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.