When Dorothy arrives in Oz she says to faithful Toto: “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” This cultural idiom has come to express the feeling of no longer being in a place that one knows or where one is comfortable; to be in a completely unfamiliar and/or discomfiting environment. As we begin 2020 there is a good chance this describes you living as a Christian in Western culture. Canadian church attendance between 1945 and today has dropped from 70% to around 10% today. As a consequence, Christianity is no longer the centering worldview of our society. We have gone from having a “seat at the table”, shaping discussion in all matters of social policy, to the margins.
Probably nowhere is this seen as acutely as on our university campuses. Tish Warren, an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship leader whilst at Vanderbilt University found herself, unexpectedly, on the wrong side of today’s ethical divide. Unexpectedly, because she thought she was the acceptable kind of Christian; moderate theological and political beliefs, culturally engaged, and socially aware of the justice issues of the day. As she took up her graduate studies, she felt her winsome brand of evangelicalism would afford her a place of influence ‘at the table’. Until she found herself at odds with the administration, and helping lead one of many IVCF clubs expelled from a university campus. Writing for Christianity Today, she testifies that it is biblical orthodoxy rather than political leanings that attracts attention:
“The line between good and evil was drawn by two issues: creedal belief and sexual expression. If religious groups required set truths or limited sexual autonomy, they were bad—not just wrong but evil, narrow-minded, and too dangerous to be tolerated on campus.”
How did InterVarsity respond? They refused to see themselves as helpless victims of liberalism, relegated to the sidelines. They even hesitated to use terms like “persecution”, being aware through their global ministry of the kinds of serious persecution faced in many parts of the world. Instead, they treated their adversaries with respect, and by God’s grace, resisted the temptation to resent them. Though shamed and berated, they cheerfully served the very people looking to malign them; bringing water and doughnuts, for example, to LGBT groups protesting them. Over the past ten years, InterVarsity has seen its student members increase by about one third. One hundred new campus opportunities have opened up, and reports of conversions are up significantly.
How do we see our cultural challenges? Are we paralyzed with discouragement, or energized by the opportunity for God’s glory to shine? Over the next several weeks we will continue looking at Peter’s first letter, and find that the situation we face today is nothing new for the church. In Peter’s day the church faced trials and persecution simply because they identified with Christ. In chapter 1 verse 1 he calls them exiles – strangers in a strange land, but he also calls them elect exiles – in other words, God’s chosen strangers. Throughout the letter we find Peter exhorting his readers to stand firm, live joyfully, and to respectfully bear witness to Jesus in all we say and do.
Mission Action Plan: I suspect we all face “cultural discouragement”. Please take some time this week to meditate on the beautiful phrase, “elect exiles” to remind yourself that God is in control and he has you exactly where he wants you, for such a time as this!