Life and ministry amidst cultural Christianity

Over the past few years I have been perplexed by those who dance on the grave of cultural Christianity. I can understand some of the flaws of a dominant Christian influence. No doubt abuses and hypocrisy could multiply in that setting.

A state representative was a member of the same church where my family were members. I remember very vividly how my dad would remark that he knew it was election time because George was attending church. Identification with Christianity was an asset. Business deals would revolve around those you knew in the social network of the church. Often people who lived immorally were shamed and shunned by the good members of the church. Especially in the South there was a generic Christian god who everybody acknowledged. This did lead to superficial and legalistic acts of morality. Although my childhood church preached the gospel, I suppose there were a lot of churches that proclaimed a “do good” theology as Christianity. Possibly Christianity Lite was the norm.

In cultural Christianity decent people were expected to profess Jesus as their Savior. This probably produced a number of false conversions. From the Declaration of Independence to World War II, Christianity was a part of the American fabric.  There was a blurring of patriotism with the message of the gospel. My values and spiritual framework came from the Builder Generation, not my Boomer friends. America was viewed as a Christian nation. Americans fought against godless Fascism and atheistic Communism. It was natural to pledge allegiance to the American flag at Vacation Bible School. Several months ago I wrote about the challenge of reaching the nations while showing American patriotism. Obviously, we must be careful not to equate the gospel with love of country but neither should we make them mutually exclusive even in a church service context.

As a pastor for over 20 years one of the most serious difficulties I faced in cultural Christianity was putting personal preferences and family traditions above the authority of Scripture. It drove me crazy that social mores and community standards were elevated to the place of Scripture. The epitome of usurping the Word of God came in a deacons’ meeting where one of the men announced to the group, “I don’t care what the Bible says. We’ve always done it this way.” His insistence on a practice that contradicted God’s Word didn’t faze many of his colleagues.

As you can see I didn’t just read about cultural Christianity, I lived and ministered in the midst of it. Yet, with all of the unfortunate aspects, cultural Christianity did have some pluses. It was a day when there was shame about sin. A young man and young lady were expected to marry when they produced a child out of wedlock. Homosexuality was not touted as a civil right but seen as an unholy practice. Familiarity with the Ten Commandments and absolute truth caused consciences to be more aware of right and wrong.

With the predominance of Christianity there was accountability to the community not possible today. When the majority of people had an expectation of moral behavior, evil activity was somewhat deterred. Explicit sexual emphasis and violence were suppressed by society. You may say it only caused people to outwardly conform. This is true but I’m not talking about getting to heaven. I’m talking about the atmosphere in our schools, places of business and on the streets.    

There was an accommodation to the gospel in the public square. While the First Amendment guarantees the freedom of religion, Christianity was the religion accommodated by American culture for over 200 years. By giving greater credibility to Christianity, there was easier access for gospel proclamation. Today there is almost a reversal in culture to an anti-Christianity bias. The gospel can and will flourish in a hostile environment. What I am saying is that cultural Christianity afforded an even greater opportunity to present the gospel to America and the nations.

By losing a culturally Christian majority we see the obvious results. The departure from biblical absolute truth promotes rampant immorality and hardness to the gospel. While I am grateful for our Catholic friends who share many of our convictions, America will look different when we lose the Protestant/Baptist foundation. Look at how Central and South America evolved under a majority Catholic influence.

God set up natural law. Nature abhors a vacuum. Secularism has replaced Christianity as the predominant default culture in America. Hinduism, Islam and other eastern religious influences have a different frame of reference than Christianity. America will be a different country in one generation unless something dramatic happens.

I’m not calling for a legislative change as the remedy. I’m not advocating some type of Dominion Theology. Returning to a cultural Christianity is not the ultimate answer. The first step to seeing our nation come back to God is to experience a spiritual renewal among believers. Prayer brings confession of sins. Believers must lead the way by getting serious about loving Jesus more than anything else. As the old revivalist used to say, “Lay your all on the altar.” We must get to the point where we will do whatever it takes to see God move in our lives.

Once believers turn their hearts to God it is possible to see a spiritual awakening among the lost. Unashamed identification with the cause of Christ in the public square will bring persecution and/or conversions. The gospel is the power of God. The display of God’s power may not happen at a mass meeting. Spiritual awakening does happen one heart at a time.

We must recognize that geo-political states, not just ethno-linguistic people groups, are seen by God too. In the Bible the various people groups opposed Israel—Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, the list is long. These were ethnically monolithic, but God holds geo-political states accountable for their actions. Diverse people groups constituting a geo-political state have been judged by God. The Soviet Union is gone. Nazi Germany is no more. The United States is standing on the precipice. Pray that our nation will step back, falling on our knees to acknowledge the true God of heaven. Christianity can become the culture again but only by a supernatural act of God. If a sweeping move of God takes place, Christianity just might become the dominant culture again and it won’t be all that bad.

Executive Director Emeritus
Jim Richards
Southern Baptists of Texas Convention
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