Cultural Christianity Isn’t the Problem, Casual Church Membership Is

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“Celebrating the loss of cultural Christianity in the United States makes about as much sense as a Christian in Afghanistan celebrating the return of the Taliban to power.”

WILLIAM WOLFE

There’s a certain crowd in evangelicalism that welcomes, even celebrates, the increasing secularization of America life and culture. They see cultural Christianity retreating from the public square and shout after it: “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!” 

David French has (amazingly) argued that our nation is better off for having less Christian influence — more just is how he terms it, to be exact. In one of his classic Sunday screeds, French claimed, “Here’s a challenging reality: America has become more just — and thus closer to the ideals one would expect of a Christian nation — as white Protestant power has waned.” Don’t let the appearance of one on his favorite adjectives (white) distract from the core contention of his argument — with less Christian influence, our nation is better off.

Russell Moore, fellow accuser of the all-things Cracker Barrel Christian, has hosted guests on this podcast to talk about “surviving the Bible Belt” and the “toxic religion” contained therein. For a man who is a self-proclaimed public theologian, such a posture seems fairly unfriendly towards the public and highly dismissive of theology. 

But from a more sober standpoint, celebrating the loss of cultural Christianity in the United States makes about as much sense as a Christian in Afghanistan celebrating the return of the Taliban to power. 

If It’s Not Good There, It’s Not Good Here 

Now, the detractors of cultural Christianity often offer bromides such as, “When the church is persecuted the gospel shines most brightly.” Or they lament that “whenever Christianity has gained political power and cultural influence, it’s the faith that is made to reflect the society, not the society the faith.” And so on and so forth, ad nauseum, in similar manner, and with such sayings, they do go on. And on.

So, one must ask: Does all that apply under the vicious reign of a bloodthirsty Islamic terrorist organization? 

Baptist News Global reported in February 2022 that, “The few remaining Christians in Afghanistan live in constant fear — even of their own families.” Painting a bleak picture, writer Jeff Brumley explained,

“Afghan Christians who failed to escape when their nation fell to the Taliban in August live in constant isolation and in fear that the fundamentalist Islamic government, and practically the entire society, is out to persecute them, according to the leader of an Afghan house church community.

‘The Taliban, their plan eventually is the elimination of Christianity, and they have been very open about that,’ the head of the Afghan House Church Network, identified only as Luke, said during a recent episode of ‘USCIRF Spotlight’ the weekly podcast of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.”

Ah, you didn’t mean like that. Cultural Christianity doesn’t look so bad in contrast now, does it?

I’m giving quite a bit of the argument away upfront in this piece (not a good business plan, I’ll admit), but given the horror of what’s unfolded in Afghanistan in the last six months, it’s a rather useful foil. Unless we would actually wish that situation upon the Christians there, why would we welcome the preconditions for it here in America? If we can see a rotten fruit in full bloom in another context, the wisest course of action is to dig up any corresponding roots we find in our own — not welcome the growth, or worse, cultivate the soil!

Secularists in America might not wield rifles while they go door-to-door hunting for Christians to martyr (yet) or deploy car bombs against their enemies (yet), but they are certainly on their own version of jihad. You’re fooling yourself if you don’t think Christians are their main target. Once we cede the culture to the godless pagans, they won’t just hand it back without a fight. In fact, once we give them the culture, they will reinforce their positions and start coming back for us. They will come for us in the schools. In our churches. And in our homes. It’s already happening. 

Don’t Like Cultural Christianity? Wait Until You Meet Its Replacement. 

We also must ask ourselves: What, exactly, have we gotten in America in exchange for “less cultural Christianity” that’s worth celebrating? Drag queen story hour? Disney grooming our kids? Deviant sexual material being foisted on elementary schoolers in the classroom? Racially-charged struggle sessions with little white kids being told that they are oppressors and little black kids told they are helpless and hopeless victims? Diversity Equity and Inclusion (D.E.I.) training run amok in corporate America? Christian businesses being sued into oblivion for not baking the cakes? Conservatives being investigated by the IRS? Parents being investigated by the FBI as domestic terrorists? Big Tech tyranny? Men competing in women’s sports? Public announcement of surrogacy for homosexual couples renting a couple of wombs being gleefully welcomed by even some elements of the “conservative” movement? 

Pray tell, which of these did you mean to Indiana Jones-style swap into American life for the bag of sand that you thought was “toxic Bible Belt religion?” That little golden idol of the “pure church” found under persecution won’t be so shiny once it starts getting splattered with the blood of martyrs. After all, it’s already covered with the blood of over 60 million aborted babies. Do you really think less cultural Christianity is going to help us hold the line if Roe finally gets overturned? 

Andrew Walker, professor of ethics at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, summarized it well in an article entitled, “What We Lose in the Decline of Cultural Christianity”: “We shouldn’t ignore the costs of displacing even a cultural Christianity’s influence. The decline of the Bible Belt will be met with a redefined common good that will be anything but good for millions of people.” 

He also insightfully reflected that rejoicing at the decline of cultural Christianity is a quintessential “luxury belief” (defined by one writer as “opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class”) for the well-heeled evangelical pundit class. He writes: 

“Those making the ‘Death to the Bible Belt’ claim, I notice, are the individuals most insulated from the effects of the Bible Belt’s death. It’s one thing for a pastor or theologian to make these claims. It’s another to observe how these trends affect Christian business owners or social workers seeing their livelihoods threatened, or the young child hearing mixed messages on issues related to gender identity.”

Lest you count me naïve, I do, in fact, understand that in a culture dominated by Christianity, the gospel can get confused with regular church attendance. In such an environment, saving faith can be wrongly understood as simply being a good citizen by the standards of common decency. I don’t doubt that many not-so-toxic-at-all inhabitants of the Bible Belt have a wrong understanding of their relationship with God, considering themselves “Christian” just because they grew up in church or because their parents were Christians. Of course, theologically speaking, the general milieu of cultural Christianity is in no way the same thing as the gospel of Jesus Christ: repent and believe for the Kingdom of God is at hand. 

But the answer isn’t to replace a confusing cultural Christianity with a poisonous cultural secularism. The virtues of cultural Christianity for the good of our nation’s public square, moral formation, civic life, and shared imagination far outweigh the vices of an unchecked godless alternative. Cultural Christianity may sometimes cloud the gospel, but it definitely doesn’t use federal funds to pay for the irreversible mutilation of confused teenagers in the name of transgender ideology. 

And that’s why I want more cultural Christianity, not less — and you should too. But along with it, gospel-preaching churches must recover biblical practices of membership and discipline. The answer to the gospel confusion of cultural Christianity isn’t to welcome the secular jihadists to reign in the public arena, it’s to reform our casual approach to church membership. 

The Solution Isn’t a Less Christian Culture — It’s a More Christian Church

How is biblical church membership the antidote to any (perhaps all) of the side effects of cultural Christianity? By drawing sharp lines between who is, and isn’t, a true Christian according to the standards of God’s Word, and not by societal standards of “niceness.” By confronting and clarifying any foggy misconceptions of what it means to a true disciple of Jesus Christ. No one, after all, is a Christian by merit of being born to Christian parents or being born in the Bible Belt — but only by being born again

Jesus tackled this very question with the nocturnal Nicodemus. We read in John 3:1-6:

“Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.’

 Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’

‘How can someone be born when they are old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!’

Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.’”

Culture can’t convert you; only the Spirit can. And the Spirit gives life to those who truly repent and believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, not to those who come to church on Easter and Christmas because that’s what everyone else does. 

Churches must make this clear from the pulpit: No one inherits a saving faith. No one becomes a Christian by cultural osmosis. The church is designed, by God, to be a body of professing, regenerate believers, who have repented of their sins and been baptized upon their profession of faith. It’s not a country club — you don’t get “in” by paying membership dues. You get in by believing that you could never pay what was due for your sin — for the wages of sin are death — and by accepting the free gift of life in Jesus Christ. 

The leadership of local churches all across America need to recover this as the prerequisite for church membership. Then coupled with that, they must recover the biblical model of church discipline and, ultimately, if necessary, excommunication for those whose life no longer matches their profession of faith. 

In other words, we shouldn’t ever want the culture to be less Christian, but we should demand that the churches be ever more Christian! 

Our Imaginary Man: From Cultural Christian to Christian to Excommunication 

Imagine, if you will, a 45-year-old man sitting in church, because that’s what he does on a Sunday. He believes that men are men, women are women, that children shouldn’t be slaughtered in the womb, that transgender ideology is madness, that massive animation conglomerates shouldn’t groom our children, and that he should live a life of restraint and virtue in the public square. In other words, he recognizes the truths of God’s general revelation and agrees with them — rather than rebels against them. 

But he’s mistaken mental ascent (head knowledge and agreement) with general revelation (that is, what God has made plain to all, Christian or not, about our world) for the spiritual response (regeneration) to special revelation (the specific call of the gospel that demands a response). He thinks he’s a Christian because he lives a good life and goes to church on Sundays. Sadly, he’s quite wrong.

That is, until one day he asks the gospel-preaching pastor of this church nestled in the Bible Belt if he can officially join. The pastor sits down with him and asks him for his testimony. The man shares an interesting life story, but never articulates the gospel.

What happens next makes all the difference in the world — and perhaps for this man’s eternal fate. A casual, unbiblical model of church membership, practiced by pastors who are sleeping on their shepherding gig, would just reach across the table, shake this man’s hand, and say, “You’re in!” 

But biblical church membership says: “Stop!” If this brother can’t articulate the gospel and point to signs of fruit in his life from a genuine conversion, maybe he isn’t saved. He might be a cultural “Christian,” but it doesn’t seem that he is an actual Christian. 

Thus, the wise pastor will slow the process down. He will read through the books of the Bible with the man, maybe the gospel of Mark. He will clearly set forth the gospel message and let the man know this demands a response, and one that is more than just living a good life. Lord wiling, and by the grace of God, over time this man will truly repent and believe. And upon that repentance, he will actually join the church — which, as I’ve written elsewhere, isn’t an optional part of the Christian life, but rather a matter of obedience.

Now instead of having gospel-confusion, he has gospel-clarity. He continues to be a productive and virtuous citizen in the City of Man, but he is also now an eternal citizen of the City of God — and that is physically manifest by his membership in a particular, local church. 

Furthermore, now that one local body has covenanted with this man, they are responsible for him. If he stops living in such a way that is consistent with the life of a follower of Christ, they can and should excommunicate him (after following all the necessary steps set forth in Matthew 18). This is the final safeguard on the gospel in the life of a local church — and it should serve as a wake-up call for the wandering soul. Again, this keeps the gospel clear, and it does so without foolishly inviting persecution or cheering on the demise of a cultural Christianity in our country. 

Conclusion: More Christianity in the Culture, Less Culture in the Church 

Membership and discipline. Discipline and membership. These are the tools that God has given the church — the “keys of the kingdom” from Matthew 16 and Matthew 18 — to guard and clarify the gospel. Unfortunately, over the last few decades in America, churches have traded in their biblical birthrights for all the bells and whistles of seeker-sensitive, pragmatically-driven, consumer-focused models of rapid church growth. From “fill the tank” Sundays to open membership to hyper-emotional altar calls and absolutely garbage sermons based on man’s opinions instead of God’s Word, the church has been impacted by the culture — and not in a good way. False converts abound. Nominal Christians rest easy, their consciences never pricked by the one-two punch of damnation and salvation found in the true gospel.

But I can’t stress this enough: The prescription for remedying any ill-side effects to cultural Christianity isn’t to pipe the toxic nonsense from our secular universities into Mayberry, it’s to make sure that Mayberry isn’t what passes as saving faith. It’s not to get the church out of the business world, it’s to stop importing marketing gimmicks and business best practices into the church. 

Christians should unapologetically desire for the Christian heritage and culture of our nation to endure and even be rekindled for the future. Further, Christians should happily play a role in weaving Christian principles into the fabric of our society by supporting inalienable rights, advocating for the unborn, defending the family and traditional marriage, embracing God-given gender roles, promoting pluralism, and loving the real, embodied, physical neighbor next door more than the imagined global citizen. 

Far from retreating from the public square or rejoicing at the demise of cultural Christianity, we should want to fight and win the culture wars. To that end, let’s pray that God grant here, in America, for true gospel-preaching churches to fuel a renewed Christian impact and influence on our culture all the more. Let’s just work to ensure that, right alongside of that cultural renewal, churches are crystal clear about who is and isn’t a citizen of the Kingdom of God, through careful practices of membership and discipline. In other words, give us more Christianity in the culture, not less, and give us less culture in the church, not more. 

T.S. Eliot, in his essay “The Idea of a Christian Society,” put it like this:

“We need to know how to see the world as the Christian Fathers saw it; and the purpose of reascending to origins is that we should be able to return, with greater spiritual knowledge, to our own situation. We need to recover the sense of religious fear, so that it may be overcome by religious hope.”

Because the choice isn’t really between a “more” or “less” Christian culture. It’s between a Christian one and something else — something far more sinister — entirely. We wouldn’t wish that upon the poor souls in Afghanistan, and so we shouldn’t welcome it here.