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Main_Street_Bldg_Chesterton_IN_2012We're in the midst of a seismic shift in terms of culture and worldview right now in the United States of America, and orthodox Christians who seek to order their lives according to Scripture will likely lose access to institutions of mainstream influence.

Such is already the case in most secular universities and in the mainstream media. More marginalization is sure to follow.

But here's a question we should raise: is life at the margins as bad as we think?

Is the Common Culture As Important These Days?

In The Fractured Republic (see my previous posts here and here), Yuval Levin makes an important point: Christians may no longer be as influential or involved in the mainstream institutions of society, but those same institutions no longer have as much sway.

We are certainly witnessing something of a long-term hostile takeover of the dominant mainstream institutions of our society, but we are also living through the collapsing power and influence of those very institutions, which may turn out to be far more important. All sides in our culture wars would be wise to focus less attention than they have been on dominating our core cultural institutions, and more on building thriving subcultures. (165)

To put it another way, Christians who have taken up arms in the culture war are fighting for what our society's common culture will be, but Levin says this battle is over a rapidly shrinking sphere of influence. The common culture itself is disappearing. 

We are looking for a new norm, a new ethic to define the common culture. But the common culture is much less important than it used to be. (174)

So, even if the "common culture" is anti-Christian in the future, the new norms and expectations won't be as powerful or persuasive as they were a generation ago.

Pessimistic Benedict vs. Optimistic Benedict 

So what should Christians do?

Some believe the battle for the heart and soul of America is lost. Christians should retreat to our homes and churches and bide our time, hoping to keep some semblance of our distinctive ethic alive. This is the pessimistic version of the Benedict Option.

Levin offers a more optimistic proposal:

The more hopeful mode suggests that emphasizing the needs and well-being of one's near-at-hand community first and foremost can be, for social conservatives, not an alternative to fighting for the soul of the larger society, but a most effective means of doing so. (176)

In other words, Christians must not withdraw from politics but redirect their energy toward local communities. It's a shift away from Washington, D.C., toward your neighborhood, city, and state.

Focusing on your own near-at-hand community does not involve a withdrawal from contemporary America, but an increased attentiveness to it. (178)

Levin is on to something here. How many of us are so focused on national elections and the 24-hour cable news talking heads that we fail to notice what is going on right around us? Surely "loving our neighbors" should mean our actual neighbors, not just following the latest developments within the Beltway.

Energizing Your Church and Community

Levin does not encourage retreat or withdrawal. Instead, he urges Christians to fight for the heart and soul of America on another front.

The goal is to reengage our local communities and strengthen our local churches so that both become quietly subversive--strong enough to withstand the hostility from the common culture that no longer shares the same values. Levin writes:

The point of subcultural conservatism . . . is not withdrawal or quietism, but an emphasis on community--on local sources of solidarity rooted in common moral premises--as a way of forming human beings and citizens who can then contribute to their society as well as to their community. (183)

As I've mentioned before, The Awakening of Miss Prim by Spanish novelist Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera is a fictional example of the kind of community Levin may have in mind. We can also learn something about this from our African-American brothers and sisters who have long thrived on the margins and are now telling us, "Welcome, folks. We've been here a long time."

Similarly, on a recent episode of the Pass the Mic podcast, Collin Hansen, editorial director for The Gospel Coalition, explains how his disillusionment with national party politics has led him to focus on his city of Birmingham and a nearby town suffering from terrible economic distress. The more he has recognized his powerlessness to change things at the national level, the more attention he has given to the town right next door.

What Will Set Apart the Church

If "going local" is the way forward for social conservatives, local churches will have a glorious opportunity to stand out from the world.

Our national political discourse has become increasingly mired in identity politics--the idea that constituencies are determined by identities like “race,” “gender,” and “sexual orientation.” The temptation is for Christians to adopt the same kind of identity or become just another voting bloc. That's the wrong way to go. Levin explains:

Subcultural conservatism would have to be embodied in actual, living communities--rather than in identities, which can be hung on individuals. Identity politics is the logical conclusion of the premises of our era of radical individualism. A subcultural communitarianism is a counterbalance to that logic. (180)

The church has a different story to tell. Here, we find a community that transcends the identities of this political era. Here we find people coming together from different races, different backgrounds, and yes, even different sexual attractions and histories--and yet who believe the gospel, submit to the lordship of Christ, and commit to the biblical picture of human flourishing.

A genuine community is not an intangible mass grouping (like "Jewish Americans"), but a concrete, tangible grouping (like "our congregation") that gives you a role, a place, and a set of relationships and responsibilities to other particular human beings. (181)

The church must be more than just a gathering of people whose primary identities are found elsewhere. The Christian's primary allegiance is to Christ.

Christians belong to the Church. We are a community, not a constituency. Why go local? Because life-changing things don’t just happen in Washington, D.C. The Spirit of the living God is in your local congregation.

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12 thoughts on “Christians Who Feel Marginalized Should ‘Go Local’”

  1. Tiribulus says:

    “…the biblical picture of human flourishing.”

    Where in scripture do we find this biblical picture of general “communitarian” human flourishing? That’s an honest question.

    1. Bitsy says:

      Acts 2:42-47 would be my first thought…

      1. Tiribulus says:

        Bitsy says: “Acts 2:42-47 would be my first thought…”

        Yes, that would be inside the church among God’s redeemed people in Christ practiced voluntarily toward one another. What I asked was where do we find this picture of “communitartian” GENERAL human flourishing, that is, in the secular community, as being a mandate or even a goal of either Jesus or any of the apostles.

        Again. That’s an honest question.

        1. Bitsy says:

          Ah… Thanks for clarifying… Well… We already know that Jesus participated in the things of the human populas… He attended the wedding at Cana… where He would later turn the water into wine. When He called the disciples, he went to where they were mending their nets… He went to the woman at the well… and He told us to go and make disciples in the Great Commission. I think the whole thing of being in the world but not of it also speaks to this… Yes, Jesus was evangelizing as He went… but I think He did this as a part of being a part of the community at large. He was fully man AND fully God… So we have to assume that He went to temple, did all of the things that normal Jewish men of His day did. There’s a book called, “The Jesus I Never Knew.” Good read. Also, we also told to be good citizens of our world… and to pray for those who lead us. Not sure if that’s what you are looking for… but hopefully it does help some…

    2. Randy Wimbley says:

      How about Jer 29:1-9?
      Although the prophet is speaking to ancient Jews and not 21st century American Jesus followers, the general message of the passage can be applied to the redeemed people of God who find themselves in a strange place and culture with no power ultimately, or better yet chiefly, because of their own sin (Some folks may protest the notion bible believing Christians are in this position because of our own sin but I would heartily disagree and I doubt I’m alone.)

  2. Vi Brown says:

    Another gr8 post, Trevin. I am inclined to agree that Christians should focus on their local communities if for no other reason it is where we select our elected leaders that represent us in Congress. My conversations with lots of folks tell me there is a big disconnect between what some Christians expect of those in Congress and what they expect of “themselves” and others at the local level.

  3. Michael says:

    Yes and yes. If Washington never changes its mind on abortion (or other any other issue that we care about), but the abortion rate in my community drops drastically because women know they and their children will be cared for and because men understand what it means to honor a woman and the community comes to understand the beauty of sex inside a covenant relationship, then righteousness flourishes apart from the law of the land and others will undoubtedly take notice.

    If the community prospers through the spreading of a God-ordained work ethic and justice from local leaders and our reliance on state and federal aid dwindles and our need for courts to step in decreases, then righteousness flourishes without the law and others will undoubtedly notice.

    And as people move in and out of places like this, they will take this truth and this beauty with them to other places. And despite the law of the land, communities will flourish because people take the gospel seriously and are not dependent upon government/law to bring beauty from the messes of life.

  4. Bobbi Brown says:

    Yes, I agree that Christians should get involved locally. There are many local social justice projects. My husband and I recently moved to a new town. I have cousins in this community. We attended their church and then decided to attend a different church. My cousins invited us to an auction and fund raising dinner for a housing project for at risk people which their church sponsors along with one other church and many businesses in this town. The speakers for the event were an unmarried couple who were living together in this housing. I objected to my cousins that a church shouldn’t be sponsoring an outreach like this that approved of immorality. They disagreed. We have agreed to disagree. What would you have done? Needless to say we did not contribute any money.

  5. Curt Day says:

    While I fully agree in being involved locally and working with a variety of people in being so involved, this post misses an important point. That point is that we lost the culture war because we made it necessary by trying to have our way in ways that marginalized others.

    If we can work with those with different sexual attractions in local issues, as this post suggests, why can we do the same in society? In other words, why can’t we take the same approach to society at large as is suggested we take to the local community in this article?

  6. Doug says:

    Additionally, we must not forget the major contribution that our understanding of God’s word — or misunderstanding — makes toward our social reality: we reap what we plant. In the parable of the weeds, Christ pictured a man shocked over the outcome of his field; the man’s correct response: “An enemy has done this.” We must likewise scrutinize the field. If we were honest about the dominant thrust of the church in America over the past 100 years or so, we’d find our theology does not allow for a God-bless nation, but has emphasized quite the opposite.

  7. Trevin, this is thought-provoking and encouraging. Participating and influencing our local communities is sometimes a little scarier … we are less anonymous and we have to live with the people we interact with on this level. And yet, this is where our beliefs really do play out. Back to Jerusalem …

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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