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.
What does this mean for Christians who want to influence legislation?
Don't say, "This is our right" or "You ought to live this way." We can say we think God's way is best for all of us and invite others to follow God's path. But then we just live as an alternative community that embodies the things we claim to be true. And don't worry about the loss of power.
I've often said to my Christian friends here in America, please do not confuse loss of legislative power with loss of gospel opportunity. The early church, of course, had no legislative power and they did amazing things. In China today, they have no legislative power, and a third of all Bibles are sold in China. This is not to say don't go into politics, don't speak up. But do it in mission mode, not admonition.
So how do you know you're making progress?
Sometimes what looks like a win is actually a loss. I'll give you a very recent example in Australia.
We have had Scripture teaching in State schools, because all education in Australia was conducted by churches until about a hundred years ago. When the government took over schooling, the churches said, "You can take over schooling, as long as you just leave us an hour a week to teach religious studies." So for the last hundred years we've had little old ladies volunteering from the local churches to teach Scripture for one hour a week in schools. This is how I got converted, having never been inside a church.
There's now a move to get rid of Scripture or, at least, to introduce an ethics class for kids whose parents don't want them to go to the Scripture-teaching classes. Now a Christian politician in Australia has said to the government he will not support key industrial relations policies unless they overturn the people being allowed to teach ethics in the classroom. And the government cowed to him because he had the casting vote in the House.
How has the public responded to this situation?
The media around this is shocking. This politician thinks it's a win for Christianity. The reality is, it is a huge loss for Christianity, because people think Christians reckon they have a right over everyone else. They reckon they can keep even non-Christian kids from a normal ethics. This politician has actually, in my view, hastened the secularizing process by what he thinks is a win. A real win, I think, would have been if this politician had made a case for Scripture in schools and refused to use his vote to bully the nation into doing it. If he had been able to make that case, I think it would have been a win for the gospel.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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