One thing is for sure: For most of this country’s history, Christianity has been the dominant cultural force.
From the engine behind social service outreaches to the founding of our greatest educational institutions and hospitals, to prayers before government sessions and sporting events, the Christian faith has made an indelible mark on our society – at least until recently.
Today that voice is in decline.
Although a Pew Forum study indicated that the vast majority of Americans still identify themselves as “Christian,” that number drops dramatically when it comes to major areas of influence, such as the media, academia, business, entertainment and more.
In my book, “Unique: Telling Your Story in the Age of Brands and Social Media,” I point out that Christianity has always had a love-hate relationship with the culture – particularly the media.
Historically, innovation and technology have more likely been perceived as a threat than friend.
The Catholic Church rose up against the specter of the printing press, fearing the common man’s ability to read the Bible for himself would undermine the Church’s authority.
As a result, William Tyndale spent most of his adult life running from the authorities, living among smugglers and eventually being martyred, all for the “crime” of translating the Word of God into English.
Since that time, the church has learned some important lessons.
By 1833, the largest publisher in America, Harper and Company, boasted one horse-powered printing press and seven hand presses. But at the same time, the American Bible Society owned 16 new steam-driven presses and 20 hand presses.
Early in the 20th century, the church embraced movies, radio then television, and now the Internet and social media.
But in the vast majority of cases, we’re not using those platforms to engage the greater culture, we’re living inside a bubble.
After all, why tweet, when you can join Christian Chirp, the “Christian alternative to Twitter.” And don’t go to eHarmony or Match.com if you’re looking for a Christian mate, use Christian Mingle.
From the web, to publishing, to record labels, TV networks, universities and more, the last 50 years have seen a remarkable withdrawal from mainstream culture and a move back to a cloistered, protective bubble.
In all honesty, the church isn’t losing its voice; it’s giving it away.
But Jesus never advocated protective bubbles and never retreated from the challenges of the culture around him.
Jesus spent his life where the people were – in the marketplace, social gatherings or the Temple Square, and he wasn’t afraid to answer the hard questions.
And in Acts 17, the Apostle Paul went directly to the pagan philosophers at Mars Hill. He understood their beliefs as much as they did and was so intriguing they invited him back.
But today, when it comes to the culture around us, the church is far more likely to protest, criticize and condemn, rather than actually engage.
The great challenge of the church today is speaking into a culture that perceives us as an irrelevant, out-of-touch museum piece.
During my lifetime, living by Judeo-Christian principles was assumed and taken for granted. We all knew the rules, so it was acceptable to harshly question people who went against Bible teaching.
But in a world where best-selling books are titled “God is Not Great,” and hostility to the faith is championed by much of the culture, we must react differently if we’re to engage the hearts and minds of those around us.
The Christian church has to come to terms with the fact that while its role in leading American culture may be over, its voice at the table is not.
That doesn’t mean we side-step issues that matter, but we speak the truth in a way that engages rather than condemns.
In a media-driven culture, perception matters.
Two thousand years ago, an obscure, marginal group following the teachings of Jesus became the dominant religious force in the Western world.
They didn’t have political power, an army or vast wealth. But through their lifestyle, their relationships and their actions, they changed the perception of Rome and eventually impacted the world.
Phil Cooke is a filmmaker, media consultant and author of “Unique: Telling Your Story in the Age of Brands and Social Media.” The book is available here. His writings can also be found on his website, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilCooke.