How to Survive a Cultural Crisis

Public opinion appears to be changing about same-sex marriage, as are the nation’s laws. Of course this change is just one in a larger constellation. America’s views on family, love, sexuality generally, tolerance, God, and so much more seems to be pushing in directions that put Bible-believing Christians on the defensive.

It’s easy to feel like we’ve become the new “moral outlaws,” to use Al Mohler’s phrase. Standing up for historic Christian principles will increasingly get you in trouble socially and maybe economically, perhaps one day also criminally. It’s ironic that Christians are told not to impose their views on others, even as the threat of job loss or other penalties loom over Christians for not toeing the new party line.

In all this, Christians are tempted to become panicked or to speak as alarmists. But to the extent we do, to that same extent we show we’ve embraced an unbiblical and nominal Christianity.

Here, then, are seven principles for surviving the very real cultural shifts we’re presently enduring.

1. Remember that churches exist to work for supernatural change.

The whole Christian faith is based on the idea that God takes people who are spiritually dead and gives them new life. Whenever we evangelize, we are evangelizing the cemetery.

There’s never been a time or a culture when it was natural to repent of your sins. That culture doesn’t exist, it hasn’t existed, it never will exist. Christians, churches, and pastors especially must know deep in their bones that we’ve always been about a work that’s supernatural.

From that standpoint, recent cultural changes have made our job zero percent harder.

2. Understand that persecution is normal.  

In the last few months I’ve been preaching through John’s Gospel, and a number of people have thanked me for bringing out the theme of persecution. But I’m not convinced my preaching has changed; I think people’s ears have changed. Recent events in the public square have caused people to become concerned about what’s ahead for Christians. But if you were to go back and listen to my old sermons—say, a series preached in the 1990s on 1 Peter— you’d discover that ordinary biblical exposition means raising the topic of persecution again and again.

Persecution is what Christians face in this fallen world. It’s what Jesus promised us (e.g., John 16).

Now, it may be that in God’s providence some Christians find themselves in settings where, even if they devote their lives to obeying Jesus, they won’t encounter insult and persecution. But don’t be fooled by the nice buildings in which so many churches meet. This Jesus we follow was executed as a state criminal.

One of my fellow pastors recently observed that, in the history of Christian persecution, it’s often secondary issues—not the gospel—that elicit persecution. Persecutors don’t say, “You believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ; I’m going to persecute you now.” Rather, some belief or practice we maintain as Christians contradicts what people want or threatens their way of seeing the world. And so they oppose us.

Again, to the extent we respond to changes in our culture either with panic or alarmism, to that same extent we contradict the Bible’s teaching about ordinary Christian discipleship. It shows we’ve traded on the normalcy of nominalism.

Pastors especially should set the example in teaching their congregations not to play the victim. We should salt into our regular preaching and praying the normalcy of persecution. It’s the leader’s work to prepare churches for how we can follow Jesus, even if it means social criticism, or loss of privilege, or financial penalties, or criminal prosecution.

3. Eschew utopianism.

Christians should be a people of love and justice, and that means we should always strive to make our little corner of the globe a bit nicer than how we found it, whether that’s a kindergarten classroom or a kingdom. But even as we work for the sake of love and justice, we must remember we’re not going to transform this world into the kingdom of our Christ.

God hasn’t commissioned us to make this world perfect; he’s commissioned us chiefly to point to the One who will one day make it perfect, even as we spend our lives loving and doing good. If you’re tempted to utopianism, please observe that Scripture doesn’t allow it, and that the history of utopianism has a track record of distracting and deceiving even some of Christ’s most zealous followers.

It’s good to feel sadness over the growing approval given to sin in our day. But one of the reasons many Christians in America feel disillusionment over current cultural changes is that we’ve been somewhat utopian in our hopes. Again, to the extent you think and speak as an alarmist, to that same extent you demonstrate that utopian assumptions may have been motivating you all along.

4. Make use of our democratic stewardship.

I would be sad if anyone concluded from my comments that it doesn’t matter what Christians do publicly or with the state. Paul tells us to submit to the state. But in our democratic context, part of submitting to the state means sharing in its authority. And if we have a share in its authority, we just might have, to some extent, a share in its tyranny. To neglect the democratic process, so long as it’s in our hands, is to neglect a stewardship.

We cannot create Utopia, but that doesn’t mean we cannot be good stewards of what we have, or that we cannot use the democratic processes to bless others. For the sake of love and justice, we should make use of our democratic stewardship.

5. Trust the Lord, not human circumstances.

There’s never been a set of circumstances Christians cannot trust God through. Jesus beautifully trusted the Father through the cross “for the joy set before him” (Heb. 12:2). Nothing you and I will face will amount to what our King had to suffer.

We can trust him. He will prove trustworthy through everything we might have to endure. And as we trust him, we will bear a beautiful testimony of God’s goodness and power, and we will bring him glory.

6. Remember that everything we have is God’s grace.

We must remember anything we receive less than hell is dancing time for Christians. Right? Everything a Christian has is all of grace. We need to keep that perspective so that we aren’t tempted to become too sour toward our employers, our friends, our family members, and our government when they oppose us.

How was Paul able to sing in prison? He knew that of which he’d been forgiven. He knew the glory that awaited him. He perceived and prized these greater realities.

7. Rest in the certainty of Christ’s victory.

The gates of hell will not prevail against the church of Jesus Christ. We need not fear and tremble as if Satan has finally, after all these millennia, gained the upper hand in his opposition to God through the same-sex marriage lobby.

“Oh, we might finally lose it here!” No, not a chance.

People around the world now and throughout history have suffered far more than Christians in America presently do. And we don’t assume Satan had the upper hand there, do we?

Each nation and age has a unique way to express its depravity, to attack God. But none will succeed any more than the crucifixion succeeded in defeating Jesus. Yes, he died. But three days later he got up from the dead.

Christ’s kingdom is in no danger of failing. Again, Christians, churches, and especially pastors must know this deeply in our bones. D-Day has happened. Now it’s cleanup time. Not one person God has elected to save will fail to be saved because the secular agenda is “winning” in our time and place. There shouldn’t be anxiety or desperation in us.

We may not be able to out-argue others. They may not be persuaded by our books and articles. But we can love them with the supernatural love God has shown to us in Christ. And we can make his Word known today—with humility, with confidence, and with joy.

  • Victoria Kline

    That was excellent encouragement! I posted a couple of your quotes on facebook. Love the one where we are “evangelizing the cemetery”. Great line! Great way to look at it, so as not to be discouraged when we don’t see “results”. And I appreciate where you said that we are not out there to make the world perfect, which is what the Dominionists and Social Justice people seem to think. If you are not in the world living a most radical life, it seems that some would think one is not a healthy Christian. Thank you for your logical and biblical principles to help is these darkening days.

  • Jon Speed

    8. Read Bonhoeffer.

    9. Read Daniel.

    All the kingdoms of the earth have been given to the Son of Man by the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7. The rest of the book proves it.

    10. Stop yer whinin’. This shift has been going on for years and you (more likely than not) didn’t care until now. Add a gallon of repentance to top off the tank. Those who live godly will suffer persecution. Did you really think all of the stuff in the Bible about “taking up your cross”, persecution, and “following Jesus” was just hyperbole? If you had been living like a Christian for the last twenty years you wouldn’t have: 1) been surprised at the “sudden” shift and 2) would be prepared to endure what you are about to face.

    • Vernon Wankerl

      Note that those who have been “living like a Christian” more than likely have not been living like Christ. Living like a Christian is to measure yourself against some other creature; living like Christ is to be measured by the One Who created you. Also, most people can claim to be a Christian just as the fig tree claimed to have good fruit for a hungry Lord. But what did He do when he found only good looking foliage and no fruit? Living like a Christian is risking the fate of the fig tree.

  • Brent Reeves

    Great article on something I see in many Christian friends- “alarmism” and playing the victim as marriage is redefined and other changes take place in the laws and hearts of our nation.

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  • dwk

    This is a great book just waiting to be written! Wonderful reminders and very encouraging.

  • Erin

    Yes. Yes. Yes. Thank you.

  • Betsy Markman

    Thank you so much for this God-glorifying, biblically-balanced post! May the web see many, many more such posts taking the soapbox away from faithless Chicken-Littleism!

  • JohnM

    Good and timely advice! I do hope we heed it and come to adopt this perspective. Of course if I’m honest I’ll admit I’d prefer things to be easier. I prefer things to get better. But maybe we don’t have the best idea of what is better for us in the long run.

    The flip side of #3 (and related to #1) is: Stop longing for a golden age that never existed.

  • Rick Warren

    Mark, this is an extremely important article that is wise and well-written. I just told all my various social media followers to read it. Thanks for writing it.

    What is needed today are counter-culture Christians who attract interest by contagiously living out the truth before a world that pretends to be happy but is actually miserable.

  • Kelley Avery

    All of these are most important “Footpaths of Freedom”. It is important to realize that we can only “do” what we “are”. We “walk in Him” because we “are” in Him. Do we fail? Occasionally to regularly; Do we mess up the program? Same song; Is it a battle-royal? Ya think! But in all of these we are more than conquerors because of the love of God which permeates our hearts in Christ Jesus. And it is that love which makes us “salt and light” in a “crooked and perverse generation”. It is that love which enables to take the lemons of our lives and turn them into the lemonade of life. The love God demonstrated to us in that while we were still sinning, Christ died for us. That love empowers us to “be” children of the Living God only by grace and only through faith in Christ alone. Great article with excellent admonitions and exhortations.

  • Mike Crowe

    Pastor Mark,
    “This is a great book just waiting to be written!” I thought the same thing when I read this and encouraged others to do so earlier today. We need more pastors who are willing, as you have done here, to think through and answer the “What now?” question, in regard to what it means to be the church in the current cultural climate and in the one that seems to be coming. Rather than attempt to hold down the fort in a culture war that has long been lost, in my opinion, we need to turn our eyes toward the kinds of questions you address here. Thanks for doing so with clarity, conviction, and an evident pastoral desire to help God’s people navigate the time and place in which we find ourselves.

  • Bryan Park

    Thank you, Pastor Mark, for these words of encouragement. May I offer the flip side of the coin? Wherever we see congregations and denominations that bend over backwards to conform to the prevailing winds of culture; that are trying to escape the clear biblical teaching that the body of Christ will experience persecution in this world; whose members’ lives are scarcely any different from their non-Christian neighbors and friends – this is a hint that the Gospel is not present in these congregations and denominations.

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  • Phil

    Don’t forget: Learn church history!!! We’ve dealt with these things before, and have had to adapt while still honoring the Lord. In the face of government and social restrictions/mandates, the historic church has had to make moral choices that one might call “making the best of a bad situation.” Church history is peppered with accepted arrangements and judgement calls that were forced upon the believers, much like David and his men having to eat the show bread (see 1 Sam 21:6, then Matt 12). Once might dare say that ethics are not so much situational as hierarchical, and thus need to be applied in order of importance. Unfortunately the western church will only return to this understanding the hard way.

    • Ryan

      I cannot agree with you more. Thomas C. Oden made the point that no conflict or cultural transformation that the church faces today is more damaging or more threatening than the collapse of the Roman empire and the end of society as they knew it. The ancient Israelites, the Apostles, the Patristics… All of them have weathered storms far more violent than anything we as North Americans face today.

  • Lori

    I’d include the danger toward nostalgia along with the danger toward utopianism. There was no golden age. Harkening back to a time when, for example, African-Americans were legally and socially considered second-class citizens as somehow “more moral” is short-sighted and wrong, but very common. Pretending that society is somehow becoming less moral is no more realistic than pretending it’s becoming more moral. Human nature isn’t changing, and every culture will have significant areas of sin.

  • Heidi Smith

    This article strikes me as “Saturday night” thinking.
    “Oh, boo hoo. The powers-that-be hate us.”
    I say “Well, good!” Isn’t that one of the marks of being in Christ?
    Come on!
    Its Sunday morning!
    Christ is risen and at the right-hand of the Father!
    The book of Acts contains a wonderful story of our Saviors power.
    Paul and Silas sang worship in the dark of a dungeon and God answered with an earthquake of all things. An Earthquake! A scary, shocking shake-up.
    No whining is recorded in the text of Acts 16.
    Their bonds were gone and there were new Christians to baptize.
    How long has the Church been singing? Months? Years? Millenia?
    What if we are due for a tremor or ten?
    Look for new freedoms and converts and keep on singing.
    Jesus Reigns!

    • Kyle Carlson

      Did you even read this article? Mark is exhorting us toward trusting in the hope and triumph of the gospel – what you call “Sunday morning thinking.”

  • Ray Ortlund

    Excellent, Mark. Thank you.

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  • Paul M

    Some very good points. The social changes we see happening today (not new by any stretch, just different packaging) are due to others who shout louder than the humble Christian, therefore get the grease. For some reason Chrisitans believe they have to be warm and fuzzy. Bunk! Persecution because of standing on faith is a badge of Godly honor and is inevitable when going against the grain of societal slippage, so many shy away from speaking their minds against the slippage. To that I say, So what!…is that not where our active faith “rubber” meets the proverbial “road”? Otherwise our faith is weak and useless. We are required to stand on God’s precepts for our lives the. Let the chips fall where they may. Society today is wimpy, people are wimpy…Christ – our ultimate example – was not. In the 1800’s Charles Finney, when dealing with a slipping society, stated (condensing his full statement) “if there is moral decay in society the pulpit is responsible for it.” Weakness in our pulpits and churches allows Satan to gain a stronger foothold. Point is we can never let up, persecution or not. That said, I get one vote against the slippage…the trick is to be strong enough in faith, and fully live that faith out, in order to influence and help others to ignore the snake-oil salesmen of our time.

  • Chancellor C. Roberts, II

    An excellent article. I think that we so very often fail to see the big picture in which God is sovereign and we’re not, and in which God not merely knows the end from the beginning, but has decreed the end from the beginning (see Isaiah 46:8-11).

    As I’ve sometimes told unbelieving co-workers at my last job: “I’ve read the end of the book. God wins.”

    It isn’t our job to take over governments and social institutions in some misguided thinking that we’re somehow going to present them to Christ when He returns to establish His kingdom or, for those who believe differently, as part of Christ reigning on Earth now through the Church. Yes, we’re to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and in America that includes participation in our government and in the electoral process (though it is utter wickedness to vote for politicians that refuse to obey the Constitution, the supreme law of the land, as Democrats and Republicans do). However, we need to knock off this nonsense of protesting baby-killing clinics and gay pride parades and stop trying to get schools to engage in mandated prayers led by often ungodly government officials (teachers and administrators) and focus our attention on the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. We need to leave the “family values” and “Christian America” cults behind and return to the Church – the one people of God called out from every nation, every people/language group – and return to the work to which God has called the Church.

    • Jon Speed

      You are not obeying the Great Commandment if you will allow your neighbors to be slaughtered while they are in the womb without attempting to preach the gospel at the clinic in an effort to both save their lives and the souls of their parents.

      • Chancellor C. Roberts, II

        If you believe these unborn children are “innocent” and automatically go to heaven when they die, then by trying to “save their lives,” you are denying them automatic entrance into heaven and putting them at risk of going to hell. Preaching the gospel to the lost doesn’t mean standing outside baby-killing clinics yelling and screaming at the baby-killers (including the women who go in to have their babies killed – I’ve actually seen this) or by standing out front with protest signs that make no mention whatsoever of the gospel (I’ve seen this too). When the disciples told Jesus about how Pilate was mixing the blood of Galileans with his pagan sacrifices, Jesus didn’t organize protests outside Pilate’s palace. When the Romans were killing Christians in the Colliseum, Paul didn’t write to the churches telling them to organize protests or to write epistles to the Roman Senate urging them to stop the killing of Christians.

        • Jon Speed

          Thanks for the amazing insight into the Greatest Commandment.

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  • EricP

    “it’s often secondary issues—not the gospel—that elicit persecution.”

    What kind of secondary issues are you talking about? To what extent should we continue secondary items “if it means social criticism, or loss of privilege, or financial penalties, or criminal prosecution.”

    • Chancellor C. Roberts, II

      Secondary issues like, perhaps, the “family values” and “Christian America” heresies that have infected American Christianity since the 1970s? Maybe the wickedness of fighting “the culture war” instead of obeying the Great Commission and the Great Commandment?

      The Church’s culture, nationality, ethnicity, etc. is that of the kingdom of God, not of those of the world.

    • Tremayne

      From the artcle: “Persecutors don’t say, “You believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ; I’m going to persecute you now.” Rather, some belief or practice we maintain as Christians contradicts what people want or threatens their way of seeing the world. And so they oppose us.” So our stance on same-sex “marriage” or abortion could be cause for persecution. He’s not talking about “heresies”.

      • EricP

        Shouldn’t we pick our battles then? Learn to answer persecutors wisely and not naively.

        I’m thinking of Corrie Ten Boom and her family that hid Jews from the Nazis. She was willing to lie to protect people. Her cousin thought it wrong to lie no matter what the circumstance. When the cousin was asked, “Is this man a Jew?”, she said “Yes”. In the story, the man was then rescued the next night in a prison break.

        I side with Corrie, but I’m amazed at her cousin’s faith and God honoring it.

        I think there’s not a correct action, but a correct attitude from which possibly contradictory actions will spring.

        • Chancellor C. Roberts, II

          EricP, I agree with the cousin that there is never anything right about lying.

      • Chancellor C. Roberts, II

        Your statement “our stance on same-sex ‘marriage’ or abortion could be cause for persecution” is part of my question “Maybe the wickedness of fighting ‘the culture war’ instead of obeying the Great Commission and the Great Commandment? And, yes, much of the so-called “persecution” really is because of the “family values” and “Christian America” heresies and not because of Christ or anything He and the Apostles taught.

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  • Mark Z

    This was fantastic, thanks for sharing.

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  • Abby Korfmann

    Great perspective. We need to stay focused on the real problems and the real solution or risk wasting our time and energy and misrepresenting Christ. It is hard not to get distracted by all the crazy going on around us, but we are not called to fix, or even comprehend the crazy. We are called to love and to stay true to God, and to love others and make disciples. I agree with you 100%. Thanks for speaking the truth so clearly.

  • Nate O.

    This is great, thank you for your wisdom and encouragement

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  • Secure in Christ

    Thank you brother so much for this encouragement. There is so much to meditate in prayer here. Praise GOD He reigns!!

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  • Buddy Hanson

    Why do the majority of American Christians behave like they are watching an adventure movie, and sitting on the edge of their seat hoping that the directors give us a hoped-for ending? Because most of our Bible teachers (at all levels) discourage us living-out what we profess to believe by absolutizing a particular eschatological view of Scripture. For example, if a Christian attempts to apply biblical ethics to all of his situations and circumstances he is quickly accused of being a utopian or a legalist. But why can’t his actions be explained by saying that God called us into His family and Christ’s Kingdom to assist in bringing about “His will on earth as it is in heaven.” To approach the teaching of God’s Word in this manner would change the purpose of going to church or to a small group Bible study from learning more about God, to learning more about God in order to incorporate His truths into our lifestyle. Instead of looking for a Bible preaching and Bible teaching church, one would look for a Bible teaching, Bible preaching AND a Bible applying church. This would mean that the content of a typical sermon would probably be reduced in half with the remainder of the time being spend on suggesting practical ways to apply the truths in the message to all aspects of one’s life.
    This, of course, would mean that teachers would have to get to know
    their learners’ cares and concerns so they could offer applications that were meaningful to them.
    Long story short, nowhere does the Bible teach that we are spectators of “God’s movie;” we have been graciously called to be vital actors in the the movie. If we don’t approach Scripture from that perspective (e.g., the perspective of a sports coach), we’re no different from the talking heads on the nightly news.

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  • Christopher Lee

    Pastor Mark
    Thank you for the well balanced article. Good perspective that any Christian, no matter what side of the culture wars he falls on, should be able to agree to.

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  • Becky

    This is exactly what I needed… several people in my family have
    left the faith of our father and mother.. and they are treating me as though I were “out of it” and stupid. I need this whole article as a reminder of everything you said. Thank you. Makes me think of the song we used to sing, “Is this poor world a friend of Grace?” “Shall I be carried to the skiew on flowery beds of ease?” “No, I’m a soldier of the Cross.” thank you so much. Becky Long

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  • Julie Reynolds

    Thank you Mark Dever. This applies just as much in Australia as in America. But it doesn’t surprise me that in reading some comments that there a those who seem to miss his point entirely. Very thoughtful article, makes good sense. The gates of hell shall never prevail against the church! But we are called to suffer and remain faithful. Now in my eighth decade I have never seen God being unfaithful, and never will.

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