Tell us a little bit about your new book Take Heart. Why did you choose to write it? Why do you think its message is so important for Christians today?
The burden for this book started when I was in Rome for an Acts 29 Conference several years back. As I paid twenty euros to tour what remains of the Colosseum, it was jarring to consider how the “greatest” civilization the world has ever seen is now in such ruins. This got me thinking about our cultural moment today, from the nation of America to the increasing marginalization we’re starting to face as Christians in the West.
It honestly inspired me to want to get back and press into the reality that we don’t know what tomorrow holds but that we’ve been here before as the church. Our situation is not the same as the early church, and I pray it never gets that bad, but like our faithful forefathers, we can have hope amidst this hostile, chaotic climate. This idea of courage is essential because if we’re not walking in courage, then we’ll be walking in fear, and fear will stifle us and distract us from being the people of God and living out the mission of God.
I see such fear all around me, and I get it: These are challenging, confusing times, but we can’t stay in that fear and we don’t need to. Our God is bigger, wiser, and stronger than all of this—none of this is taking him by surprise—and that same God, through the Holy Spirit, dwells with us and empowers us.
You describe our current cultural moment as being “in the twilight of Christendom.” What do you mean by that statement? And why is it a good thing?
Looking at God’s people throughout history, we’ve rarely been in a place of power. Even the very roots of the church grew out of toil and persecution. But by the late fourth century, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, creating a marriage of church and state, and Christendom officially dawned. While certain seasons looked differently, Christendom reigned supreme for about 1,400 years throughout Europe and the Americas until cracks were caused primarily by the Enlightenment. Before long, the church was no longer considered the guardian of moral and ethical behavior.
That thinking and way of going about the world continued, and now we find ourselves in a society where fewer people are confessing Christ as Lord and greater numbers are beginning to grow hostile toward him and his people. The church has been removed from its place of cultural and political power and is being pushed further and further toward the margins.
Yet the church thrives on the margins. That’s why our cultural moment doesn’t need to be viewed as depressing but exciting. History has shown us not only that the church functions best when it’s further removed from power—the state—and not closer to it, but also that our Western “Christian” world was essentially a mirage.
While the Lord certainly used it to spread the gospel, there were many, many horrendous and heinous things done in the name of Jesus Christ. Now we need to get used to no longer being seen as honorable, but as bigots. We have to accept that Christendom is dying, that in many places in this nation it’s already dead, and that’s both a hard thing and a good thing.
What are some of the issues facing the church that you believe will require the most courage in the days ahead?
There are a number of outward issues facing the church right now in light of our cultural moment. From the racial and political divide we’re seeing in the United States to the world’s ever-changing views and practices as it relates to sex and sexuality, to the reality of marginalization and hostility toward Christians and what that means for religious liberty—there is an unending list of issues right now.
That said, I think the more challenging task isn’t the issues themselves but how we address them. In the book, I lay out three responses to culture—this includes all the issues we’re facing right now—that I think will only lead us in the wrong direction: Condemning Culture, Converting Culture, and Consuming Culture (terms borrowed from Andy Crouch).
Condemning Culture is the idea of removing ourselves from the world, retreating into a subculture. Converting Culture is the idea that we need “take back” our culture and make it “Christian” by whatever means necessary. Think culture wars and the current Religious Right. Consuming Culture is the idea that we need to stay up with culture because culture is changing, and we need to “get with the program” or else we won’t make it. In all of these wrong approaches, though, I think what you see more than anything is both fear and biblical illiteracy, which is another massive issue that we have to address in our churches.
As a pastor, how do you strive to equip your congregation with the kind of courage you write about in Take Heart? What advice would you give to other Christians trying to do the same?
I think the first thing I can do—and try to do—is model courage from the stage and as I spend time with our people. I want to show our church that, despite this age of unbelief, we can have hope, strength, and boldness in the Lord. He is infinitely wise and infinitely rich, and he is a warrior fighting on our behalf.
Then, of course, I want our church to be a place where in all areas of ministry, we’re learning, proclaiming, and practicing the story of our great God from our Next Gen ministries to our groups to our learning environments to our weekend gatherings.
I’m just convinced that we sometimes overthink this whole culture thing. Yes and amen to strategies and ideas for how to create and change culture, but at the end of the day it’s learning and knowing the God of the Bible and his story that is going to give us the intuitions we need to be courageous and faithful in our current cultural climate. That’s why so much of it hinges on biblical literacy.
What do you believe are the greatest misunderstandings in Western culture about courage? What about in the church?
When it comes to courage, it seems that Christians and non-Christians alike tend to operate as if it’s something you can just muster up with enough will and effort. Yet when we take a look at scripture and think about our situation, it seems that God wants us to actually think less of ourselves. It might sound counterintuitive, in a season of difficulty, to embrace feeling weaker and smaller, but in God’s economy, to lack self-confidence is the first and necessary stage in gaining confidence in God.
That’s where I think the church made such a big mistake these last hundred years or so. We’ve spent years telling each other, “You can do it. You’re so great. Be yourself. Find yourself. Believe in yourself.” Our teaching and advice have been based more on the false wisdom of our world than the true wisdom of the Word. And that means we’ve ended up trying to run a marathon on cotton candy. We’ve tried to be bold in the day of war while eating Twinkies. We have a vacuum where we should have a big view of God.
As I say in the book, courage isn’t something we can get on our own. It’s something we get from the Lord, by the power of the Holy Spirit, as we think upon and get in step with who he is and what he has done in and through Jesus Christ. We don’t get courage by looking to ourselves or anyone else—that includes institutions and political parties—but by looking to the triune God of the Bible. When we get and live in the reality that our God is bigger and wiser than our cultural climate, that he is a Warrior God in a cosmic war and we know how the story ends, then we’ll have courage.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
As simple as it sounds, the hope is for readers to finish this book and be encouraged in the Lord. I want them to walk away with a sense of hope and optimism as they think about our cultural moment and the future of the church.
I see so many Christians right now who are being stifled by fear. They look out at our post-everything world, and out of that fear, they’re tempted to give into the patterns and thinking of our world. They’re tempted to become bitter and frustrated, or they’re tempted to retreat from it altogether. But that’s not what God is calling us to.
Whatever the context or season, he’s calling us to be a people who are strong and bold in him, who are ferociously committed to holiness, showing love and hospitality, and sharing the gospel.
If you could offer a word of encouragement to those struggling to find courage today, what would it be?
These are hard days, and they may get worse. I’m not saying that I want actual persecution and fierce suffering. I’m just saying that if we live through those days, they will not be unique for the church and they will not mean the defeat of the church.
After all, it was on the margins where Christ lived, died, and rose again. It was on the margins that he built his church. It was on the margins that his church spread like wildfire.
As my friends Steve Timmis and Tim Chester say, “We cannot only survive on the margins; we can thrive on the margins. From the margins we point to God’s coming world. We offer an alternative lifestyle, values, relationships—a community that proves incredibly attractive . . . as men and women who, like our Savior before us, are those who are marginal yet world changing.”
Cover image by Wade Lambert.
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