The Strange New Frontier of the West
September 24, 2022
Christians and the Church today have been presented with a unique set of challenges. But these challenges offer an opportunity to seize rather than a situation to fear.
After the completion of my first year of seminary, I spent the summer of 2003 with my wife in Tokyo, where she had lined up a position as a summer associate at a Japanese law firm. Never before had I spent such an extended period of time overseas in a radically different culture from my own. As a young minister-in-training, the experience naturally caused me to reflect on the essential nature of the gospel, and how to communicate the timeless message of Jesus within a society that had been shaped by its own unique history and presuppositions. In addition to visiting historic shrines and temples throughout the country, Ashley and I attended worship services together at a local church and tried to understand the spiritual lives of the people we encountered. My goal was to gain a sense for why some had embraced the message of Christianity, while the vast majority of people within Japanese culture firmly resisted it.
Given my frame of mind and my status as a cultural outsider, it was quite fitting that I also began reading the works of the British missionary Lesslie Newbigin for the first time that summer. Newbigin was born in England in 1909 and converted to Christianity as a student at Cambridge. After further study, Newbigin was ordained by the Church of Scotland to serve as a missionary in India beginning in 1936. Newbigin remained in India for nearly 40 years until he retired and returned to England in 1974. Throughout his life, Newbigin exerted a broad influence through his writings on theology and mission, though he found his theological home within the “ecumenical” wing of the Church, in contrast to the “evangelical” movements led by his younger contemporary John Stott.
Newbigin is perhaps best remembered for his insight that the Western world is now in “a missionary situation.” He originally set sail for India as a foreigner and had to learn how to communicate the gospel within a culture whose presuppositions made the message of Jesus seem preposterous because it ran against the stream of Hinduism. It would have been easy to remain timid in the face of such a dominant and pervasive worldview, but Newbigin rose to the challenge and learned how to present the gospel within that particular cultural context.
When he returned to the West, however, Newbigin was stunned to find that we face a similar problem in our own backyard. During those intervening years, the world had changed. He returned from the foreign mission field only to discover that we are all foreigners now, no matter where we live.
The simplest way to describe it is to say that we now live in a post-Christendom context. Ever since Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity throughout the Roman Empire in 4th century, Christianity has enjoyed a comfortable relationship with the structures of power as the privileged religion within Western society. But in recent decades, a historic shift has taken place with massive implications for Christian belief and practice. The Christian faith can no longer claim the dominant position of influence it once held.
That is not to say, however, that the Western world is non-religious. Far from it. Newbigin argued that the modern West is not a neutral society with no beliefs, but rather a pagan society with false beliefs. In part, that means our situation is much more similar to that of the earliest Christians who embraced faith within a culture that was awash with other gods and an alternative moral code. In light of that reality, the writings of the New Testament may come alive to us with fresh resonance and make more sense as we read them from a position of marginality within our own culture.
For example, it is striking that the Apostle Peter addresses his audience in 1 Peter as “exiles.” That term recalls the time when God’s people were carried into exile in Babylon in the 6th century BC. If you are an exile, you are not a visitor. You are not merely passing through the country as a tourist. Rather you must put down roots and take up residence where you are for the foreseeable future. But as an exile, you are not a full citizen either. You may not ever truly feel like you belong in the land no matter how long you dwell there.
What is fascinating is that Peter uses this term to refer to Christians who have never left home. He is not addressing people who were forcibly removed from their homeland and made to live in a foreign country. They have always lived right where they are. So why does he call them “exiles”? The reason is simple; their newfound commitment to Christ has rendered them outsiders within their own culture. That is true of every Christian. A Christian is someone whose first commitment is to Jesus—above family, country, culture, or ideology. The moment you commit yourself to Jesus, it will put you out of step with the world around you because your true citizenship now lies within the kingdom of God. In fact, Peter would argue that if you do not feel a little bit uncomfortable within your own culture, then you need to question whether your commitment to Jesus is genuine.
The moment you commit yourself to Jesus, it will put you out of step with the world around you because your true citizenship now lies within the kingdom of God.
The early Christians were relegated to a cultural minority status the moment they gave their ultimate allegiance to Jesus and the priorities of his kingdom–rather than to Caesar and the values of Rome. Likewise, those who adhere to historic Christian beliefs and practices within the modern Western world, may surprisingly find themselves living as cultural outsiders.
But there is one important difference between their time and our own. The earliest Christians might have been considered odd, or even culturally subversive, within Greco-Roman society. But at least first century Christians had not yet used or abused power. The early Christians were accused of many things, but the misuse of power was not one of them. Looking back over the checkered history of the Church, however, twenty-first century Christians can no longer say the same.
In that sense, modern culture is not anything like the pre-Christian paganism of the ancient world because this new form of paganism has been born out of the rejection of Christianity. The West is all the more resistant to Christianity for once having been so deeply shaped by it. This creates the defining challenge of our time. As Newbigin observed, “This very tough form of paganism is the greatest intellectual and practical task facing the Church.”1
Newbigin’s realization prompted him to consider what would be involved in an effective missionary encounter of the gospel with Western culture. “After having spent most of my life as a missionary in India, I was called to teach missiology and then to become a missionary in a typical inner-city area in England. This succession of roles has forced me to ask the question…What would be involved in a missionary encounter between the gospel and this whole way of perceiving, thinking, and living that we call ‘modern Western culture’?”2
From a closet-sized studio apartment in Tokyo, this is the thought that gripped me and has stayed with me for the past 20 years. This is the animating question behind Resound Project. How do we bring the gospel to bear on the strange, new frontier of the Western world?
The Challenges are Real
In every generation, the Church has had to confront difficult problems and embrace creative possibilities. This is nothing new. And yet, as society moves deeper into the late modern world, Christians have been presented with a unique set of challenges, and the Church–at least in certain pockets within the West–is struggling to keep up with the pace of change.
How should we assess this situation? For one thing, let’s keep things in perspective. Persecuted Christians around the globe, and black Christians in the United States, are well familiar with the struggle of living out their identity as faithful followers of Jesus despite their minority status. It is primarily white Christians in the United States who find the recent societal shifts so unsettling. If nothing else, that means we have much to learn from fellow Christians during this time of cultural upheaval.
With that said, we must be clear-eyed about a number of concerning issues. First, there are significant threats to religious liberty. No one will have a problem with you if you uphold the dignity of all human beings created in the image of God and the corresponding call to pursue justice. But the backlash might be quick and fierce if you espouse a historic Christian position on sexuality or gender. Such views are no longer regarded as simply traditional or old-fashioned, but oppressive and repugnant. They are increasingly regarded as a threat to the new emerging public morality.
Second, there are intolerant voices that wield disproportionate power within our cultural institutions, such as technology, the media, and the academy. There are some who reject the free exchange of ideas because they do not want you to think differently. They leave no room for honest debate, and skip straight to shaming, intimidating, and canceling. “Cancel culture” is a problem, no matter how politely you may present your views. As a corollary, many people, no doubt, choose to self-censor and silence themselves for fear of retribution against honestly-expressed and sincerely-held beliefs.
Third, there are competing ideologies. The cultural divide is growing into a chasm between people who hold starkly different visions of reality and human flourishing. Perhaps even more troubling, many people are completely unaware of the broader cultural forces that are acting upon them. Despite what they might claim about their ability to think independently, they are unreflectively allowing themselves to be carried along by the latest trends.
In addition to these concerns, the waning of Christendom creates a definite sense of loss. As the historian Tom Holland has elegantly described in his history of the impact of Christianity on the West, so many of our most cherished values are the result of Christianity’s unique influence: the primacy of love, the freedom of conscience, the responsibility to care for the poor and the vulnerable, the separation of church and state, even the very concept of faith as well as doubt. Holland forces us to ask: Where did we get that idea that every human being is imbued with inestimable dignity and possesses an inherent right to be treated in accordance with his or her worth? Why do we believe that it is nobler to absorb than to inflict suffering? Why do we feel compelled to protect the weak rather than allow them to be trampled by the strong?
These values are not neutral. As Holland suggests, few of our assumptions about how society should be organized or the principles it should uphold emerged out of classical antiquity–and certainly not out of “human nature.” They are very distinctively the product of Western civilization’s Christian past. Not many people realize how much water they continue to draw from the Christian well, even as they seek to distance themselves from that life-giving spring. It is indeed critically important to ask: Is it possible to continue to embrace the fruit of Christian values when severed from their roots? And what kind of society would we become if we were to completely shun our Christian heritage?
The Possibilities are Endless
Though they may be exaggerated at times, these challenges are real and we do well to recognize them. And yet for all that, I write not with nostalgia for the past, anxiety in the present, or fear for the future. For starters, there’s no turning back the clock, and we certainly should not want to return to an earlier time when some of the more glaring inconsistencies between Christian commitment and conduct were abundant. Regardless of one’s religious commitments, everyone should be bothered by the ways in which the message of Christianity has been corrupted by power and privilege as well as plain, old human sin. In my view, the end of Christendom provides us with an opportunity to rediscover authentic Christianity disentangled from the cultural compromises of the past.
We must not pine for the past; nor should we succumb to anxiety in the present. We all know what human beings typically do under stress. We react with a “fight,” “flight,” or “fright” response. We fight back, we run away, or we freeze up. That is precisely how many Christians are responding to the new social pressures they face. Some are fighting back, often in very un-Christian ways, in an attempt to try to “win back the culture.” Others flee. They withdraw from the dominant culture and try to create a safe enclave for themselves and their tribe. The rest freeze. Like a chameleon, they may stay right where they are, but they change their colors in order to blend in. They are willing to give up their distinctive beliefs and practices in order to reduce the cultural tension. They go along to get along.
But Jesus models a better way, which involves neither domination, escape, nor accommodation. If nothing else, Christians believe: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. Jesus came into our world as an outsider, and, despite the derision he experienced, Jesus sought the good of those who rejected him. The Father sent his Son into the world as an outsider, not to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him. Likewise, the Triune God calls his people to be outsiders for the world. Like Jesus, we are called to be the world’s salt which hinders its decay and the world’s light which dispels its darkness. That’s why we should neither withdraw from the dominant culture out of pride, nor assimilate to it out of cowardice, nor attack it out of defensiveness. Rather we are called to faithfully engage the dominant culture in humility, courage, and love—which means remaining true to our Christian convictions while seeking to expend ourselves for the sake of others.
We are called to faithfully engage the dominant culture in humility, courage, and love—which means remaining true to our Christian convictions while seeking to expend ourselves for the sake of others.
Above all, we must not fear the future. Rather than embracing a narrative of decline, and the feelings of resentment, victimization, and self-pity it often fosters, we must embrace a narrative of hope. Newbigin was once asked: Are you an optimist or a pessimist? His response was simple and instructive: “I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!” That is the defining reality around which Christians center their lives. Despite the ever-changing winds of political fortune and cultural influence, Christians know how the story ends. We must resist the forces of nostalgia, anxiety, and fear and live as people of hope.
Of course there is always a healthy place for lament, as we mourn tragic missteps and unfulfilled dreams. But this is not a time to fixate on the past. Rather this is a moment to seize for the future. Like all the faithful Christians who have gone before us, we are invited to join the Triune God in the thrilling adventure of making himself known within the particular circumstances of our own day. No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor heart conceived what God has prepared for those who love him. Who knows what God may have in store for us; the future has simply not yet been tried.
1 Lesslie Newbigin, Unfinished Agenda, 236.
2 Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, 1.