communities except Christians.
Effect Going Forward
It’s to be hoped that many present were helped to see Christianity in a different light, and that by the power of the Holy Spirit they might be brought to new life in Christ. In a written statement after the event, Prime Minister Teresa May said, “The Christian gospel has transformed the United Kingdom, with its values and teachings helping to shape the laws, customs, and society of the country.”
May added that the Prayer Breakfast was “an excellent opportunity both to celebrate Christians’ ongoing contribution to this country and to reflect on the role Christianity can play in contemporary public life,” and she urged those attending the annual event to continue their “engagement as Christians in public life for the common good of all.”
Keller made the striking observation that, because our culture believes moral values are socially constructed subjective preferences, when we have to engage with people who don’t share our values, all we can do is “yell” in anger and outrage. Tragically, this is exactly how many evangelicals have responded to secularism. But Keller has shown us a better way of gracious engagement. Jesus Christ calls us to a life of radical self-sacrifice and self-renunciation. We must take up our cross and follow him. Only if we retain our distinctive saltiness—in what we believe, how we live, and how we speak—can we influence our nation for good, commend the gospel we preach, and point people to the Savior we all need. This is relevant to all Western countries, including the United States.
Please do pray for us in Britain, that Keller’s ministry at the Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast will bear fruit, but more importantly that the small minority of evangelicals will heed his message and remain faithful.