As the culture around us continues to move farther into post-Christian territory, the Christian response has often taken the shape of heavy-handed strategy or top-down mobilization. The goal: to win the culture back!
In our economic activity, we focus on starting “Christian businesses” or “social enterprises” and using our profits and salaries to fund “kingdom endeavors.” In our political action, we opt for politicians who share specific religious beliefs, hoping they will somehow set the world to rights. In the arts, we create fictional stories and music and movies with the sole purpose of down-and-direct evangelism.
These all have their merits and designated functions, to be sure. Yet when we look at the Christmas story and the way of the manger—the King of Kings who begins by going low and bearing witness through mundane family relationships and daily labor—it would seem that the predominant cultural witness of the church ought to emerge a bit differently.
According to Greg Forster, much of this is due to a missing key ingredient to social and economic restoration: joy. “The joy of God can do what cultural lever-pulling can’t do,” he writes in his book, Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It, arguing that our lofty, strategic goals for nudging the culture often come with far too little on the inside.
“Every day, we participate in the structures of human civilization. Our participation ought to manifest the miraculous work the Spirit has done in our hearts,” Forster writes. “Impacting our civilization is only one of many reasons it ought to do so. Evangelism depends on it; if we preach the gospel but don’t live in a way that reflects it, our neighbors won’t believe it. Our own discipleship and spiritual formation also depend on it; our ‘civilizational lives’ take up almost all of our waking hours, and we’re not disciples if we glorify God only inside the church walls.”
For example, in our work, businesses, and trading relationships, ethics and evangelism are surely important, but if these are all we are thinking about or putting our hands to, our economic action is bound to deteriorate into petty legalism or “cultural lever-pulling.” In such cases, “we’re just cleaning the cup from the outside,” Forster argues. “The inside of the cup may still be full of worldly and materialistic assumptions about what work is for.”
At a deeper level, we need an economic imagination that’s infused with the spiritual joy of work and an understanding of its proper place in our current economic systems. Indeed, we need Gospel-transformation across all of our common notions about labor, service, consumption, fruitfulness, profit, and what an economy actually is. Without a deeper stream from which to draw, and a heart set on spiritual discernment throughout, our economic action will be overly constrained and clouded by our own personal plans for cultural transformation, however noble or “Christian” they may appear. But when we draw from the streams of joy, we become “cultural entrepreneurs,” adept and—yes—joyful at serving and adapting and transforming civilization in faithfulness and fidelity.
This sort of faithful, bottom-up cultivation takes time, to be sure. Unlike the “cultural lever-pulling,” which typically comes with a narrow focus, a specific strategy, and pre-determined metrics for cultural sway, this can be mundane, generational work. Even still, it needn’t wait and can begin wherever we are and across our daily activities and responsibilities, whatever they may be.
Although Forster’s book is not a “Christmas book,” much of this ties closely with my thoughts expressed yesterday on the strangeness of Christian witness at Christmastime. Likewise, Forster’s book is artfully structured around the core lyrics of “Joy to the World,” with each section pointing to a different aspect of how “the joy of God flows out from our hearts into civilization.”
Thus, given the imminence of Christmas Day, as we seek to connect the coming of Christ with the cultivation of culture, Forster’s framing of each phrase offers a timely and conclusive connecting of dots:
Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room: The Holy Spirit miraculously transforms us through our relationship with Jesus, giving us the joy of God in mind, heart, and life.
Let Men Their Songs Employ: Because God made human beings as social creatures, this joy of God is not locked up in an isolated heart; it flows among us and transforms how we relate to one another.
Let Earth Receive Her King: The church is the special community of people who are undergoing this transformative work, and the Spirit uses the distinct life of the church to further that work by means of doctrine, devotion, and stewardship.
He Comes to Make His Blessings Flow: We live most of our lives out in the world, among people who are not (yet) being transformed in this special way. How we live in the world should manifest the change the Spirit is working in us, carrying the impact of the joy of God “far as the curse is found.”
He Rules the World with Truth and Grace: As we learn to manifest the Spirit’s work in our hearts through the ways we live in the world, the portions of the world that are under our stewardship start to flourish more fully — not in a way that directly redeems people, because only personal regeneration can save a human being, but in a way that makes the world more like it should be and delivers intense experiences of God’s joy to our neighbors.
Before and beyond the Christmas season, let us surrender any primary allegiances to contrived cultural action. Instead, we have a far greater task: to draw from and rest in the joy of God in Christ in all that we do.
Let it flow and overflow in and throughout our daily lives, all while remembering that the distinct difference of the life sacrificed unto Christ—“the work of the Spirit in our minds, hearts, and lives”—also happens to be the best light for civilization.
Image: A Christmas Market, Anton Pieck, Public Domain