In Tim Keller’s Center Church, he identifies four “seasons” in the cycle of the church’s relation to the culture. In winter, the church faces hostility from the culture, is weak or even underground, and sees very limited evangelistic fruit (as in much of the Islamic world today). In spring, the church is embattled but growing, and signs of life are beginning to break through (as in China). In summer, the church is highly regarded in the public square, and Christians are involved at the center of cultural production (as in parts of South America, sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific). And in autumn, the influence of the church is declining, and believers are increasingly marginalized in a post-Christian context (as in Europe and North America). Though not biblical, I see Keller’s model, adapted from Niebuhr’s The Church Against the World, as an obviously helpful one.
Four things have happened recently which have made me realize how important, and how relevant, this is to the state of the contemporary church.
Firstly, as I’ve talked about before, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the way some churches, parachurches and individual Christians are trying (sometimes successfully!) to purchase a seat at the cultural table by staying quiet about things that might bother people. It’s not just sexuality, although that is the obvious one in the West today; the recent 20-week abortion debacle in the U.S. was another good example, as some prominent Christians fudged the issue to maintain positions of “influence,” and there are probably plenty of others. In any case like this, the question always needs to be asked: Who is actually influencing whom? If in order to “influence” me you have to keep quiet about anything I don’t like, whose foot is the boot actually on? And I wonder if this is a question that simply doesn’t get asked in “summer”—because the powers that be are so open to Christian values and ideas—but becomes huge as we approach “winter.” (Put another way: The difference between me and some of my corridors-of-power friends is that we disagree over what time it is.)
Secondly, I have been following the debate, which has featured frequently in First Things over the last year or so, concerning whether the church can be spoken of as in “exile,” and/or whether we are entering the new Dark Ages, and/or whether the best response to that is the so-called “Benedict Option” or its various alternatives. Though the very use of such imagery strikes me as terribly pessimistic and gloomy—which, as a fairly optimistic person, and a charismatic Calvinist, is just about the worst thing you can be—I’ve found some of the arguments quite persuasive. I first came across the idea in David Bentley Hart’s argument, at the end of Atheist Delusions, that the time had come for Christians to return to the desert, which presumably is easier to say for an Orthodox writer than a Protestant. Since then, the cultural analyses of people like Rod Dreher and Carl Trueman have struck me as fairly accurate, and their predictions as inherently plausible (unless counteracted by the more bullish postmillennial Calvinism that characterises Peter Leithart, Doug Wilson and co.). The speed with which marginalization in the public square is happening—contrast the experiences of Rick Warren (2008) and Louie Giglio (2012) for an obvious example—looks much more like November than September to me. I’ve no intention of forming a sectarian huddle in the desert just yet, but for those with eyes to see, winter is approaching.