Public Christianity in a Post-Christian World

Australia is about 10 years behind the United States in everything, except in the process of secularization. In that, my homeland is sadly 10 years ahead of America. The percentage of those claiming to be some kind of Christian in Australia has dropped precipitously, from 61% in 2011 to 44% in 2021. Christians—including nominal ones—are now a minority in Australia. 

As long ago as 1976, eminent historian Patrick O’Farrell described Australia as the “first genuinely post-Christian society.” What he meant was simple: If a Christian society is one in which biblical belief and practice are generally assumed as norms, a post-Christian society is one in which this used to be the case, but now Christian belief and practice are generally rejected or transposed into a secular key. America seems situated somewhere between a Christian country and a post-Christian one. Pew Research reports that those claiming to be some kind of Christian fell from 78% in 2007 to 63% in 2021. 

I can report that bringing the gospel to a post-Christian environment has both challenges and delights. In a pervasive nominal Christian culture, the gospel wouldn’t be controversial enough to be part of the vigorous public debate. In a wholly secular environment, Christianity would be too discredited, too passé, to be thought worthy of consideration. But it is precisely the tension point in a post-Christian environment between increasing irreligion and enduring Christian memory that creates opportunities for public witness. Evangelizing in a post-Christian setting is scarier—and more fun—than you might imagine.

In this context, I want to recommend four books that will help us reach a secularizing (but perhaps not yet post-Christian) America. 

Evangelism in a Skeptical World: How to Make the Unbelievable News About Jesus More Believable by Sam Chan (Zondervan) is a masterful account of how to reach our rapidly changing world. Chan has a Ph.D. in speech act theory as it relates to Scripture and Christian proclamation, and he puts this expertise to great effect in a work that stays true to the unchanging gospel but duly grapples with the fact that what we say isn’t always what people hear

This book provides a lovely combination of biblical exegesis, systematic theology, sociology and rhetorical theory. And it all comes from one of the most sought-after and effective—and funniest—evangelists of my homeland. 

Being the Bad Guys: How to Live for Jesus in a World That Says You Shouldn’t by Stephen McAlpine (The Good Book Co.) is a kind of mission memo from the frontlines of the battle for the gospel in a post-Christian setting. McAlpine is one of the most insightful conservative Christian commentators in Australia. He is also a pastor and public communicator. 

His thesis is simple and important (if sometimes exaggerated for rhetorical effect): Christians need to get comfortable—cheerful even—being the “bad guys” in a society that finds our vision of the good, especially around sex and identity, to be evil and harmful. McAlpine doesn’t advocate for a culture war or fighting fire with fire. Instead, he calls us to gospel fidelity, zeal and, above all, humility to lose graciously as we win people to Christ.

Mission Is the Shape of Water: Learning From the Past to Inform Our Role in the World Today by Michael Frost (100 Movements Publishing) explores one of Christianity’s great strengths and key vulnerabilities: It is a highly transportable faith. The gospel can find a home in 21st-century China just as easily as it did in 6th-century Gaul. And this mission flexibility makes it both evangelistically effective and vulnerable to compromise. 

With this in mind, Frost examines 10 historical paradigms of Christian mission, showing how the church has succeeded—and sometimes failed—to reach radically diverse cultures with the unchanging news (or water) of Christ’s life, teaching, death and resurrection. Frost, who is one of the best evangelists I have ever heard, comes across at times as a bit of a progressive, but there is much here to challenge and inspire. Read in tandem with McAlpine’s more conservative account of our evangelistic moment, I think Frost has a lot to teach us. 

The Secular Creed: Engaging Five Contemporary Claims by Rebecca McLaughlin (The Gospel Coalition) is the perfect complement to her first book, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion (Crossway), which was the best all-round defense of Christianity I had read in a decade. 

In The Secular Creed, she points the way to a different kind of Christianity, one that is able to flex the muscle of conviction and the muscle of compassion at the same time. For a church—and a world—too often forced to choose between smug conservatism and acquiescing liberalism, McLaughlin recovers the genius of Jesus Christ, showing us how to love the truth and human beings with equal passion. The result is an utterly compelling and humane treatment of five contemporary issues, including racism and sexuality, which Christians have to get right in our post-Christian mission field.

John Dickson is an author, historian and public advocate for the Christian faith. The founder of Australia’s Centre for Public Christianity, he is the Jean Kvamme Distinguished Professor of Biblical Studies and Public Christianity at Wheaton College in Illinois.