Awakening the Sleeping Giant: Christian Practices for the Public Square

I have been covering meta-level issues so far in this blog, with some suggestions about how Christians might approach these at the ends of my articles. However, before going any further, I thought it would be helpful to pause and consider the different ways Christians can engage large cultural and social issues.

As of 2010, approximately one-third of the world population was Christian (2.18 billion people). Given this, it would seem that the Christian faith—even as segmented as it is in different denominations—would be able to have a massive influence on global affairs. Minimally, the ethos of loving one’s neighbor would infuse the world’s social structures and cultural values. Likewise, there would be a pervasive sense of hope in the face of catastrophes and tragedy. Yet, this does not happen.

This gives way to the unflattering idea that the church is a sleeping giant. If Christians could just wake up enough to live out their faith, they would have the size and power to change a vast many things. However, we do not do this.

If Christians could just wake up enough to live out their faith, they would have the size and power to change a vast many things. However, we do not do this.

There is a great deal that can be said about why Christians are sleeping rather than being active in the midst of a world that would, undoubtedly, be more than open to greater love and hope. In this article, I will not deal with the internal problems that have caused this (e.g., a lack of clarity about the hope we have so that we can share it with others), rather I will address the mechanical issues. One reason that I am convinced Christians are not more active is because they do not know what actions they can take to make a change.

What follows is a list of ways that Christians, usually as a congregation, can work toward social and cultural change. These can be categorized as insider or outsider activities. Insider activities mean that the Christians have direct access to the people in power or levers or power. Outsider activities mean that the Christians are working outside of the power structures in order to change them.

What follows is a list of ways that Christians, usually as a congregation, can work toward social and cultural change.

Advisory (inside): Christians can be invited into advisory positions to the people who are in power. Many elected officials, including the President of the United States, have groups of religious leaders that are meant to provide advice on policy issues. While only a select group of Christians will ever be invited to be in these positions, they offer a uniquely insider opportunity to share the gospel and promote Christian virtues inside the structures of power. The danger of this practice is being potentially seduced by the power so that the Christian faith becomes a way of legitimizing, rather than sanctifying, what the leader does.

Advocacy (outside): Christians can advocate on behalf of people or policies they believe must be put in place in order for a city, state, nation, or other organization to better enact the love of neighbor. This is the act of Christians who are outside the formal structures of power, but who can still participate by working to sway the power brokers within the system to accept these ideas.

By Example (outside): Christians can live as a faithful community of faith in the public eye. Too often, churches are most distinguished by being utterly invisible to the neighborhoods where they are located. Their buildings are visible, but not much else. However, if the church (by which I mean the people who gather in the name of Christ) were to live out their love for one another and for their neighbors in the midst of their daily lives, they would set an example for how the culture and society might operate differently. Values could be based on practical acts of love rather than the divvying up of scarce resources. Structures might be built to foster the best in human nature rather than to curb their vices.

Community Organizing (outside): Communities are groups of people who hold to common values. These values can be in agreement with the values of the larger social structures and cultural norms, or in opposition to them. By building communities of people who are committed to Jesus Christ and who live out the Christian virtues, Christians create cells of people throughout a region that can link together by engaging in many of these other activities. The greater numbers of Christian communities will make them more effective in working for cultural and social change. Apostolic ministry leading to evangelism and church multiplication is crucial to this.

Creation of Culture (outside): As Andy Crouch writes in Culture Making, culture is not as abstract as we tend to make it. Rather, we share culture by sharing common practices and things. For example, everyone in the same region shares the practice of shaking hands when they greet other people and using forks when they eat (instead of bowing and using chopsticks). Crouch suggests that we can work toward cultural change by creating new practices and things that people can share. He particularly points to art and entertainment as places that we can provide a clear Christian footprint. Pureflix is an example of this.

Persuasion (inside): While the example model focuses on the Christian community living faithfully in a way others can see, persuasion has to do with engaging in dialogue with the intention of influencing the language and concepts that others use in the public square. This is not meant to be advocacy for a specific topic, but a more meta-level interaction. Through participating in public events and engaging in public conversation, Christians can introduce ideas and vocabulary that will help shape the way that the public thinks about itself and the issues it faces.

Political Office (inside): At least in representative democracies, Christians can run for political office. In doing this, they can engage in persuasion through the conversations that they have as they campaign. If they win, they also can begin to do the work of developing policies that help construct the kind of loving society and culture God will one day usher in fully. This is not to say that Christians should work toward a theocracy or seek to crush those who disagree with them. Rather, they should work toward policies and love that are motivated by honoring all people as those who are created, redeemed, and loved by God through Jesus Christ.

Violence (outside): To be clear, this is absolutely wrong and should never be engaged in by Christians. However, I feel like I need to acknowledge that people who have identified as Christians have used violence to promote their social and cultural goals. If this happens, Christian leaders need to be swift to condemn this violence. Our means of sharing the message of Christ should be just as good as the message itself. If the means violates the message of loving our neighbors, then it should be ruled out as sin. Violence unequivocally is sin.

Witness (inside): Christians can easily and appropriately engage in all manner of activities that other people do to help care for their neighbors. Whether this is by volunteering to aid those affected by disasters, serving food at the local soup kitchen, helping build affordable housing, or any or many other possible activities. When Christians engage in this, working on the inside of the charitable activities that are well-accepted and held in high esteem by the larger world, they have the opportunity to explain why they want to love their neighbor this way. They can witness to the loving God they believe in through their acts of love alongside of others, giving those other people a clear, Christian logic for why to reach out and love others.

We likely will not have the ability to engage in all of these practices, but we should know that they exist and are available to us. With them, we should be asleep no longer. Christians can and should make use of these whenever they can to offer the world a meaningful picture of the love God wants everyone to share in the name of Jesus Christ.