“Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation — at least, not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, and a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.”
Candidate Barack Obama, June 2007
The conservative [especially] evangelical community was stirred into a frenzy by the above quote. Political opponents from coast to coast sought to use it as a rallying point for their base. While four years later I find few statements that I can heartily agree with from our now president Barack Obama, this is definitely one of them.
Cultural shifts are difficult. They are not always sudden and jarring like a magnitude 8.0 earthquake. They tend rather to change landscapes like the slow crushing move of a glacier. The cold hard reality is that culture is never static, which poses a significant problem, as we [humans] don’t much like change.
The Christian, more than any other, must be flexible and ready to adapt to the realities of cultural evolution. We are to be men and women, on mission; a mission which involves a commission to “go.” So, like culture, we are also not static. Our default however, is to tend toward inflexibility. This means that the life for the Christian will [almost] always involve some level of discomfort. As strangers and pilgrims in this world we will never truly find home, in this life. It is this truth that Jesus identified when he said to a potential seeker, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matt. 8:20)
Acts chapter 11 highlights for us a major cultural shift for the early church, one which I’m convinced mirrors what the 21st century evangelical church is now facing in the US and western Europe.
Briefly, Acts 11 brings the church face to face with the fulfillment of one of Jesus’ prophetic promises. Jesus prophesied saying, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
For roughly the first 10 years of the church’s existence, it found its base among Jews and Samaritans, primarily. Those who filled her ranks came from a theistic worldview; they were religious. Gospel uptake among those of a theistic persuasion was pretty good. At the birth of the church during Pentecost we witness something akin to the crusade evangelism of the 20th century as 3,000 were converted. Shortly after that there came another 5,000 (depending on how you read it). But a decade in, at Acts chapter 10, we witness the gospel’s advance into a paganistic, pluralistic, polytheistic, somewhat secularistic environment. Acts 11 reveals the apostolic reaction to what we could call “culture shock.”
Culture shock is what happens when you wake-up one day to find the culture around you has changed, and you have not. The evangelical church in America is experiencing a culture shock similar to that of the church in Acts 11. President Obama’s quote exposes the cultural shift, which the church is beginning to wake-up to. How we (the church) react to this shift will shape much of our evangelistic efforts in 21st century America.