Confident in the Gospel
While teaching on a very secular university campus last fall, I noticed something strange about the difference between my days and my nights. During the daytime I would teach students who mostly had little if any religious background at all. Many of them struggled to even identify themselves as “atheists” or “agnostics” simply because they had never thought of themselves in terms of God at all, even if to deny his existence. For some of them, I was the first evangelical Christian they had ever met.
I found that all these students wanted to talk about was God.
And yet, I found that all these students wanted to talk about was God. More specifically, they were curious about how someone could believe that there’s a personal, active God, that Jesus of Nazareth was, in fact, raised from the dead and alive today. In not one of these conversations was there ever a “debate.” These students just wanted to ask about subjects we’re told that even Christians would find tedious or irrelevant: hell, justification, the call to holiness.
A Lack of Confidence
At night, though, I would find myself with my fellow evangelical Christians – sometimes students on the campus or those active in churches in the surrounding area. There I found the mood quite different. Many of these students wondered how to be faithful to Christ in a secular environment hostile to Christianity.
I found myself saying over and over again, “I don’t think your classmates hate you nearly as much as you think they do.” I would say, again and again, that the very students they thought were judging them as superstitious or dangerous were actually quite eager to talk about spiritual matters.
It seems to me that this is hardly limited to this campus, or to any academic environment. In fact, it is somewhat a parable of this present moment in North American life.
One of the hindrances to a vibrant evangelical Christian witness is a sort of preemptive self-judgment...
One of the hindrances to a vibrant evangelical Christian witness is a sort of preemptive self-judgment, an intimidation that is rooted, at best, in a lack of confidence in ourselves and, at worst, in a lack of confidence in the gospel we carry.
We assume that all of our secular neighbors view us as narrow-minded, if we believe in the exclusivity of Christ for salvation, or judgmental, if we hold to historic church teachings on morality. Sometimes, of course, that is true. But even in those cases, at least some of the hostility to religion is based in the fact that some have never seen religion up close except in the case of harsh or harmful or fanatical people in their extended families or perhaps in a church or ministry in their past.
The Christian intimidation under such circumstances can show up as a silent form of intimidation, of course, but it can also show up in angry, denunciatory culture-warring. Both are ways of preemptively avoiding conversations about the gospel.
If what I’m seeking most of all is your approval then I will figure out what you want to hear and say it – or at least avoid saying anything that contradicts it. And if what I’m seeking most is to avoid being hurt by you, then I can caricature and demonize you – to make it clear I wouldn’t want your approval anyway. In both cases, though, we reveal ourselves to have given up on the power of the Holy Spirit to work through “the open statement of the truth” to the conscience of another (2 Cor. 4:2).
An Unprecedented Opportunity
In a culture with an increasingly distant memory of cultural Christianity, it is true that we will sometimes face new skirmishes over freedom of religion, sometimes from people too inexperienced with religious motivation to know why such liberty matters. But it’s also true that the loss of such cultural Christianity – in which being at least some sort of “Christian” is part of being a good person – brings with it unprecedented opportunity for gospel witness. The Christian gospel was always to be a sign of contradiction to every culture. If it’s not, it’s not that the culture is Christianized but that such a culture doesn’t understand just how strange and disruptive the gospel actually is.
We must have the same mind as was, and is, in Christ Jesus – a mind that is not self-protectively anxious or self-protectively outraged. Whether the confused Simon Peter by day, or the curious Nicodemus by night, the message is the same: “You must be born again.”
Dr. Russell Moore is a theologian and columnist at Christianity Today, where he leads the Public Theology Project. He is the author of, most recently, The Courage to Stand: Facing Your Fear Without Losing Your Soul (B&H Books, Oct. 6, 2020).