I’ve been reading a fair few cultural critiques lately (C.S. Lewis, Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor, Andrew Root, and Rod Dreher). Each of these authors is trying to articulate what makes faith in the modern world challenging and the cultural forces that make conversion so unlikely for the average Westerner. And honestly? It’s been kind of a bummer. To be clear, I think there’s immense value for Christians in each of these writers. To share the gospel effectively, we have to understand the people around us. What do they long for? What do they expect? What do they think is reasonable? What parts of the faith will they find to be a challenge? Given the massive cultural shift over the past 50 years, churches need to realize that the mission field has changed and they have to adapt to be effective ministers of the gospel. At the same time, reading these books repeatedly can breed a sense of desperation. It’s clear the Church no longer has the privileged status it once had.
Certain eras just had a tremendous energy around faith. For example, if you’ve ever read the diaries of old Methodist preachers from the earliest days of America, you know that their experiences are totally incomprehensible for a modern Christian. “I preached the gospel in a field today. Five-hundred were converted through the grace of God. Huzzah!” Seriously? How on Earth did you pull that off? To be fair, the diary entries tend to end in mass conversions or the preacher having tomatoes hucked at them, but still! There’s that sense that things are MOVING! Today, there’s not that same movement. Cultural critiques can help us put our finger on some of the factors that have made things harder, but they can’t make them go away. A truth that once seemed so obvious that people might convert on the spot is now so challenging for people to accept that there are active, identifiable cultural barriers preventing people from hearing that good news. It can all start to feel a little hopeless. When you put all those thinkers together, you end up with one massive decline narrative about Christianity in the West.
It’s not just reading philosophy that can lead you to feel hopeless. A lot of churches have pretty strong decline narratives themselves. Mind you, not all. There are some big churches that are doing very well for themselves! But converts to those churches are often drawn from smaller churches, rather than from the ranks of non-Christians. The shrunken churches that are left behind end up with a distinct decline narrative. “There used to be so many more people here.” “Those are the classrooms we don’t use anymore.” “What gets young people to go to church? Why aren’t they coming?” Again, some of this is good. Congregations need to look at the tough realities of their situation! But a lot of it feels hopeless. Looking at the bad is only helpful insofar as it can direct us to the good.
So where’s the hope for Christians in a post-Christian era? How can we stay excited when it feels like things are going downhill?
It can help to remember that the challenges we face aren’t anything near the persecutions that other believers have experienced. There are countries where you can get killed for being Christian. There are places where evangelizing is illegal. What we’re facing? It’s nothing compared to that. And so many of them didn’t face their harsh realities with hopelessness. They were joyful to suffer for the one they loved.
The Martyrdom of Polycarp is a beautiful second-century story of someone was joyful in the face of wild adversity. The culture that second-century Roman Christians were living in was openly hostile. If you couldn’t tell from the title, they killed Christians. In this particular account, they’re going to kill Polycarp (a Christian bishop) if he doesn’t deny his faith make a sacrifice to the emperor (spoiler: he doesn’t). Here’s a community that has EVERY REASON to be frustrated by the philosophy of their day and is facing challenges to ministry that we can’t even fathom— but they don’t express any hopelessness in the story. Just look at this excerpt:
All the martyrdoms, then, were blessed and noble which took place according to the will of God. For it becomes us who profess greater piety than others, to ascribe the authority over all things to God. And truly, who can fail to admire their nobleness of mind, and their patience, with that love towards their Lord which they displayed?— who, when they were so torn with scourges, that the frame of their bodies, even to the very inward veins and arteries, was laid open, still patiently endured, while even those that stood by pitied and bewailed them. But they reached such a pitch of magnanimity, that not one of them let a sigh or a groan escape them; thus proving to us all that those holy martyrs of Christ, at the very time when they suffered such torments, were absent from the body, or rather, that the Lord then stood by them, and communed with them.Martyrdom of Polycarp, Ch. 2
They saw their bishop get stabbed to death by the authorities, and they’re praising God! Because God is in control. Even if circumstances are horrendous, they trust him. If he wants them to endure, they’ll do it with a smile. There’s not even a hint of fear. All of this is coming to pass because of God, and it will all turn out right because of God.
I’ll skip the bulk of the middle, but feel free to read it over at New Advent here if you’re curious.
After the story of Polycarp’s death, the final chapter ends with this:
We wish you, brethren, all happiness, while you walk according to the doctrine of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; with whom be glory to God the Father and the Holy Spirit, for the salvation of His holy elect, after whose example the blessed Polycarp suffered, following in whose steps may we too be found in the kingdom of Jesus Christ!Martyrdom of Polycarp, Ch. 22
They wish their readers happiness. Not worldly happiness, but the kind of happiness that Polycarp had. The kind of happiness is the kind Paul felt when he wrote, “Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain,” (Phil 1:20-21). Real happiness isn’t rooted in culture or circumstance; it’s rooted in God.
The world is different. Converting to Christianity isn’t the obvious choice. Going to church isn’t as common. We won’t likely won’t enjoy the cultural clout and full buildings that we used to, but the happiness that we’re aiming for was never in full buildings or philosophical ease. It’s in loving Jesus and trusting him no matter what.