A new study indicates that Americans are becoming less religious. Without getting into the causes of this phenomenon or critiquing the study itself, let’s simply accept that we are living in an era in which Christianity is an increasingly less robust force in the lives of millions of our fellow countrymen.
So, now what? Evangelicals would be gravely mistaken to wring their hands and mourn for the good old days. Secularism is upon us, and with it, not only apathy toward Christianity but, among some, overt hostility to it. How are we going to respond?
At least some of the answers are as old as the Book of Acts. The Roman world was, in some important ways, quite like ours. Power, pleasure, and plenty were as much or more the gods of that ancient age as the statues representing Greco-Roman deities. Sexual profligacy was an accepted norm. Entertainment, often horrifyingly violent, was culturally pervasive. The elites saw themselves as the chosen few to whom the common people owed servility.
It was into this culture that the good news of God becoming man in the person of a Jewish laborer from a small province along the eastern Mediterranean coast transformed first a handful of His followers and then took root throughout the Empire like seed on fertile soil. The New Testament mentions 33 distinct churches, which no doubt is an incomplete list.
What did the early Christians do that enabled them to advance the truth of a crucified and risen Savior so persuasively? What follows is not a comprehensive list, but points to some truths worth considering.
First, they talked about it. The whole body of New Testament literature speaks to the fact that the early believers told others about Jesus. This was not always easy; Paul’s statement, “I am not ashamed of the gospel” (Romans 1:16) indicates that evangelism had its challenges. But nonetheless, by the end of the first century, the gospel went forward not only in the Roman Empire but as far south as what is now Ethiopia and as far east as India.
We should be like those first Christ-followers. Gracious but purposeful conversations about Who Christ is and what He has done should be our stock-in-trade. There is so much material on evangelism available freely on the web, in bookstores and churches, in Bible studies and fellowship groups, that all who understand the necessity of sharing their faith can learn to do this well. And: while practice may not mean perfect, it can sure bolster one’s confidence and hone his or her presentation.
Second, the early Christians recognized that while they were in the culture of their time, they were not of it. For generations, being a Christian in America has not been unpleasant. While some derision comes with even tepid faith in Jesus, Evangelicals could exist within the mainstream of our society with only the occasional ripple of discomfort.
No longer. The refusal of the early Christians to offer a sacrifice to the Emperor resulted in the allegiance to Jesus being a capital crime. We’re not there yet, but when even someone as temperate as the late Tim Keller is denied recognition by Princeton Seminary — once the bastion of Reformed faith in America — because of his orthodox stance on human sexuality, we know times have changed.
American Evangelicals need to come to grips with the fact that the gospel is offensive (Galatians 5:11). We tell people they are sinners, that they face eternal judgment unless they repent and believe in Christ alone, and that practices God’s Word says are evil cannot be rationalized as acceptable. So, between the inherent offense of the cross and the antagonism of our culture, we have to decide that this world is not our home.
Third, it is absolutely imperative that our churches teach our youth (a) the essentials of Christian faith, (b) why these essentials are vital, and (c) that following them faithfully leads to a flourishing life.
Sound doctrine is the heart of Christianity. It’s not a matter of the rote memorization of some arcane Bible facts, but the internalization of living truth that alters our perspectives, priorities, and understanding of all that is right and good. For example, when we talk about Jesus’ death on the cross and use terms like “atonement” and “propitiation,” we’re not employing theological terms to impress and humiliate. Understood correctly, words like these brighten our minds and deepen our hearts and souls because they help us know God better.
Anyone can learn basic theology, not to foster intellectual pride but to represent God and His Word well. A good study Bible is a great place to start.
A less religious America is a field ripe for spiritual harvest. Let’s get to work.
Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Lecturer in Regent University’s Honors College.
EDITORS NOTE: This Washington Stand column is republished with permission. ©2023 Family Research Council.
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