Recently, I was listening to Krista Tippett's podcast, "On Being," when she interviewed Phyllis Tickle. Phyllis, founding editor of Religion Department at Publisher's Weekly, is an important voice in the American religious landscape. Her book, The Great Emergence, is one of the best books I've read in the past few years.
On the program, she made a statement that has captured my imagination over the past few days:
"It's very dangerous for one's soul to be a part of a religion that's socially acceptable." -Phyllis Tickle
Which got me to thinking, "What is our end, our goal, when it comes to Christianity's impact on culture?"
It's something we ought to be crystal clear on.
What are we trying to do as Christians?
What is our goal?
And what is our means to that goal?
Do you have it in mind?
Now, a cautionary tale.
For its first 3 centuries of existence, the early church was not considered socially acceptable. Christians were the targets of persecution. Many were martyred for their faith.
But early in the 4th century, all of that changed. The church became socially acceptable.
The change was slow, but sweeping. Christians went from persecuted minority to the official religion of the Roman Empire within a period of 70 years.
Now, if you are a Christian during this period, this has to be the greatest development you could imagine. Who would have thought that a religion that began with several hundred witnesses would become the official religion of the Roman Empire? Who would have thought that the empire that killed the Apostle Paul would one day build cathedrals to house worship to Paul's God.
Can you imagine being a parent or grandparent who lived under persecution? All of those prayers you prayed to God have been answered. Your children and grandchildren won't have to live out their faith under the threat of persecution or death. God had finally come through.
Which is a change of sorts for this God.
After all, this God never seemed all that good at making his people socially acceptable. The people of God have always been on the underside of empires more powerful than they. They lived under several empires: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Rome.
And while being socially acceptable must have seemed like a positive development to Christians during that time period, it wasn't all positive.
Because when everyone's a Christian, very few are truly Christians. It's one thing to claim Christianity when it might cost you your life, but it's another thing to claim the name of Christ when the emperor worships your God.
And eventually, the church that had once been persecuted by the sword, took up the sword to persecute others. Moving from persecuted to persecutor, the church had become the church militant and triumphant. The Kingdom of God that had been known through a king who rules with a towel, a donkey, and a cross became the Empire of Christendom. In the name of the one who taught us to love our enemies, the church burned its enemies alive. And we still live with the reputation of the Inquisition and the Crusades.
And that story of Christendom brings me back to Phyllis Tickle's words once more: "It's very dangerous for one's soul to be a part of a religion that's socially acceptable."
What do we want?
Are we mourning the fact that our socially acceptable religion seems to be slipping through our fingers? Are we trying to recover a pristine American era when things were "better."
I'm a part of the Restoration Movement. My family has been a part of this movement for many generations. We've sought to restore the church back to the way it was in the first century.
It's a noble project.
But while we've tried to restore many things from the first-century church, I've never heard anyone interested in recovering the social context of the first-century church.
We like our socially acceptable religion in America. Many of us pray that our kids and grandkids will be able to live out their faith without the threat of persecution or death.
But which is more dangerous for one's soul?
Following Jesus in a culture where Christianity is not socially acceptable?
Following Jesus in a culture where Christianity is socially acceptable?
And the answer to that question might very well define our goal for how following Jesus might just transform our culture in new, imaginative ways.
So, tell me. What's your your vision for how Christianity should impact our culture in the 21st century?