I recently had the chance to preach at my home church, Wellspring Anglican in Englewood, Colorado. I spoke on Exodus 19-20 and focused on God’s promise to the new nation of Israel in Exodus 19:5-6: “Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
In the sermon dive into what it would have meant to be a “kingdom of priests” and how Israel was called to be a “holy nation” in both their personal and public lives. I also ask some hard, personal questions about how – if it’s even possible – we might become holy.
I hope you enjoy listening. I’d be glad for your feedback below in the comments section.
When I was in elementary school, my mother took my older sister and I to Lake Itasca State Park for summer vacation, located in the cool northern woods of Minnesota. A life-long teacher, she would glory in making the outdoor visit into a lesson: spotting the diving loons in search of breakfast, explaining the history of old-growth red pines towering over the landscape, and proudly declaring that we were looking at the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River.
My sister and I, however, were more concerned with the number of times we could skip a rock across the glassy surface and the tiny creatures we discovered on the lakeshore. Barefoot and with a cool breeze in my curly blond hair, I would spend afternoons hunting for tadpoles or grabbing tiny oysters to crack them open, in search of treasure. Though I never did find a pearl in those oysters, the shell’s rainbow iridescence, shimmering in the sunlight, hinted at a joy embedded deeply within creation.
Three decades later, with a wife and four daughters of my own — and nearing forty years of age — I now spend more time landscaping behind my mortgaged house, cleaning dishes, and checking email than I do whimsically searching for marine treasures. Yet amidst the ever-present responsibility of directing a nonprofit, paying bills, and supporting family, I’ve found that my daily work has become the central arena in which I sense the magic of the Creator’s handiwork in my own life.
Like the refracted light of a rainbow, faith shapes the breadth of my human experience, including the one-third of my life I spend working. When I feelthe neck-tingling stress of hitting financial goals or the sadness of a coworker who’s lamenting singleness, I pause to pray. When I discuss future office space needs with my COO and the wild uncertainty of our current cultural moment, I draw on the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation to think through the problem. When I lose motivation to knock out my task list on a long, hot afternoon, I draw fresh inspiration from Christian authors like Dorothy Sayers, who remind me, “We are made in the image of a Maker,” and my work is a part of my humanity. When I read a news story that recounts the millions of women who’ve lost jobs due to the pandemic, I rework plans for our largest annual event, Business for the Common Good, to reflect God’s own concern for the vulnerable (Exodus 3:17). There is simply no extracting faith from my daily work. My working life is spent at the intersection of my human experience. If I was to remove faith from my working life, it would make me not just less Christian, but less human.
Why should we bring our whole self to work, including our faith? Well, for the Christian, there is no other option. The very oldest Christian confession is, “Jesus is Lord,” (1 Corinthians 12:3). For the early church, calling Jesus kurios (“lord”)was a challenge to Caesar’s claim to that same title. Both Jesus and Caesar claimed ultimate allegiance, forcing early Christians to make a choice. The early church chose the name ekklesia tou Theou (“church of God”), refusing the official protection of “private cults” by the Roman empire, precisely because an ekklesia was a public assembly to which all people in the empire were summoned to discuss the public affairs of the city. The followers of Jesus were making their own self-understanding clear: the church would not be merely a “private religion,” but would instead be public assembly by which all humanity is summoned, called by God himself.
Today, our modern notions of a strict divide between public and private, sacred and secular, faith and work trace their ancestry originally to Greek dualism, and more recently to Enlightenment thinking, which places the individual human at the center of the universe. Indeed, the idea that people could be “religious” at some times and “secular” at others is a relatively new notion. (Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy and Charles Taylor’s A Secular Ageare helpful here.) Yet it is that awkward but unspoken expectation of fencing off our deepest convictions that still dominates most government, corporate, and nonprofit entities today. And so, millions of men and women across faith traditions are forced to ask, how am I supposed to be fully human at work, but ignore the very source of my humanity for the majority of my waking hours?
In my own tradition — I am a Presbyterian drawing from the rich well of historic American Protestantism — there has been much handwringing about this question, especially in the context of a changing culture. Pew reports that in just the last 30 years, the percentage of U.S. adults who identify as Christians has declined from 87% to 65%, whereas the number of adults who claim to be “religiously unaffiliated” has swelled from 8% to 26%. That’s 30 million more “nones” than just 10 years ago.
As culture has shifted from a Judeo-Christian social consensus to a secular one in the last 60 years, I lament that the Christian response has largely been around the politicization of faith, the privatization of belief, or the accommodation to culture. In one camp, the culture wars rage on and faith is politicized in a battle for control over the future of America. Others largely retreat from culture, content either to restrict faith to “just my private belief” or live in evangelical subcultures neatly removed from mainstream culture. Yet, by far the most common response is Christians accommodating to popular culture, adopting whatever social, cultural, or economic practices are popular in the moment. Each of these play out as Christians try to answer the question: what does faith mean for my life, my work, and the world I live in?
At Denver Institute for Faith & Work, we believe that work is a way to love God, serve our neighbors, and demonstrate the gospel. We believe vocation is first a call to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, and your mind,” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27; Matthew 22:37-40). Vocation is our response to God’s voice in all areas of life, including our work.
I think many people, including much of corporate America, see this view and feel concerned that bringing your faith to work will cause conflict between people of divergent beliefs. But in my experience, the opposite has been the case. Pete Ochs creates and runs Seat King, a company that manufactures car seats inside a medium-security prison and gives prisoners a fair wage, “life lessons,” and a newfound sense of dignity. Young professionals tackle the challenges of social media, innovate new HR benefits for refugees working in pallet company, and highlight the plight of undocumented immigrants in local newspaper — all as an expression of their faith. From tech workers advocating for better family leave policies to investors humbly admitting they have an anger problem and recommitting to emotional healing, faith in the workplace can be a powerful force for good.
Of course, Christians also sin, and as such, “bringing your whole self to work” can also mean bringing greed, lust, pride, envy, prejudice, and laziness to the workplace as well. I myself have been a fine example of many of these vices to my coworkers and family. Yet, it’s in moments of being drawn to addiction, self-aggrandizement, or brute selfishness that I need God in my own work all the more. Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote in The Gulag Archipelago, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart….” I think many of us are tempted to believe that the problem with our world today is “them.” But daily I’m reminded that the greatest problem our world faces beats within my own breast.
Two millennia ago, when Jesus was being crowded by throngs of admirers, he hopped in a boat, pushed off from shore, and began to teach. Voice echoing off the water’s surface, he told the story of a farmer who found a treasure buried in a field. Wild with excitement, he sold all he had to buy the field, knowing that in the end he was getting an incredible deal. Similarly, he told the story of a merchant in search of pearls. When he found one, overcome with joy, he too sold everything he had just to possess that single treasure (Matthew 13:44-45).
When I was a boy, strolling along the shores of Lake Itasca and hunting for oysters, my work was simply to delight in the world around me. Now as an adult, nonprofit leader, husband, and father, my work now is to allow that same pearl of God’s grace to permeate my daily life. For me, like the headwaters of the Mississippi River, God is the Living Water who has given me new life (John 4:14-16). If everybody worships, as the late David Foster Wallace claimed, is it such a strange thing to acknowledge that source of life in our working life?
So why faith and work? Like a merchant finding a pearl — or a child finding a shell on a lakeshore — the answer for the Christian is simple: joy.
The following is an introductoryletter for our annual report I wrote to our supporters at DIFW. If you’d like a physical copy of the report, visit this page.
Annual reports have a way of being sent, paged through, and put in the recycle bin rather quickly. We know this because we’ve done it so many times, too.
This is why Denver Institute for Faith & Work created a unique annual report this year that doubles as a personal reflection guide for your own walk with Christ in 2020.
After a painful, jarring year, we at DIFW reflected on all the changes in our own lives and work. Our reflections centered around four seasons:
Celebration: We launched 2020 with our largest event ever.
Lament: In March 2020, the world abruptly changed with the arrival of COVID-19, deepening personal, professional, and social tensions.
Redirection: Our work abruptly needed to change to adjust to a new reality.
Gratitude: As we ended 2020, we were left with a deep and unexpected sense of gratitude.
We structured each section of this annual report as narrative reflections on our own work at DIFW, and intentionally left space for you to journal, reflect, and pray through your own story in 2020.
This annual report is meant to be an invitation to pause and invite the Lord into your memories, allowing him to heal wounds and grow his life within. I hope you’ll put this year’s annual report next to your bed and spend some time reflecting on the presence of the Spirit in pain, the goodness of God in seasons of change, and hope of the resurrection of Christ for the year to come.
I want to thank you again for your generous giving to the formation of men and women to serve God, neighbor, and society through their work. Your prayers, financial support, and participation in our mission continue to make an impact.
Founder & CEO P.S. You can make a deeper impact by becoming a monthly donor. Visit denverinstitute.org/give to give today. Thank you for your continued support.
When I think of Easter, I think of the pink crabapple trees blossoming in early April along the north side of Caley Avenue in my home town of Littleton.
I think of Easter egg hunts on budding green church lawns packed with girls in pastel dresses and boys in clip-on ties, carrying baskets filled with eggs, chocolate, and plastic green grass (that ends up on my carpet). I think of Easter brunch: fruit, egg bakes, and mimosas. And I think of leisurely walks through garden centers, smelling fresh soil, fresh seeds and new beginnings.
Yet for me at least, the metaphor of Easter as a mere symbol is falling short. This year was simply filled with too much pain.
This last year, I remember looking into a hazy, yellow sky and feeling the ash fall on my face from raging Colorado wildfires. I remember a friend of mine telling me about the piercing anxiety he felt as he watched from his balcony the dumpster fires move closer to home after the George Floyd protests. I remember walking along Civic Center Park and running my fingers along the splintered plywood now covering the windows of the old Denver Post building on 101 West Colfax. I remember the ghostly feeling of walking through an empty 16th Street Mall on a sunny April afternoon. I remember the tears my daughters cried when I told them their summer swim team, the Franklin Fish, had been canceled.
And this week, I remember the 10 lives lost in the Boulder King Soopers shooting, opening yet again the 20-year-old wound of Columbine that casts a shadow over our “best-state-to-live-in” reputation.
Springtime sentimentality is no match for the harsh finality of death.
And yet, Easter is not a metaphor.
American poet and novelist John Updike once wrote:
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cells dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
Reknit, the amino acids rekindle
The Church will fall.
In other words, the Christian church and faith rests on a single, historical event: the resurrection of Jesus’ physical body.
Updike writes, “Let us not mock God with metaphor, analogy, sidestepping transcendence,” alluding to the categorization of Christian faith as myth. The resurrection was not like a spring garden nor a parable of well wishes. Christians assert, “the same valved heart / that – pierced – died, withered, paused, and then / regathered out of enduring Might.”
The early apostles struggled to believe in an actual, physical resurrection. Thomas famously said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my fingers where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” John the apostle reports Jesus’ reply: “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
The New Testament authors were making a clear claim: Jesus was no ghost. He could be touched. He ate food with his disciples. He had a body. Here was no ancient mythology of life, death and rebirth. Death itself was being unraveled by the Author of Life.
Denver can feel like a polarized place, like the rest of our country. Yet on Easter morning, men and women across the city declare a single truth with a rare unity.
From the Episcopalians at Saint John’s Cathedral to the evangelicals of Fellowship Denver Church; from the multicultural worshippers at Colorado Community Church to the Pentecostals at Potter’s House; from the Anglicans at Wellspring Church in Englewood to the Wesleyans at Trinity Methodist tucked between skyscrapers at 18th and Broadway; from the professionals at Cherry Creek Presbyterian in the Tech Center to the homeless at Denver Rescue Mission to the online worshippers quarantined in their homes from Northglenn to Castle Pines — for one morning, each echo the words of an angel, “Do not be afraid, for I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see.”
So what? What does the resurrection mean for a city still aching with emptiness, loss, and pain?
I believe it means three things. First, it means death is not the end. Second, it means that Christ has come not just to give meaning to life after death, but to bring his life to this world. His bodily resurrection is the beginning point of a new way to be human.And third, it means that the hard work ahead of reopening restaurants, helping students catch up, and rebuilding our economy is indeed work worth doing, because God seems to think this world is worth saving (John 3:16).
Easter may not be a metaphor, but it is a new beginning. It reminds us that today is a time to plant, to hope, and to begin new projects that can bloom, like a budding crabapple blossom lining the streets of a waiting city.
Jeff Haanen is the founder of Denver Institute for Faith & Work and the 5280 Fellowship, a nine-month experience in spiritual formation, professional development, and civic engagement for emerging leaders in Denver. This op-ed first appeared in the Denver Gazette.
It was a Sunday afternoon. I walked out my back garage to toss the trash. I opened the green can, heaved in the white plastic bag, and breathed in … the stench of smoke. As I shut the can I moseyed out to my driveway to investigate. I looked up in the sky. The sun was a dull yellow, filtered through an unnatural cloud that covered the horizon. Smoke from the worst wildfires in Colorado history hung like a lingering ghost. Ash slowly fell around me and the street in my neighborhood was completely empty.
As I turned to walk back inside I heard something. It was a song coming from a truck around the corner. As I paused and peered through the sullen glow, I saw an ice cream truck, driving as if children were going to happily skip outside, eager for an afternoon treat. Yet none emerged from their homes, sequestered by their parents from the pandemic. The truck jingled by, as if from the set of a post-apocalyptic movie.
What a fitting metaphor for our world today, I thought. Our society is burning and our consumer culture offers us an “ice cream cone” to forget our troubles. Of course, as we grow, the “ice cream cone” changes: new car, job promotion, dinner parties, binge watching endless movies in our homes. But each can be a thin veneer that masks what each of us senses: the world we live in is frightfully broken. So many of us live a life distracted by entertainment, but we sense internal emptiness and desolation, one that spreads from souls to jobs to cities.
We long for a deeper hope that can animate our daily lives.
In this first of three articles, let me suggest three theological truths that open up new horizons for the meaning of Christian faith for our work and world today.
Gospel. The word simply means “good news.” In the ancient Roman empire, Caesar had his own euangelion, whose reign through military strength was thought to be the guarantor of peace and prosperity. One ancient coin even called Caesar a “Son of God.”
Yet a small group of Jews said that there was another gospel. They claimedthat a carpenter from Nazareth was the true Son of God, not Caesar. They said that though he was crucified as a criminal, he had been raised from the dead by God and freely offered forgiveness of sins and eternal life to any and all as free gift. And the essence of this “Son of God” was not power to conquer his enemies but love. Even for one’s enemies.
Fast forward to 21st century America. Today we’re used to hearing the word “gospel” in reference to gospel music or to the notion of “getting saved.” In many conservative Protestant circles, believing the “gospel” means soul salvation: Jesus died, I receive forgiveness, and I go to heaven when I die. Yet this version of the gospelwould have seemed very strange to the early Christians. The apostle Paul believed there were four essential elements to his “gospel”: the incarnation of God himself in the person of Jesus (Romans 1:2), the crucifixion of Christ for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:2-3), the resurrection of Christ for our salvation and the salvation of the world (John 3:16; 2 Corinthians 5:19), and the Second Coming of Christ to judge the world and ultimately restore the world as God had originally intended it (Romans 2:16).
In our modern world, we’ve reduced the “gospel” to an individual, private experience involving only me and God. But this is a severe reduction of the breadth of the historic Christian faith. The truth is that sin is much worse than we thought. It has not only infected my heart, but has spread like a cancer into workplaces, industries, cultures, and cities. But the good news, the gospel, is also much better than we thought: Jesus is healing not just our souls but also those same workplaces, industries, cultures, and cities (Colossians 1:20). Indeed, he is not just light for my heart, he is the Light of the World (John 8:12).
Why, then, should we care about work? Teaching kindergarten, practicing law, manufacturing air filters, serving tables: work is the public arena in which the breadth of the gospel can heal our fractured world. When George Washington Carver discovered new uses for the peanut, he listened to the voice of God for scientific discovery. When Bach wrote symphonies, he did so soli Deo Gloria —for the glory of God. And when the salesperson wonders if he’s wasting his life in retail, it’s the good news that crowns him with glory and dignity, even in difficult circumstances.
Christians have been entrusted with a spark of good news — one that claims salvation is far bigger and deeper than we had once thought.
Kingdom. The central message of Jesus’ own earthly ministry was about the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:14-15). To Americans who are used to electing their highest political authority to office, talk of kings and kingdoms can seem strange. Yet it’s a common theme in the Old Testament (Psalm 10:16; Isaiah 37:16; 2 Chronicles 20:6). And Jesus insisted on emphasizing it, even commanding his people for all generations to pray, “may your kingdom come, and your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
What does the Kingdom of God have to do with our work? First, saying that Jesus is the very highest authority both in your life and in the world is a deeply political, and public, commitment. Every nation, as well as every company, school, or hospital, has a set of values. Immediately, the Christian comes into any work situation first being a citizen of another country (1 Peter 2:13-17). That means when working at Amazon or at the local gas station, some of your values align with your workplace; others are different. This stubborn declaration that Jesus is king over all means your work is a contested arena between His Kingdom and the kingdoms of this world (Revelation 11:15). Each meeting, each project, each task, each relationship takes on a new significance in an age-old battle between darkness and light (Colossians 1:13). Whether you’re in politics, business, or education, the Kingdom of God makes every Christian a reformer.
But second, and more importantly, Jesus is inviting us into a new reality. I’ve often heard Protestants speak of “building the Kingdom.” But this is not how Jesus speaks about the Kingdom. He simply calls people to enter and receive the Kingdom (Matthew 7:21, 23:13, 25:34). That means, in a sense, there is no work to be done. Simply receive the gracious gift of living in a new creation, partaking in the divine nature, and resting in the “easy burden” of the way of Christ. Work is the sphere of life in which we live, day-to-day, in the fullness of the life of God (John 10:10b). Rather than believing spiritual matters are just for church, spiritual depth and joy can spill over into your daily work.
Mission. Old Testament Scholar and framer of the Lausanne Covenant Dr. Christopher Wright popularized the term the Mission of God. When we hear the word “mission” we often think of missionaries overseas or paid Christian professionals sent by a church either to evangelize or serve the poor. Yet Wright makes the strong — and lengthy! — case that God himself has a mission. From the calling of Abraham and the people of Israel to the culmination of human history in the book of Revelation, God himself is initiating a grand project to restore his fractured creation (Genesis 3).
How, then, does this involve our daily work? The marvel of the grand narrative of Scripture is that God calls us — flawed, deeply broken human beings — into his purposes to heal and restore his world. This may include overseas work in microfinance. Yet it may be far closer to home. John Stott, the preeminent 20th-century missiologist, pastor, and author, believed our vocations are the central way we partake in “mission.” Police officers protect and serve, farmers feed their neighbors, teachers educate the mind, janitors and mechanics clean and repair our buildings. It’s through our work that we reflect Jesus’ own high calling “to serve, and not to be served” (Mark 10:45).
So, why faith & work? Ultimately, we live in a story of good news. Death is overcome. The darkness does not win. And God summons all people first to himself, and then sends them back into the world as his ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20).
In a time when it feels like our culture is burning and sending smoke into our nostrils and lives, our spiritual lives can feel desolate like an empty street on a dull Sunday afternoon. Yet the breadth of gospel, the promise of a coming Kingdom, and a call to participate with God in his mission reframes how we live and work.
This is good news indeed.
This is the first article of a three-part series on “Why Faith & Work?” The next article will focus on the reality of our jobs and working lives.
At Denver Institute, we have a straightforward answer to this question: our five guiding principles. Here’s how we measure effectiveness, plan programming, and organize our culture.
I also think they’re helpful frameworks to help you think through just how your own deepest convictions might play out in your heart, mind, relationships, work, and involvement in culture.
1. Think theologically.
Embracing the call to be faithful stewards of the mysteries of Christ, we value programs that enable men and women to verbally articulate how Scripture, the historic church, and the gospel of grace influence their work and cultural engagement.
2. Embrace relationships.
Embracing the doctrine of the Trinity and the incarnation, we value convening face-to-face conversations, building long-term friendships, and investing in deep relationships among individuals, organizations, and churches.
3. Create good work.
Embracing God’s own creation and the hope of the resurrection, we value programs that lead to Spirit-filled action and significant new projects that serve as a sign and foretaste of God’s coming Kingdom.
Embracing the parable of the talents, we value programs that provide measurable returns.
4. Seek deep spiritual health.
Embracing Christ’s call to “come follow me,” we value listening to the Holy Spirit, practicing the classic spiritual disciplines, confessing our sins, submitting to the reign of God, and doing our work in a redemptive manner.
5. Serve others sacrificially.
Embracing the call to costly discipleship, we value high levels of commitment, acts of sacrificial service, and courageous public witness among program participants, staff, board, and volunteers.
Embracing the call to justice, we value programs that serve the needs of the poor and marginalized in our work and communities.
Embracing the call to be the Body of Christ for the life of the world, we value programs that address our most pressing contemporary problems and adopt a broad, interdisciplinary perspective in solving complex and systemic issues.
As we were preparing this year’s annual report, we could have never predicted that three weeks in March would change everything. A virus spreads, millions are out of a job, and as the economy shuts down, nearly everybody’s daily work has changed. This is a time to lament. But at Denver Institute, we also believe it is a time to love.
In this year’s report, I ask: are Christians in our society today known for their love? At Denver Institute for Faith & Work, our mission is to form men and women to serve God, neighbor, and society through their daily work. Leaning on Jesus’ Great Commandment, we believe our daily work is an opportunity to love God, serve our neighbors, and demonstrate the gospel to an unbelieving world.
We live in uncertain times. However, as you’ll see in this report, there are reasons for hope:
Angela Evans, a 5280 Fellowship alumna and journalist at the Boulder Weekly, shares about her vocation to highlight vulnerable communities through her writing;
Last year, over 1,000 people came to events last year covering topics like “God, Energy and the Environment” and “Teaching Character Formation in Public Schools”;
Denver Institute was even mentioned by the New York Times as a thought leader in the national faith and work movement.
As we move into 2020 and beyond, would you consider financially supporting the Denver Institute community? Your gift goes directly toward creating more podcasts, short courses, events, publications, and transformative experiences. Your giving forms a community that can respond with grace, truth, and love to the greatest challenges of our time through their vocations.
Thank you for your generosity. As the nations are in an uproar, my prayer is that we might, “Be still and know that I am God…The LORD Almighty is with us” (Psalm 46).
The Pew Research Center recently published an alarming report: “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.” Since 2009, the religiously unaffiliated have risen from 17% of the population to 26% in 2018/19. And today only 65% of Americans identify as Christians, down from 77% only a decade ago.
The report points out that there’s a generational dynamic at work as well. A full 8 in 10 members of the Silent Generation are Christians, as are 3/4 baby boomers. Yet today, less than half of Millennials call themselves Christians, and 4/10 are religious “nones.” That is, when asked about their religious affiliation, they respond “nothing in particular.” There are now 30 million more “nones” in America than there were just a decade ago.
Sobering stuff. Whether it be church attendance or looking at the religious preferences of Whites, Blacks or Hispanics, the decline of Christian belief in the past generation of Americans seems to be picking up steam.
Some push back on this thesis. Glenn Stanton, a conservative researcher at Focus on the Family, claims that news headlines about the “dying church” are overblown. He accurately points out that the greatest numerical declines are in mainline churches, and that the numbers of evangelical Christians are holding strong. Indeed, even Pew reports that though the overall number of Protestants among US adults has declined from 51% in 2009 to 43%% in 2019, among Protestants the number of evangelicals has grown in the last decade from 56% to 59%.
Stanton and others point out what is happening is that the “middle is falling out.” That is,those who used to be nominally Christian now feel no need to say they’re a Christian of any sort when a pollster asks. So many of these people get lopped into the “nones” category but are not necessarily atheist or agnostic. “Nones” is a complex category of those without strong ties to a denomination or faith tradition.
Historically American exceptionalism held true in religion. As other rich countries secularized rapidly, especially in Europe, America didn’t follow suit. But since 1990, we now have about 30 years of data that says belief is indeed falling in the US.
What sense should we make of this data?
Though I wouldn’t use the word “crisis,” (the internet doesn’t need one more alarmist article), I would like to lay out three problems that confessing Christians need to pay attention to as belief recedes in America.
(1) The politicization of faith is reshaping how Christians express their faith in public and how they’re perceived by the broader culture.
As I read over these Pew research findings, I ask, “How would many of the Christian young adults in Denver respond to the question: ‘Are you a born-again evangelical?’”
My guess is that many wouldn’t claim the term “evangelical” because the word now has political and fundamentalist connotations. Though we work with many who would consider themselves theologically conservative, they’re also culturally-engaged, justice-minded, and have found themselves exiled from either the political right or left. As pastor Tim Keller has eloquently said for many, historic Christianity doesn’t fit into a two-party system.
Senior writer for The Atlantic Derek Thompson makes a convincing case that a few historical factors led to American losing its faith. One was the moral majority, led by figures such as James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson, aligned Christian belief with Republican politics. Another factor was that after 9/11, all religion got lopped together with extremism. Either way, there are millions that now hold orthodox Christian belief, but don’t align with either the right or the left.
I see this every day at Denver Institute. As a matter of fact, my guess is that one of the main drivers of event attendance is that there’s a growing number of Christians (and, I’d argue, a good number of the “spiritual but not religious”) who want to distance themselves from political narratives about faith, but desperately want to find “their tribe.” They want to find others who care about faith and our culture, yet don’t find those communities either in their churches or their places of work. They’re looking simply for like-minded friends.
As old alliances peter out, a growing number of philanthropists, investors, business leaders, and other professionals are embracing vocation as a way of being public about faith without being political. Teaching students, attending to patients, serving clients, and fielding customer calls can be every bit as much a public act of faith as voting.
Indeed, I’d say daily work is becoming central to a growing number of Christians who are committed to living out the Lord’s prayer “May your kingdom come, may your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” yet are uncomfortable with the categories placed on them by a shifting culture.
(2) The retreat from culture sounds appealing…but it isn’t a real option.
In the past several years, some have suggested that attempts to renew culture should be abandoned completely and we should prepare for a new dark ages, in which Christian communities can only preserve the knowledge of the truth – like medieval monastic communities – as culture caravans into an abyss.
Yet my conviction is that a retreat from culture undersells how deeply connected we are in the modern economy. For every meal we eat, for every message we send, for every mile we drive, we need each other.
We can’t fully retreat from culture. Culture is the air we breathe.
The world we live in influences our emotions, our thoughts, and our dreams. And by not talking about these realities in our faith communities (or by simply turning up the worship music and smoke machines) what generally happens is that we unthinkingly adopt the norms of the world around us.
Which leads me to my last point….
(3) The accommodation to a secular culture poses a real problem for Christians.
Why is it that social media and news is filled with such vitriol, including many who profess Christian belief? Ed Stetzer, a missiologist at Wheaton College, has helped to sort this one out for me in a single image.
The short of it: Fifty years ago, the broad cultural consensus on social issues had a Judeo-Christian consensus. This included “convictional Christians” (those who really believe the doctrines of historic Christianity) as well as congregational Christians (occasional church attenders) and cultural Christians (those who don’t attend church by just call themselves Christians because of family or tradition.)
Today, that consensus has drastically shifted. Today the broad cultural consensus is secular on most social issues, and those who hold traditional views feel backed into a shrinking corner. Hence, you get many self-professed Christians who seem to be among the most combative voices out there, hoping to recover a nostalgic vision of American Christian that supposedly peaked in post-WWII America.
Here’s what I think. There are many Christians who are searching for a way to be hopeful yet not combative; who want to be faithful to the countercultural way of Jesus yet engaged with the world around them; who are among the many “Christians who drink beer” and are tired of the culture wars, yet are simultaneously deeply concerned about the world we live in.
Yet in my view, there are very, very few models for this kind of life. If I work for a Fortune 500 company, what practices should I embrace, and which should I abstain from? What does faith look like in the immensity of modern health care? When has my faith become individualistic and consumeristic? How should I practice my faith in my family, community, or workplace? When have I accommodated to mainstream secular culture,and what on earth does it mean to be “distinctly Christian” in a pluralistic society? How shall Christians remain “activated” as followers of Christ during the week?
In our post-Christian culture, we are no longer Nehemiah, trying to rebuild the walls around a once-great Jerusalem. We are now Daniel, looking for ways to be faithful to God in Babylon.
Actually, doing this requires hard thinking, faithful imagination, and robust communities of practice – communities that we’ve only just begun to build.