February 20, 2024

When Cultural Tailwinds Become Cultural Headwinds

The runner’s dreaded headwind takes time and effort to surmount

TailsWinds I Win/Headwinds I Lose

I remember a four times out-and-back marathon I ran a few years ago. Tailwind on the out, and increasingly strong headwind on the back. Every time I neared the turn to head back I felt the surge of dread and adrenalin knowing how hard it was going to get. I was hanging out to get back to the start line and head back out with the tailwind again.

I’ve spent quite a few years running thousands of kilometres each year. And quite a few years racing in events. And if there’s one thing that does my head in – and my times in – more than anything else, it’s a headwind. It’s fine in a training run, but it can blow a race plan out of the water.

If you’re a runner or a cyclist you’ll. know that feeling of turning a corner, or doing a 180 to go in the opposite direction, and “Bam!” The wind pushes hard against you. Your effort goes up. With luck the output stays the same. But often you start to lag.

Funny thing about a headwind compared to a tailwind: You never really notice the advantage of a tailwind. It’s often feels normal, unless it’s a gale. Often it feels calm!

It’s not that they don’t help. The science says that tailwinds can give you an advantage of about four seconds a kilometre. However a headwind can slow you down by about double that. Somehow that doesn’t seem fair!

When you turn around in a headwind that’s when things get harder. Your heart rate increases. You feel the strain. Often you have to readjust your pace goals. Sometimes the race plan goes out the window. And even if you do nail it, the energy exertion just to stay on pace can absolutely smash you. Sometimes it even feels easier to pull out of the race. Cultural Tailwinds

Cultural Tailwinds

It’s well documented in the West, though perhaps not described in this way, that the Christian faith has enjoyed cultural tailwinds for quite some time. Such a period of time in fact, that the Western church has perhaps normalised what it means to have a slight competitive advantage in the race.

Or as Aaron Renn might put it, in his new book Life In The Negative World, for a long period the Western church experienced a positive world, a favourable hand towards its framework even if people were not necessarily converted. There was a sense that the Christian way was the default way, and that even if people were not Christian, they were not Christian in a kind of Christian way.

Renn’s writing from a US perspective, and not as a pastor or theologian, but he describes a world in which at the very least the church was the chaplain to the state, and that a christianised culture gave tacit approval to christianised things. That was the cultural tailwind that we were running with.

Renn’s new book is worth a read

I won’t go into everything Renn says in his book, but it is worth a read, and not at all a handwringing exercise about how bad things are for Western Christians. In fact, compared to many pastoral/theological books on this issue, it’s hugely practical, with lots of suggestions – from a man who held a senior role in a major think tank and who has had a significant public life – on how to live in a more negative/headwind world.

As an aside, that it is the most practical of such books, tells me that too many pastor/theologians who write about such matters are either unaware of the cultural headwinds/negative world that is out there, or they simply don’t have a clue how to help the church navigate the world that actually exists for most believers outside the walls of the church or the academy.

Yet here’s the thing about that cultural tailwind. We didn’t notice we were running with it. We just assumed that that was the way life was. When we thought or spoke of difficult times for the church, or even severe persecution, we paid lip service to it, but simply assumed that those were strange times in the past, or strange lands in the present.

Cultural Headwinds

And then, Bam! We hit some cultural headwinds. Suddenly – or was it suddenly? – the Western church started to realise that the flow and direction of things was starting to go against it.

Suddenly – or not – many Christian leaders were wondering why they were pulling the same levers as before in terms of strategy and evangelism, but seeing less fruit.

Slowly, many people in the pews who were turning up for work, were discovering that being a Christian wasn’t just a little bit cute, or somewhat embarrassing, but was starting to be seen as retrograde, and even hostile to the vision of where their organisation was headed.

Suddenly, what seemed like arcane ideas around sex or identity or marriage or whatever, were now not only mainstream ideas, but considered the only ones worth celebrating or paying homage to in places that had rarely, if ever, celebrated what was once considered normal.

Suddenly people were keeping their heads down in order to not make a scene, or lose their job or be sidelined for that role that they thought might be theirs, given all their years of loyal service.

Suddenly family life was being torn apart by children or partners who were reassessing absolutely everything to do with what it means to be human, and what it means to have a gendered identity, etc.

Suddenly faith-based schools, which have had dream tailwind run for the past forty or so years, especially in Australia, are finding that government legislation is pushing hard against their vision and ethic, especially around sexuality and gender. There is an anthropological headwind pushing hard against the natural law that is grounded in creation, and that will be vindicated and celebrated in the new creation.

And all this is a way of saying that we have turned a corner and now we are running into cultural headwinds.

The Stress Signs

And as with running and actual headwinds, the stress signs are the same for cultural headwinds.

For while the tailwinds of the culture have seemed like normal life, even if they have been favourable conditions all along, when the headwinds start to buffet us we start to notice. We start to panic. The heart rate goes up, the cortisol levels rise, and the anxiety that you might not hit your goal, or even reach the finish line starts to kick in. So much seems like a strain. Stopping and pulling over to the side becomes an attractive option.

So what are some of these stress signs?

  1. Ministry Burn Out: We are seeing, within the church, a massive increase in ministry burn out among clergy and other staff. And this cannot be attributed to harder work conditions per se. In fact, it seems as if the workload hasn’t changed all that much in terms of hours.

But what has changed is expectations. Expectations and outcomes. Ministry staff are facing a challenge to once-assumed authority (not all bad), in a cultural setting in which church members are far less rusted on, and far more likely to cut and run than ever before. There appears to be unprecedented levels of opt-out in terms of lay leadership and volunteerism.

Church numbers are in decline, while regular attendance is down to one week in three. Pastors often feel that they are behind the eight-ball when it comes to understanding the everyday lives of their people, and their people are often not shy to tell them this.

Post-pandemic, ministry leaders are not simply talking about quitting. They are quitting. Meanwhile the replacement levels, witnessed through the decrease in those specifically training for church pastoral ministry at theological colleges across the West does not augur well for the future.

2. Societal Anxiety: This is not merely affecting Christians. There is a widespread anxiety epidemic that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. My wife observed prior to the pandemic that the levels of anxiety she was seeing among clients was through the roof. The cultural headwinds are buffeting us.

And now? Clinicians cannot keep apace of it. From generalised anxiety among adults, to crippling anxiety and school-refusal by young people, there is a tsunami of anxiety in our time. If we take seriously the consequences of trying to reframe reality, or denying the natural laws of anthropology, then there is going to be upheaval.

Christians are struggling with this anxiety as they wonder how they will navigate such headwinds for their children and for younger generations. They wonder if the gospel will be so buffeted by hostile forces in the near future that their efforts to disciple and train their children will all be in vain. Meanwhile their children wonder how they will navigate a world of work, online and actual relationships, when so much of what they assent to is viewed as transgressive.

3. Deepening Tribalism: We are seeing this on the Left and on the Right, and even in the church. The culture wars have come right up to our doors. Aaron Renn does a good job in his book highlighting how the progressive framework that is enervating a weak, timid church, is also enraging a more self-declared muscular Christianity that sees its role to win back the culture.

Call it Reconstructionist. Call it patriarchal. Call it what you will. But there is a growing pushback against what is perceived as the the constant capitulation, or at least the seeming tactical withdrawal, by some sections of the church in the West around the cultural hot button topics.

And to be honest, it’s easy to see why some go down this route, given the almost welcoming embrace that revisionist churches are giving to affirming theologies around matters of sex and gender. Easy to see why, even if it’s not the answer.

For the church to navigate the rocks on either side, she is going to have to convince those being buffeted by the headwinds that just as caving in to the progressive Left is not the answer, neither is the rage, despair and highly reactionary quasi-political and theological battles being waged on the Right.

Now don’t take my word for that. Aaron Renn also believes that. He’s not advocating for a Third Way, which he sees as a strategy for a neutral world – or a becalmed situation in which there is neither tailwind nor headwind. He believes – as do I – that the winsome strategy was perfectly suited for the neutral world.

He just doesn’t believe – as neither do I – that we live in such a world any longer. That’s no reason to throw away a winsome stance, but it does mean that winsome is no longer a strategy that will bear much fruit in terms of attracting or convincing people who are hostile to the Christian frame (the He Gets Us ad campaign being a case in point, in which a whole lot of effort and money is thrown in one direction of the culture wars).

Will The Wind Change Back?

At least in my marathon I knew that after about five or six kilometres I would be turning around again, and having a slight advantage, or at least a chance to catch my breath, with a tailwind. A chance to reassess my race and get the heart rate down, the energy output down, and a chance to rethink some tactics.

I don’t think, however that the wind is for change in the next few decades. That does not mean we will not see gospel fruit in that time, because God has saved people in every time and culture, and we are called to preach the gospel when the times are good and the times are not so good (2 Timothy 4:2).

But the church is going to have to think through some deep strategies and set itself to run the race into a headwind for some time. And I don’t think that will be easy. I don’t think that will see us be praised by the cultural and legislative leaders of our Western nations.

I think we’ll have to cut our sails according to our cloth, so to speak, and that we will find ourselves increasingly out of step and out of favour with the cultural direction.

I don’t think that will see corporations and large organs of public service celebrate the deep faith of their Christian employees any time soon. I don’t think that will make it any easier for Christians to have a gospe conversation in which they don’t become increasingly worried that they’re going to get sprung by one of the “gotcha” questions or assertions around sexuality and gender.

Yet run the race we must. In fact that’s what we read in Hebrews 12, isn’t it? We run the race with endurance, not only into the teeth of the cultural headwinds that had the original audience of the letter to the Hebrews shrinking back from owning Christ in the face of legal opposition by Rome and theological opposition by Judaism, but in the teeth of our own sin, which so easily entangles.

I don’t think the race will be easy, and I want to offer some other reflections in a further post as to how we tackle some of these stress signs that we experience running into the cultural headwinds. And if you want to read some of what I think in longer version then my new book, Futureproof, deals with these matters.

But to begin with we can be grateful for a forerunner in the face – the Lord Jesus — who ran the race before us and finished it, winning the ultimate prize and whose witnesses in both Old and New Covenant testify to the endurance that enables us to finish well, even if we are running into an almighty headwind.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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