Polarization is not just evident in American politics; it’s also evident when it comes to religion. And the two are intensifying.
When it comes to faith, times in America are changing. In fact, in many ways, they’ve already changed. Just ask Ed Stetzer, the executive director of LifeWay Research. Commenting on a recent Pew Research Center report, Ed told the Washington Post, “America is undergoing a religious polarization.”
Indeed. According to Pew, “the percentage of adults … who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years. And the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular,’ has jumped more than six points.
And on the other hand, we’re seeing an increase of those who are serious about their faith when it comes to spiritual disciplines and activities: higher levels of at least weekly Bible reading, participating in weekly prayer or Bible study groups, sharing faith with others at least weekly. So, as Christianity Today reported, “The rich in faith get richer while the poor get poorer.”
Stetzer sees several implications of this religious polarization. First, he says, Christians no longer have what he calls a “home-field advantage” in American culture.
“For years,” Ed states, “Christians could assume a person with whom they struck up a conversation was probably a fellow believer. If not, the other person would at least share their cultural values. But that is no longer the case. Increasingly, Americans are just as likely to have no faith background, be of another religion or even hold a hostile view of faith. That’s new territory for most Christians.”
Second, Ed says, we “have lost cultural privilege.” Gone are the days when most stores were closed on Sundays, or schools cleared their schedules on Wednesday nights so that families could go to prayer meetings. But Ed says, that’s not all bad. “Historically,” he writes, “Christians have survived—and thrived—as a passionate and convictional minority.”
The third implication, Ed says, it will be easier to tell who is a Christian and who isn’t. More and more people are facing life without God and without the hope—and they know it. In some ways, that makes the task easier on us. Our mission, Ed reminds us, is “not to moralize the unconverted, but to reach the broken and hurting with a gospel message of hope that changes everything.”
So what can we do to bridge the polarization gap? First, we need to be among those Christians who are sharing the good news with our neighbors. The Lord has planted us in this culture, in our neighborhoods, families, and places of employment, and communities. A great resource to help us confidently reach out to our lost friends and neighbors is one that we’ve told you about before—“The Sacrament of Evangelism,” by Jerry Root and Stan Guthrie. “The Sacrament of Evangelism” helps Christians come alongside hurting people with gospel hope, and encourages them to see Jesus as the answer to their longings—longings that secularism will never satisfy.
Second, we’ve got to get serious about worldview. As J. Gresham Machen said more than a hundred years ago, “We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer, and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.”
So we cannot underestimate the significance of the world of ideas, and their consequences if we are going to be able to live well in this culture. It’s always been important, but as we’ve gone from what Chuck Colson and Francis Schaeffer called a “post-Christian culture” to what I think we can safely call “a consciously post-Christian culture,” it’s even more important.
— John Stonestreet
Stonestreet is the Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and is heard on Breakpoint. Copyright© 2015 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries.