It is always hard to get used to a different situation. For the last couple of hundred years or so, there has been a widespread perception in this country that to be a Christian is a good thing. This would be a view held even by those who would not have a strong Christian allegiance.
That view still exists to a certain extent amongst the older generation and those who have arrived in the UK from another culture. But things are changing amongst the younger generation. For the majority at the moment Christianity is a matter of indifference- simply not something that people think about at all. The trajectory is towards outright hostility. You obviously get that from militant atheists but, I suspect, it will happen more broadly. If you want my guess it will probably hinge around the issue of homosexuality. For most, the idea that homosexual practice is sinful will be perceived to be the moral equivalent of racism. As it happens, it isn’t- unlike racism, the issue here is behaviour (which incidentally is one reason why we must be extremely careful to differentiate between homosexual practice over which people have control and is sinful and a homosexual orientation which for the most part people haven’t chosen and which is not sinful). However, society as a whole does not make that distinction- and Christians who hold to a biblical view of sexual ethics will be regarded as evil.
This may present challenges in terms of legislation. One person I spoke to suggested that the first challenge may come in terms of charity registration- with evangelical churches losing the financial benefits that accrue from this. However, this is not the main issue. The biggest question is how we get on with spreading the Gospel in a culture which may be prejudiced against evangelical Christians.
It seems to me that 1 Peter is a vital letter for us to consider. It is clearly written against the backdrop of severe suffering (4:12) and probably persecution. It seems to be manifested in people slandering Christians- they accuse members of the church of doing wrong (2:12) and speak maliciously against them (3:16). At the time of Peter’s letter, it was clearly not perceived to be a good thing to be a Christian.
So what were the church to do about it? Tim Chester has written about this in his book Everyday Church, which is based (admittedly loosely) on 1 Peter. He notes that the church was not called to start a campaign to get the rights of the church to be respected. Nor does the church hide away and batten down the hatches. No- it still seeks to proclaim the praises of God who has brought us out of darkness into light (2:9-10). But it does not simply seek to proclaim the Word. It also seeks to do good- to communicate the Gospel through word and deed.
You find this throughout the letter:
“Live such good lives among the pagans, that though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (2:12)
“Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing…” (3:9)
It is interesting to notice the tone with which we are to address the non-Christian world:
“Always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks you the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…” (3:15)
The question we need to be asking as hostility to Christianity rises is this: How can we do good to people? How can we bless people in our local community? How can we show gentleness and respect as we communicate with them?
Of course we should continue to preach the Gospel. But I am increasingly convinced that won’t be enough in our society- in order to gain a hearing, we will have to be those who are active in doing good. That’s not a compromise- that is biblical and follows in the pattern of the likes of William Carey, Hudson Taylor et al. As I mentioned in my sermon on Isaiah 58, it was the pattern of the Early Church. Here is the Emperor Julian, an opponent of the Gospel, noting the impact that the 4th century Christian had:
“Nothing has contributed to the progress of the superstition of the Christians as their charity to strangers…the impious Galileans provide not only for their own poor but for ours as well.”
Here at Woody Road, David and I have been talking about what this means for us as a church. We would welcome any suggestions!