Without a doubt, there has been a culture war going on in western civilisation for many decades. According to one definition, a culture war is a ‘conflict between social groups and the struggle for dominance of their values, beliefs, and practices’.
There was a time when people had respect for authority. Teachers, parents, police officers, and – yes – even the clergy were respected. Not so today.
There was a time when most people had respect for family life, respect for history, respect for hard work, and respect for those who had lived longer than you. But you can’t take any of those things for granted today.
There’s been a shift, a huge shift, a monumental shift in cultural attitudes. There have been groups that have deliberately set out to change the culture. They wanted to subvert the major institutions of society, and they have largely been successful.
There have been lots of factors that have contributed to – and accelerated – these cultural changes. The introduction of the pill, the liberalisation of abortion, the invention of TV, unprecedented economic wealth, divorce reform, the idolisation of youth, the permissive society, pop culture.
Today, the counter-cultural revolutionaries of the 60s are the ones running the key institutions of society. Their values are the ones that dominate the media, education, entertainment, the civil service, and politics.
Anyone who doesn’t go along with the new prevailing culture is seen as backward and out of touch. Or worse, they are regarded as a dangerous extremist.
So, what are we as evangelicals to do? Should we ignore the culture and bury our heads in the sand? Should we retreat into a holy huddle and pretend it’s not happening? Should we become pietistic and avoid all social controversies. No, I don’t believe we should.
But there are great dangers involved if we get sucked into the culture wars. One danger is very much evident in the contemporary evangelical scene. There are some evangelicals who have rightly recognised the cultural shift, and have cuddled up to it.
They see the way society has changed and they want to ‘market’ the gospel to a new era. If the public today are suspicious of institutions, we will make the church more ‘organic’. If the public today like to be visually amused, we will install large screens in the church. If the public today idolise youth, we will plant churches to cater for that demographic.
People in this camp are usually culturally astute and culturally attuned, making them dynamic and vibrant. They inevitably draw a crowd into their churches and it seems their approach is being blessed. It all looks very successful.
Then there are those who, whilst they may not be ideologically committed to this whole approach, feel so depressed and disheartened in their current church situation that they start to go along with elements of it.
We should draw a distinction between those who are wholeheartedly devoted to such an agenda, and those who get swept along with the apparent success. But either way, the cultural shift presents a danger to us as evangelicals because we can so easily find ourselves conforming to it.
So, what should evangelicals do? Surely, we must confront the culture with the gospel. We must tell people about the good news of Jesus, warn them about their darkness and urge them to come into his marvellous light. And we must not shift from the truth. We must hold our ground on the key moral and doctrinal questions.
That means being prepared to be different. As our culture shifts more rapidly we evangelicals – if we hold our ground – are going to look more and more marginal. That’s not going to be pleasant or easy.
But even here there is a danger. If we are faithfully confronting these cultural issues – as I believe we should – we may lose sight of the gospel of grace. It has happened before in history. If we engage in the culture wars, we must take care that we don’t treat sinners as enemies.
Abortion, family breakdown, LGBT issues, transgenderism, euthanasia – these are all important matters for us to think about. But behind all these issues are people who need to hear the good news of Jesus. Let’s never lose sight of that.
Mike Judge is editor and a director of ET, and pastor of Chorlton Evangelical Church, Manchester.