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Home > 2012 > January Online Only > The Church in Secular Culture

As co-director of the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX), John Dickson (author of Humilitas) works to engage Australia's mainstream media and general public with thoughtful content that explores the relevance of the Christian faith for the modern world. Marshall Shelley and Drew Dyck sat down with Dickson to discuss what American church leaders can learn from his experience with CPX.

How would you describe the public's perception of the church in Australia?

In recent years it's become a dominant perspective to say that religion starts all the wars, religion rapes and pillages, and religion is damaging for society. The subtitle of a Christopher Hitchens book—How Religion Poisons Everything—has become a secular mantra.

Recently in Australia a TV talk show was discussing the problem of drugs. One of the hosts said, "Let's put this in perspective. Drugs have not killed anywhere near as many people as religion. Religion is far more damaging to society than our drug problem." And it got applause from the TV audience. What a sad day we've arrived at when you can get away with that and, worse, get applause.

How does the Centre for Public Christianity try to counter this perception of the church?

CPX is trying to communicate that there's another story here. We can concede the bad stuff that the church has done. As an historian, I know the bad stuff, and we will freely admit it. Yet we also want to tell about the positive contributions Christianity has made in Western history. We try to articulate that some of the things we love most about Western secular democracy are actually gifts of Christianity to Western culture.

What advice do you have for church leaders in America about how to engage the broader culture effectively?

I think the very first thing is to do is adopt a stance of mission instead of admonition toward the world. Here's an example. In the Australian context, there are church leaders who remember the glory days when about 20 percent of the nation went to church. They look at how Australia is secularized today, and their stance toward the world is basically admonition, the way you would talk to a backsliding Christian. How dare you slide away? How dare you legislate against Christian morality? I call that the admonition paradigm.

What's wrong with this approach?

I reckon that's how you kill your mission, because if you speak with a sense of entitlement, you won't be flexible, you won't be humble, and you won't take hits and just bear it. You'll want to strike back. And people will think you're arrogant. Quite rightly, probably.

What do you recommend instead?

When you move out of admonition into mission, you realize Australia is no longer Jerusalem; it's Athens. Then you instantly adopt a humbler approach to non-Christians. You don't expect them to live Christian lives if they don't confess Christ. You don't expect Parliament to pass Christian-specific laws. But as a leader, you try to persuade the nation with winsomeness, with gentleness and respect, as Peter says in 1 Peter 3:15.

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Related Topics:Community ImpactCulturePoliticsPower
Posted: January 1, 2012

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Displaying 1–5 of 7 comments

Bronwen

April 18, 2013  10:21pm

Secondly, you may have got the impression that Scripture teaching in Australia is (a) widespread or even compulsory in schools, and (b) that it is evangelistic in nature. With less and less volunteers available, there is only limited Scripture teaching in our schools. The majority of schools have no Scripture teacher available. While I'd rather that kids learn biblically-based ethics than those from a secular worldview, if no Scripture teaching is available, I'd rather kids learn some ethics than none. The law is very clear that any Scripture teaching cannot be evangelistic in nature, but is more about using biblical stories to teach ethical concepts. When we do things the right way, we can make inroads into society. Australia has government funded Christian chaplains in public schools - this service exists partly because organisations employing chaplains have carefully designed their services in an honest and ethical way, and schools have seen the values in chaplains' services.

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Bronwen

April 18, 2013  10:16pm

Craig, firstly, Dickson is talking about the ethics of what that politician did. We shouldn't do wrong in order to do right. The media will quite rightly call out a politician on such an act, and it makes Christians look all the sillier - using an unethical abuse of political power to defeat ethics classes in schools in order to teach Scripture (which most Australians would consider a fairly suspect source for ethical learning). If we are to promote Christian values in a very secular society like Australia, we must do it with grace, transparency and the very best of ethics, or we will increase the public's perception that Christianity is a bad thing. (more in another post...)

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Bronwen

April 18, 2013  10:16pm

Craig, firstly, Dickson is talking about the ethics of what that politician did. We shouldn't do wrong in order to do right. The media will quite rightly call out a politician on such an act, and it makes Christians look all the sillier - using an unethical abuse of political power to defeat ethics classes in schools in order to teach Scripture (which most Australians would consider a fairly suspect source for ethical learning). If we are to promote Christian values in a very secular society like Australia, we must do it with grace, transparency and the very best of ethics, or we will increase the public's perception that Christianity is a bad thing. (more in another post...)

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Andrew G

February 23, 2013  11:41pm

The bigger picture is not about fighting for our own sense of morality. That's legalism anyway, and not the Gospel. Salvation comes not through being a moral society, it comes from seeing your desperate need for a savior, Jesus. When the biggest noise Christians make is about EG gay marriage, instead of the Gospel, we not only distance ourselves from our lost brothers and sisters, but we lose the opportunity to lead them to Christ. A double whammy. We become known for our stance on a particular moral issue, rather than what we ought to be known for, and that is the love of Jesus, and the Gospel. Of course a moral society is important, but it's not nearly as important as the Gospel. Being vocal about gay marriage would be okay if we were first even more vocal about the Gospel. But we are not :-( We need to forget about being vocal about things like gay marriage, and start getting vocal about the Gospel. Only then do we have the right to be vocal about our moral issues.

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Elizabeth

August 30, 2012  11:38am

I'd also like to see Leadership address ministry in a culture where a growing number of issues can be defined as "that ship has sailed" -- eg premarital sex, increasingly gay relationships, men's and women's roles. How do you deal with what is, not what you'd like it to be? Politicized AND irrelevant -- now there's a winsome combination.

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