I was speaking to a well regarded UK apologist, pastor and author by Skype from Scotland the other day and he said this:
It’s never been more hostile to the gospel, but never more open either.
What he meant was that while there is a concerted push against the Christian frame among the political, cultural and legal class of his nation, and in the West in general, there is also a wave of openness to the gospel that he’d not witnessed before.
And that’s in Scotland, which is about ten years ahead of Australia in terms of the secular push in the state. There’s a positive glee in people when Christianity takes another battering; a sense that we’ve had things our way for too long, and the chickens are coming home to roost.
And we can see why that may be the case. Perhaps there’s a reckoning coming, although unfortunately it’s not Christians in the West that are experiencing the full ire of the post-Christian secularist hostility, it’s the Christians under severe persecution elsewhere.
It’s only belatedly in the UK that the government and the media is drawing attention to the fact that there is a wholesale emptying of the Middle East of Christians and that the term “genocide” is a good way to describe it.
British Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said this recently, in the wake of a report he had commissioned:
What we have forgotten in this atmosphere of political correctness is actually the Christians that are being persecuted are some of the poorest people on the planet. In the Middle East the population of Christians used to be about 20%; now it’s 5%.
The Guardian newspaper’s journalist Giles Fraser, who is also a parish priest. put it like this:
Why the blind spot – especially given that we do care about so many other forms of oppression? No, it’s not a competition. But I do wonder whether on some unconscious level the secular and broadly progressive west thinks that Christianity had it coming. They associate Christianity with popes and their armies, with crusades and inquisitions, with antisemitism, British imperialism, Trump supporters and abortion protesters.
So there’s a touch of Schadenfreude in the West about the squeeze being put on Christianity, but the biggest losers are not us. The biggest losers are those Christians abroad under intense suffering that our cultural and social elite can’t or won’t focus on, because it might give oxygen to Christian grievances in the West. After all, surely the wholesale purging of entire people groups is a small price to pay, if the trade off is a diminished voice for Christianity in the public square in London or wherever.
But back on topic. At the very same time there is a growing hostility in the West, many evangelists, churches and student groups on campuses (now there is some genuine hostility right there), report that there’s never been so much interest in the gospel from people who are searching for something, anything, that might provide a sense of purpose .
And there’s something exciting about that. And something we should have picked up on earlier, if we’d had our theological antennae dialled up, and if we’d stopped being so busy making ourselves so comfortable.
For in our modern world the right to choose just about anything has never been so available to people. But it’s not working for them. They’re pulling all the right levers, pushing all the right buttons, and the result is a record level of anxiety, stress and depression in our culture.
Why? Because the goal or telos of the choice has become the choice itself, and it cannot bear that existential weight. What do you choose? Why the right to choose of course. The right to choose is writ in stone. But what to choose, and why seems almost beyond many people. Meaning and purpose seem largely absent, or the meanings and purposes assigned collapse under the weight or reality.
Hence we read articles about millennials struggling to find meaning in their work – or at least enough meaning. Writing in The Australian, Simon Kuestenmacher lays much of the blame at the feet of the decline of religion. He states as part of the solution:
we must stop our obsession with happiness and satisfaction in the here and now
Yet the here and now is all we’ve got when we suck religion and the transcendent out of the equation. Where is the “then and there” if the here and now is all that is allowed to be talked about (except when politicians talk about who or who is not going to hell).
The here and now was supposed to be enough. That’s what we were told. The here and now was supposed to provide a strong enough platform to build meaning and purpose for everyone, while laundering out all that icky stuff like ethical statements and particularism when it came to salvation, and all that dogma. Turns out the “here and now” stuff is not enough. Who-da thunk eh?
Which brings me back to the original observation by my Scottish friend. Never more hostile: Never more open. Would you be willing to put up with a bit more hostility if it meant more gospel fruit? I mean we’ve whinged and moaned and complained about how little gospel fruit there’s been for years and years. And now all of a sudden we’re seeing an increase in the number of people willing to give it a try. And what’s the cost? It’s a mere trifle; a mere blip on the hostility meter, compared with what our brothers and sisters are experiencing around the world.
And who knows, perhaps we’re discovering that not only is there a correlation between the hostility and the openness, but there’s a causation too. That the deeper the hostility – the open anger and scorn Christians are beginning to face – is making people more curious. And why are they curious? Because they’re often wondering why, if the capital “C” “Church” is so bad, that many of the small “c” “church” people they meet have got their act together. How actual Christians don’t seem so bad.
I’ve met several non-Christians recently who are completely taken with how chilled out, together and settled the Christians they meet at are, compared to everyone else whose at the party or the pub or the dinner. And they’re not older people, they’re students studying Arts, the least likely cohort one would imagine. Yet here they are, rocking up at our church because their fellow student, a congregation member, just seems so different to everyone else.
So what would you trade? Less hostility, but less openness? The good old days of the 1980s where it was a lot easier and you didn’t have to answer any question more awkward than where the dinosaurs came from?
Or more hostility and more openness? Where you can be confronted by people who see us as part of the problem in society not part of the solution. And where, like my friend in the eastern states of Australia tomorrow, everyone in the office is wearing rainbow colours to celebrate sexual diversity, and you’re there in your jeans and blue shirt?
Of course NO hostility and TOTAL openness would be fantastic. You just can’t find that anywhere in the Bible, not if you’re being faithful at least.
More hostile, but more open? Or less hostile, but less open? What would you choose?