There’s a prominent fear that keeps us silent when we should be speaking up.
The Reluctant Witness
By Don Everts
As Peter warmed his hands around that fire, he intuitively sensed he was sitting in a less-than-friendly context. (Jesus had just been arrested; the controversy over Jesus had hit the city like a wildfire; Peter had just cut off someone’s ear, and that person was likely there near the fire. Peter was behind enemy lines.) There was some specific fear in his context that “got his tongue.”
For about 300 years after that night around the fire, most Christians lived in a similar less-than-friendly context. In fact, many Christians lived under the threat of some form of social, physical or economic persecution until the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and officially decriminalized Christianity in AD 312.
Our context as Christians has varied widely since then. There have been seasons when great social coin came with being a Christian and speaking about Jesus (think John Calvin’s Geneva in the 1500s), and there have been tough seasons of persecution (think genocides in the Ottoman Empire in the 1900s). This roller-coaster ride is perhaps what Paul was alluding to in his coaching words to the young leader and preacher Timothy when he invited him to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2).
So how about us? Are you and I living when Christianity is “in season” or “out of season”? There are Christians in the world today who have enemies trying to do them harm because of their Christian faith. The persecuted church is a real thing. In some parts of the world being identified as a Christian can be a matter of life or death. In those parts of the world, Christianity is definitely “out of season.” But if we’re honest, most Christians in the West are not in that situation. We are not persecuted because of our Christian faith.
However, we are definitely experiencing less cultural privilege than we have for some time. For a few hundred years in the West, Christianity held a place of relative cultural privilege. In fact, during the modern era in the West, being a Christian made a person fit in, in a way. America was founded, in large part, by Christians, and Christianity has been mainstream in our country—until recently.
Many people mark the beginning of a shift in our culture in the early 1900s when we shifted out of the so-called modern era into something different. In the modern era Christianity was relatively “in season” in the West. But in our new era, referred to as postmodern, Christianity is “out of season” more and more each year. Christianity’s cultural privilege is waning. And that doesn’t feel good.
Just as Peter intuitively sensed the unfriendly context around him, so Christians today intuitively sense the same. Even though Christians are still in the majority in the West and are not actively persecuted, according to Barna’s research most Western Christians feel misunderstood and persecuted, and many of us also feel marginalized, silenced and afraid to speak up. As Barna and LHM’s report puts it, the reality is Christianity is increasingly “out of season,” and this trend shows no signs of slowing down. Our culture is increasingly secular (less and less colored by our Christian heritage) and more and more relativistic (looking down on exclusive truth claims). In this postmodern context the idea of attempting to convert someone else to your own faith is seen as religiously extreme by most Americans.
Even just sharing your views on religion has become less acceptable socially. We Christians are more open to sharing our views on religion than non-Christians, but even so only a quarter of us feel it’s always acceptable to talk about religion. Turns out non-Christians are more comfortable sharing their views about other personal topics (like sexuality and health) than they are about religion.
And when it comes to sharing about your own religion, the world around us has a much broader sense of what conditions make discussing religion unacceptable. While practicing Christians have a narrower view of what makes talking about faith unacceptable, non-Christians have a much broader view of when it’s unacceptable to talk about spiritual matters. Today, talking about religion is being seen by more and more people as off-limits.
One of the results of these cultural changes is that one of our ordinary fears has grown to large and frightening proportions. If a postmodern cat has got our tongues as Christians, this is that cat: the fear of offense. Or rather, The Fear of Offense. That’s how it feels these days; this fear is ominous. We are afraid of offending others with our beliefs.
There has always been offense in the gospel. The good news (Jesus died to save us from our sins) always has bad news embedded within it (by the way, we are sinners). But that offense, on our postmodern landscape, is an unbelievably rude and vile social transgression. This fear of offense makes us believe talking about Jesus or the faith isn’t just socially awkward (accidentally passing gas in a quiet room) but offensive and rude and aggressive. (I struggle with an analogy here: perhaps going up to someone and purposefully passing gas on them?)
Let’s be clear; I’m not trying to be crass. I’m trying to adequately illustrate what the research tells us (and what we Christians intuitively sense)—that the fear of offense is incredibly strong these days. Our hesitance to talk about spiritual matters may have a number of causes (fewer relationships with non-Christians; not feeling equipped to talk about our faith) but one major cause in our specific context is this fear of offense.
If this fear is the postmodern cat that’s got our tongues, then this cat is large and purple and mangy looking with sharp claws and protruding teeth. And make no mistake about it, this cat has got our tongues.
Adapted from The Reluctant Witness by Don Everts. Copyright (c) 2019 by Don Everts. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. IVPress.com