Practicing Faith in a Post-Faith World

Five Ways to Respond

Article by

Pastor, King’s Church, London

The West is not as post-Christian as many imagine. No doubt there are places on earth, including Middle America, where it might feel like the wider culture is currently rejecting Christianity at an unprecedented rate. But the milieu that characterizes post-Christendom is still (despite itself) irreducibly Christian.

Imagine a cryogenically frozen Viking waking up in twenty-first-century Scandinavia, or a Mayan exploring contemporary Mexico, or Asterix and Obelix encountering German social democracy, or French laïcité. As “secular” as those places might feel to many of us, their values would seem deeply Christian to anyone who had not experienced them before.

Nevertheless, living in the world of late modernity obviously presents plenty of challenges for orthodox believers.

Is Christianity Losing?

Whatever we call the religious outlook of our societies — secularism, post-secularism, post-Christianity, or something else entirely — people are still skeptical toward Christianity and in some cases downright hostile.

The pagan gods of Mammon, Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Gaia, and Dionysus still trouble modernity in varying levels of disguise. Renouncing them to follow Christ is still costly. It is still harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:23–24). The church still bears many flaws, and the cultural influence of Christianity has often served to magnify those flaws to those outside her doors.

An internal, psychological challenge compounds those external, cultural ones: some Christians feel like they are losing. In some countries, this is a question of sheer numbers. For a variety of reasons, including prosperity, fertility, and the privatization of postwar life, the percentage of people in church on Sundays has steadily fallen in many Western nations since the Second World War (while rising substantially in parts of the Majority World over the same period). Even in America (often seen as an outlier), over two-thirds of churches are in numerical decline. At the same time, there is a widely held perception that Christian convictions have become increasingly marginal in public life, which in many cases is clearly true.

Five Responses of Faith

That decline in numbers and of perceived relevance has met with varied responses from the Western church. Some of those responses (repentance, prayer, a renewed commitment to discipleship) are certainly positive. Others (fear, hostility, and the pursuit of influence or power by compromising morally or theologically) are plainly negative.

Some observers remain optimistic and argue that things are not as bad as they seem; others think they are a good deal worse. Some argue the church needs a radical change in strategy; others claim the challenge is not really a methodological one at all, and the church should essentially hunker down, get used to life on the margins, prepare to suffer for what she believes, pray, and trust that the God who brings life to the dead will do something new.

“The milieu that characterizes post-Christendom is still (despite itself) irreducibly Christian.”

So, how do we live by faith in a culture losing its faith? In my book Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West, I consider how the church responded to a similar crisis nearly 250 years ago — in particular the celebration of grace, the pursuit of freedom, and an articulation of Christian truth — and I suggest the last two centuries have only served to elevate the importance of these three responses. In this piece, I’ll mention five additional responses which, though perhaps obvious, are nevertheless vital for believers in an age like ours.

1. We Suffer Well

It’s hard to overstate the role that suffering has played in the expansion of Christianity. Unfortunately, a naïve version of this claim persists, which attributes to suffering almost magical powers to grow the church automatically (a view which will not survive contact with the history of Japan, say, or the Arabian peninsula). But from the Acts of the Apostles onwards, when Christians are marginalized, robbed, imprisoned, and even martyred, the gospel grows because nothing validates the confident hope of resurrection like suffering.

For Christians in the West, this has long been a challenge because believers have rarely been persecuted in ways that most unbelievers would recognize. But society is changing. Followers of Jesus here now increasingly do suffer, in various ways, for the sake of the name. And preparing for that potential mistreatment — in ways that neither overstate nor understate the current challenges, and equip the saints to respond without resentment, to turn the other cheek, to suffer joyfully — is vital to living by faith in a post-Christian culture.

2. We Counter-Catechize

Counter-catechesis is Alan Jacobs’s term for what the church has always had to do: train disciples what to believe and how to live in response to (and in dialogue with) the specific ways that their wider culture shapes their beliefs and practices. Ever since Jesus said, “You have heard . . . but I say . . .” Christian formation has taken into account the most pressing distortions and deceptions of the age, and applied the gospel to them.

When new distortions and deceptions spring up quickly, though, as they do in a media-saturated and highly fragmented world, the church aims at a moving target, shifting our focus continually to ensure that we are answering the questions our culture and our people are asking now. The number of pastors who admit they do not regularly and publicly teach on sex, gender, and sexuality testifies to the difficulty of this task.

To catechize faithfully, churches will need to address questions of autonomy, identity, sexuality, race, and morality, among others, provide clear and coherent answers to them from Scripture, and then show why the cultural answers do not provide the same explanatory power as the word of God.

3. We Model Humble Courage

In a social context where Christian orthodoxy can seem bigoted, dehumanizing, and grotesque, and where people have no shortage of ways to make their criticisms heard, believers are tempted to mimic the response of animals faced with danger: fight or flight. The former feels like humility, but risks timidity and cowardice. The latter feels like courage, but risks slander and pride.

However, the faithful option is humble courage. If we mistakenly think in terms of a spectrum with humility and timidity at one end and pride and boldness at the other, then we will end up justifying vices as virtues. Abusive and arrogant leaders will be defended as “brave” or “robust.” Compromise with immorality and idolatry will be lauded as “gentle” or “gracious.” The way of Jesus, by contrast, combines exemplary humility with astonishing courage, most powerfully as Christ goes to the cross. We must not allow our culture’s false dichotomies to prevent us from following his lead.

4. We Keep Repenting

It is always easier to see the need for repentance in bygone eras. Antisemitism, crusades, inquisitions, wars, slavery, and racism appear grotesque to us now, and we struggle to understand how previous generations of our brothers and sisters failed to see those evils as we do. The log in our own eye is harder to spot (Matthew 7:3–5).

So, in what ways have we been complicit in baptizing greed and materialism in the church? Or the lust for power? Or expressive individualism? Or a celebrity-obsessed, entertainment-driven consumer culture? Or the sexual revolution with all its tools for divorcing sex from marriage and children? Or obsession with technologies, embracing anything and everything out of convenience without regard for the consequences? Or demographic segregation, whether on grounds of race, class, wealth, education, or something else? Or political hypocrisy?

A repentant church is a faithful church — not to mention a church that stands a better chance of being heard when it calls the world to repent along with her.

5. We Keep Praying

The need for prayer goes without question in theory, but maybe not always in practice. The kinds of people who read articles like this — let alone the kinds of people who write them! — are often, I suspect, drawn more towards working out what we can do (devise strategies, write books, start initiatives, flood people with content) than asking God to do what only he can do (overthrow kingdoms, move mountains, crush gods, fill deserts with flowers). But even a cursory glance at the contemporary landscape reveals that our plans and programs are hopelessly inadequate for the task before us.

The West does not need to be roused from sleep but raised from the dead. Only a mighty work of the Holy Spirit will bring the renewal and revival we need. And prayer is our God-given means of seeking it. So, the church needs to pray for God to do something unprecedented: bring a post-Christian society to repentance and faith on a massive scale. Happily, as Tim Keller pointed out in How to Reach the West Again, every great new move of God was unprecedented until it happened. Come, Lord Jesus!

(@AJWTheology) (PhD, King’s College London) is the teaching pastor at King’s Church London and a columnist for Christianity Today. He’s the author of several books, including Remaking the World, Incomparable, God of All Things, and Echoes of Exodus.