Some readers will remember that several years ago some Christians were very offended that Starbucks used plain red cups at Christmas time, instead of saying “Merry Christmas” on them and using a more festive design. It was even called by some the “Starbucks War on Christmas,” leading some people to call for a boycott. (I like how Ed Stetzer responded: “It’s not Starbucks’ job to share the love of Jesus. It’s your job.”)
This “controversy” is long past now, but it seems that every year at Christmas time, we hear about believers who are upset that many in our culture prefer “Happy Holidays” over “Merry Christmas.” In some cases, we’re rightfully sad to see the true meaning of the season stripped away. I love to say and hear “Merry Christmas.” But should I be offended and angry when I don’t? As Christians, what should our reaction be when our culture doesn’t affirm a Christian worldview and recognize the importance of Jesus Christ?
I believe this points to a deeper problem I see in American Christianity today, and it comes down to expectations. As believers sometimes we expect the world to go along with what we believe, which includes the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture, the revelation of who Jesus is, and the truth of the gospel (that by grace we can be saved through faith). But we have to recognize that the world, by biblical definition (Romans 12:2; 1 John 2:2), simply does not accept and embrace God’s truth.
It’s odd to me when we as Christians expect our culture to be faithful to Scripture. Of course it isn’t! Why would we be surprised by that? Think of the early church in the midst of the Roman culture, which had been heavily influenced by Greek culture. The Roman worldview and approach to human sexuality, life, and wealth were massively skewed. The culture the early church found themselves in was certainly not biblically based and Christ centered!
I think sometimes as Americans we’ve told ourselves, “Yes, but that’s different because America is a Christian nation.” Well, America has not been a Christian nation for a long time. I’m not saying it never was—though it never was completely, of course, because there were many people all along who were not believers. But certainly there were plenty of Americans, including some of those in positions of leadership, who were genuine followers of Jesus and believed the Bible. Think about all the monuments in Washington D.C. that have Scripture on them. So yes, that’s part of our heritage. Christian principles influenced our laws and many people throughout our history shared some level of common morality.
But when Christians are trying to reclaim America as a Christian nation, they need to stop and realize the reality of where our culture is at. While there are still secular people who might have general Christian morals, that number is fewer and fewer. I think people who live in the Bible Belt sometimes get this idea that America is religious everywhere across the nation. But when you live in the Pacific Northwest like I do, in Oregon, you are under no illusion whatsoever that you are part of anything close to a Christian culture!
There are countries in Africa, Asia, and South America that are today far more Christian than America. America as a whole is largely post-Christian, though we still have a significant percentage of people who are serious about following Jesus. But those people’s beliefs and values about many issues, including gay marriage and gender identity and sexual morality, are no longer determinative in social discourse or our legal system.
I remember a conversation I had with a brother from Africa who first came over to live in the Dallas, Texas area, and later relocated to Oregon. He said when he lived in Dallas and asked people what church they went to, no one ever looked at him like he was strange because the great majority at least have a church affiliation, even if they don’t regularly attend. They may not be Christians, but church is typically part of the lives of many people they know.
So this African brother said, “When I moved to Portland I started asking people the same question: ‘What church do you go to?’” He was amazed that people were perplexed and even offended at the question. They said, “What makes you think I go to a church?”
My observation has been that what we have long seen in Portland is the clear trend of the country. Yet many Christians in our country have been slow to accept the extent to which Bible-believing Christ-followers have become not just the minority, but often socially unacceptable. This shouldn’t make us hopeless—indeed, if our hope has been in America instead of in Jesus, it is past time to put our hope in the Son of God who alone can bear the weight of our trust. America, like all other nations, is not worthy of our ultimate faith and absolute loyalty; only God is. We are citizens of another country, a heavenly one, pilgrims and aliens and strangers in this world. We are Christ’s ambassadors in a foreign land, here to bring the message of the reconciliation He offers (2 Corinthians 5:20).
Albert Mohler recently said something on his Daily Briefing about Chick-fil-A announcing it will no longer donate to the Salvation Army and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Christian organizations that affirm Biblical marriage and sexuality rather than embracing homosexual marriage. Mohler comments,
The reality is that this puts to the lie the confidence of so many conservative Christians in the United States that we are witnessing some kind of revolution that can be rather quickly reversed. That is simply not the case. The fundamentals of the society are changing around us, and when fundamentals change at this basic level, they do not change back quickly. As a matter of fact, there is really no historical precedent for that change to a previous position to be expected at all. Instead, what this announces to those who hold to Christian convictions on these issues is that, increasingly, we are going to experience… marginalization… So Christians, pay attention to the direction of the culture, but also pay attention to how the culture is being directed, and for that matter, who’s doing the directing.
Of course I wish Chick-fil-A had stayed completely true to the Christian values of its founder Truett Cathy. (This WORLD article gives some helpful clarifications on Chick-fil-A’s giving.) But having seen Christian values erode to the extent that they have, having gone to jail thirty years ago for trying to save the lives of unborn children, I don’t live with the illusion that my culture, or even many segments of the church, will agree with me.
As Christians, we should no longer believe the false idea that the world and our culture is going to go along with the Christian faith if only we stage the right boycotts and yell loud enough in social media. Historically, in almost every part of the world throughout history, the culture has been antagonistic toward true followers of Jesus. In fact, many of our brothers and sisters around the world are facing persecution right now for following Christ. Jesus said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (John 15:18, NIV). Peter said we should be firm in our faith, “knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Peter 5:9).
Cultures ultimately can’t be Christian. Only individuals can be Christians, and those Christians can affect culture. I am not giving up on my country, and I certainly believe Christians should be involved in influencing our culture and doing what they can to make a difference. I’m grateful for those Christians who are called to be legislators, judges, and otherwise involved in the political arena. I am also in favor of people protesting true injustice. But often what we do instead of really affecting culture is just complain about it. Then ironically, we marginalize ourselves when it comes to declaring the gospel. Nobody is drawn to what we believe because we’re offended about or focused on things that ultimately just don’t matter (like, for example, Starbucks holiday cups).
Instead of being upset that our culture is increasingly marginalizing Christian morals (and during this season, the meaning of Christmas), let’s continue to joyfully share the Good News about Jesus and the hope He has brought to our sin-stricken world. Our culture may in many ways be getting bleaker, but let’s remember and rejoice that God is at work in America and in every part of the world. God is changing hearts and lives and is growing His church. And ultimately, we look forward to the New Earth, a world where the culture will always recognize and celebrate Jesus as the King of Kings: “for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9).