To be an American Christian today is often to be a cultural loser. This is true both as a matter of demographics and regarding the influence and respectability of traditional Christian beliefs. There are fewer Christians in neighborhoods, and our neighbors think less of us. We are increasingly outsiders. And how we respond to this reality may be the defining question of our time.
The good news is that Christianity has always been a religion for (short-term) losers. A resurrection faith need not be shaken by slogs through the valley of the shadow of death. Yet we are ever prone to losing heart in the face of our losses—at real cost to Christ’s gospel and the mission of his church. Recent headlines trumpet the bad public fruit of losing power poorly, but we must all be aware of the more subtle ways in which we too can be poor losers, whether of power or respectability.
Peter the Poor Loser
The apostle Peter’s reaction to the “losing moment” of Christ’s arrest is a living parable of two ways we can respond poorly to such losses. Despite Christ’s reminder earlier that evening, of the trouble his followers will have in this world (John 16:33), Peter is unprepared for what occurs.
Christianity has always been a religion for (short-term) losers.
As the authorities and then crowds turn on Jesus, power and respectability are lost in quick succession. Soldiers transform the quiet refuge of Gethsemane into a torchlit siege, and Peter wields the sword of resistance before being rebuked by the Lord. Shortly thereafter, as association with Jesus loses all respectability, Peter takes a different approach: denying Christ to secure a place near the warmth of a fire.
These dual losses are intimately related—the loss of cultural power leads inexorably to the loss of cultural respectability—but the reactions are quite different. Sensing power slipping, Peter rises to fight. Sensing respectability lost, he hides. Both perspectives misunderstand and misrepresent his Lord, and in this we see a picture of the twin dangers for Christians today.
We need not agree on all the particulars of Christianity’s lost power—or the merits of earlier “more Christian” eras—to recognize the basic reality: the influence of Christian beliefs on our culture and politics is declining and has been for some time. As children we saw this in the worries of our parents (even as we rolled our eyes), and as parents we see it in our anxieties for our children (which seem entirely justified). Christianity appears to be losing cultural traction, and at an accelerating pace.
Christian influence on American culture and politics is not the measure of Christ’s kingdom.
This is nothing to celebrate—and for American citizens at least, God has given us each a small sliver of governing authority, which we can and should continue to use for good. Like Peter, though, we’ll be tempted to lose poorly by misrepresenting Christ’s kingdom through fighting the wrong foe.
Win, lose, or compromise, Christian influence on American culture and politics is not the measure of Christ’s kingdom. Missing this reality imperils our faith and witness. Indeed, the political fear that can so powerfully move us—on both left and right—is often a matter of being preemptive poor losers. The prospect of loss is too great to bear.
The extent to which you agree with these thoughts may be a function of generational or class divides. Elite Christians who inhabit secular environments (e.g., Michael Lindsay’s cosmopolitan evangelicalism), and younger Christians whose cultural influences and peers already reflect the loss of Christian power, are much more likely to have made peace with that loss. For this group, it is easy to see the error of Christians who are poor losers of power.
Yet the example of Peter points to a second loss this group is far more prone to handle poorly. Having lost cultural power, Christianity is increasingly losing respectability. Elements of Christian doctrine and morality that have stood for thousands of years now draw ridicule as immoral and dangerous.
If older Christians can be caught off-guard by the decline of a Christ-influenced culture of their childhood, younger Christians are in danger from the decline of respectability. Responding poorly to the loss of respectability looks much different from the loss of power—but the danger is equally real. Young and elite Christians aren’t tempted to fight for a Christian America, but rather to slide into the crowd and make compromises to preserve the respectability they’ve tasted and worked hard to maintain.
Young and elite Christians are not tempted to fight for a Christian America, but rather to slide into the crowd and make compromises.
This is possible individually and in the ministry of the church. A respectable faith may not always be an option. Yes, contextual ministry that builds bridges and shows a better way is essential. But we must be prepared for those bridges to become wobblier and the attraction to turn cold.
Losing Well Together
These dual losses—power and respectability—don’t just represent dangers in themselves. The contrasting temptations to losing poorly threaten to divide Christ’s church. Those tempted to fight by the sword have trouble understanding those tempted to stay warm by the fire, and vice versa.
Those tempted to fight by the sword have trouble understanding those tempted to stay warm by the fire, and vice versa. Each sees the other group as contributing to the loss they most fear. . . . We are all tempted to be Peter in one way or another.
Recognizing that we are all grappling with loss will perhaps create an opportunity for mutual understanding. Losing is hard. There is much to be grieved. We are all tempted to be Peter in one way or another. And because of this, each one of us needs the words of Christ, who told us exactly what to expect in this world, even as he went to the cross to prepare a place for us in an everlasting city whose architect and builder is God.
Christ restores the bumbling Peter by calling him to the ministry of this good news. Following his example, let us act together as Christ’s church in this work, ministering to one another and the world as we trust in his grace and hope in the glory to come. In this world we will have trouble; in this world we will lose; but take heart, Christ has overcome the world.