I’d be far from the first person to suggest that following Christ is becoming more difficult in our country, and the trend isn’t likely to change anytime soon. While the vast majority of Americans still identify as Christians, the truths that actually define historic, biblically-rooted Christianity are becoming increasingly out of step with our mainstream culture.
That’s no reason to panic. Throughout history, the Christian faith and those who hold to it have often thrived while in the cultural minority. But we should think carefully about what our changing culture entails if our goal is to follow Christ in a biblically faithful way in the days and years ahead.
Glenn Harrison, the Head of Department of Psychiatry at University of Bristol, UK and a Christian, helps point us in the right direction. Here are four key observations from his recently published book, A Better Story: God, Sex, and Human Flourishing:
We need to recognize that it’s not easy to resist social pressure.
Harrison cites a famous psychological experiment carried out by Solomon Asch in 1950. Sitting at the end of a row of ten people, subjects were presented with three lines on a card located a short distance away. They were then asked to identify which of the three was nearest in length to a line on a second card sitting beside it. The catch was this. Even though the answer was obvious, the subjects were made to listen to the answers of the other nine people in the row, who were actually confederates in the experiment tasked to give false answers. The result was that at least three quarters of the subjects gave the wrong answer at least once, and more than a third gave the wrong answer at least half the time.
Human beings, it turns out, have a difficult time going against the grain, and we’d be foolish to think any of us are immune. This is all the more important given that Harrison maintains Christians are becoming minorities in at least two different ways:
In addition to having become a cognitive minority, we are now also viewed as an immoral minority. In other words, as well as having different beliefs from everybody else, we are now frequently cast as having inferior morals. This puts us in a social and psychological space that is fraught with danger.
We need to understand that the support of others is crucial.
In Asch’s experiment, the subjects were much less likely to conform to the incorrect answers of those around them if they were given a partner primed to agree with them. But when that partner was called out of the room, their levels of conformity again rose.
Kindred spirits are crucial to keeping minority ideas alive. And so cognitive minority groups, if they want to survive as a minority, must start to act like a minority. They need to make active efforts to nourish their beliefs and patterns of life in ways that make them plausible to their members. They need intellectual leaders, attractive role models and the opportunity for members to rehearse and consolidate their ideas in the conversational fabric of their group, just like the majority outside.
None of this is meant as an argument for Christian ghettos. In fact, biblical Christianity often calls us out into the world and among the people around us. But it does mean that we need the support of others who believe and live out the gospel, i.e., a church. And to say this merely echoes any number of passages in the Bible itself.
We need a better critique of the larger culture.
Though Harrison is speaking in the specific context of the sexual revolution of the last several decades, what he says here is relevant to anything the culture has embraced as an alternative to following Christ (for example, finding hope and significance through our work, income, social status, etc.):
We shouldn’t begin our critique of the revolution in terms of what we believe, but, crucially, in terms of what it promised. We need to examine the revolution on the basis of the vision it offered and the outcomes that it promised. Is it delivering the freedom, flourishing and well-being that it assured us? In the shadow of the revolution, is everybody really living happily ever after?
We need a better story to encourage our faith and to help others consider Christianity.
Here’s Harrison one more time:
We have to tell a different story. A better story. We must out-narrate those with whom we disagree. We shouldn’t use narrative as a cynical debating device to outwit our opponents and win the argument. We need to tell stories because this is how the human mind works, and because Jesus himself paved the way with some of the greatest stories ever told. Stories of acceptance and inclusion in the gospel’s call to repentance, stories of brokenness restored and lives reshaped.