In the midst of the raging culture wars and a sharply divisive political environment, Christians in America can often feel schizophrenic over how they should relate to our culture. Should the church retreat from the world and form Christian communities—tiny pockets of Christian civilization—or should the church remain embedded in the world while not taking on the ways of the world? These options have always been before the church in every age. What option does the Bible give us?
Evangelical Christians in general, and Baptists in particular, should not be surprised at the increasingly marginal state in which we find ourselves in our culture. Paul reminds us that we are living in this present evil age, and all who would live godly lives in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. Living counterculturally as believers in the world not only reminds us that we must enter the Kingdom of God through much tribulation, but it also constantly challenges us to define what our primary role in society is as the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Israel in exile is a good model for understanding the place and role of the church in the world. God has embedded His people in cultures around the world in order to be salt and light and to shine as lights in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation. Jesus calls and sends the church to be sowers of Gospel seed in the field of the world. God does not call us to retreat but to engage.
The church in Jerusalem was scattered abroad after the stoning of Stephen and led to the advancement of the Gospel outside of Jerusalem. Both Peter and James wrote to the diaspora of Christian believers under their pastoral charge. The assumption of the writings of the New Testament is that local churches existed in cities and not Christian cultural enclaves. We are not called to geographical isolation from the world but daily engagement with the world through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, bearing witness to the Kingdom of God among the kingdom of humankind.
The church is not a place but a people. Why has there been temptation for Christians to retreat from society? I believe it is in part the failure of evangelical churches to live up to our collective calling to be what we are: a family and a fellowship, overcoming our cultural individualism by engaging life together as the people of God, equipping and being equipped to live godly lives in this ungodly age, and bearing witness to the Gospel in our neighborhoods, schools and workplaces. We are part of the fellowship of the Gospel, which means that we are a community that God has transformed through the Gospel and that is now responsible for being the agent of the Gospel to all nations.
Our options are defined by Christ’s commands. We are to live worthy of the Gospel, following the pattern of Christ’s love and sharing in the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings. Christ commands His church to make disciples of all nations, a command that is undercut by Christian retreat. Making disciples of all nations involves the Holy Spirit’s empowering and sending of God’s people to the ends of the earth. God does not call His people to be concerned about self-preservation but to Gospel propagation. It is in the propagation of the Gospel that the church not only survives but thrives. Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). Christian travail in the world is a means God uses to advance the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Further insulating ourselves from unbelievers only undercuts the mission of the church.
In our time, we must return to the well of Scripture to refresh our understanding of the identity and role of the church. We are salt and light, a city set on a hill, and a holy priesthood tasked with the joy of proclaiming the excellencies of Him who has called us out of darkness into light. We are not called upon to preserve a mythic Christian civilization but to bear witness to the coming Kingdom of God through our individual and corporate lives together as the people of God. Such Kingdom witness calls upon believers to engage culture at all levels, not retreat from it.