Main_Street_Bldg_Chesterton_IN_2012We’re in the midst of a seismic shift in terms of culture and worldview right now in the United States of America, and orthodox Christians who seek to order their lives according to Scripture will likely lose access to institutions of mainstream influence.

Such is already the case in most secular universities and in the mainstream media. More marginalization is sure to follow.

But here’s a question we should raise: is life at the margins as bad as we think?

Is the Common Culture As Important These Days?

In The Fractured Republic (see my previous posts here and here), Yuval Levin makes an important point: Christians may no longer be as influential or involved in the mainstream institutions of society, but those same institutions no longer have as much sway.

We are certainly witnessing something of a long-term hostile takeover of the dominant mainstream institutions of our society, but we are also living through the collapsing power and influence of those very institutions, which may turn out to be far more important. All sides in our culture wars would be wise to focus less attention than they have been on dominating our core cultural institutions, and more on building thriving subcultures. (165)

To put it another way, Christians who have taken up arms in the culture war are fighting for what our society’s common culture will be, but Levin says this battle is over a rapidly shrinking sphere of influence. The common culture itself is disappearing. 

We are looking for a new norm, a new ethic to define the common culture. But the common culture is much less important than it used to be. (174)

So, even if the “common culture” is anti-Christian in the future, the new norms and expectations won’t be as powerful or persuasive as they were a generation ago.

Pessimistic Benedict vs. Optimistic Benedict 

So what should Christians do?

Some believe the battle for the heart and soul of America is lost. Christians should retreat to our homes and churches and bide our time, hoping to keep some semblance of our distinctive ethic alive. This is the pessimistic version of the Benedict Option.

Levin offers a more optimistic proposal:

The more hopeful mode suggests that emphasizing the needs and well-being of one’s near-at-hand community first and foremost can be, for social conservatives, not an alternative to fighting for the soul of the larger society, but a most effective means of doing so. (176)

In other words, Christians must not withdraw from politics but redirect their energy toward local communities. It’s a shift away from Washington, D.C., toward your neighborhood, city, and state.

Focusing on your own near-at-hand community does not involve a withdrawal from contemporary America, but an increased attentiveness to it. (178)

Levin is on to something here. How many of us are so focused on national elections and the 24-hour cable news talking heads that we fail to notice what is going on right around us? Surely “loving our neighbors” should mean our actual neighbors, not just following the latest developments within the Beltway.

Energizing Your Church and Community

Levin does not encourage retreat or withdrawal. Instead, he urges Christians to fight for the heart and soul of America on another front.

The goal is to reengage our local communities and strengthen our local churches so that both become quietly subversive—strong enough to withstand the hostility from the common culture that no longer shares the same values. Levin writes:

The point of subcultural conservatism . . . is not withdrawal or quietism, but an emphasis on community—on local sources of solidarity rooted in common moral premises—as a way of forming human beings and citizens who can then contribute to their society as well as to their community. (183)

As I’ve mentioned before, The Awakening of Miss Prim by Spanish novelist Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera is a fictional example of the kind of community Levin may have in mind. We can also learn something about this from our African-American brothers and sisters who have long thrived on the margins and are now telling us, “Welcome, folks. We’ve been here a long time.”

Similarly, on a recent episode of the Pass the Mic podcast, Collin Hansen, editorial director for The Gospel Coalition, explains how his disillusionment with national party politics has led him to focus on his city of Birmingham and a nearby town suffering from terrible economic distress. The more he has recognized his powerlessness to change things at the national level, the more attention he has given to the town right next door.

What Will Set Apart the Church

If “going local” is the way forward for social conservatives, local churches will have a glorious opportunity to stand out from the world.

Our national political discourse has become increasingly mired in identity politics—the idea that constituencies are determined by identities like “race,” “gender,” and “sexual orientation.” The temptation is for Christians to adopt the same kind of identity or become just another voting bloc. That’s the wrong way to go. Levin explains:

Subcultural conservatism would have to be embodied in actual, living communities—rather than in identities, which can be hung on individuals. Identity politics is the logical conclusion of the premises of our era of radical individualism. A subcultural communitarianism is a counterbalance to that logic. (180)

The church has a different story to tell. Here, we find a community that transcends the identities of this political era. Here we find people coming together from different races, different backgrounds, and yes, even different sexual attractions and histories—and yet who believe the gospel, submit to the lordship of Christ, and commit to the biblical picture of human flourishing.

A genuine community is not an intangible mass grouping (like “Jewish Americans”), but a concrete, tangible grouping (like “our congregation”) that gives you a role, a place, and a set of relationships and responsibilities to other particular human beings. (181)

The church must be more than just a gathering of people whose primary identities are found elsewhere. The Christian’s primary allegiance is to Christ.

Christians belong to the Church. We are a community, not a constituency. Why go local? Because life-changing things don’t just happen in Washington, D.C. The Spirit of the living God is in your local congregation.