As American culture has grown increasingly hostile to Christianity, many have responded with calls to “take our country back” for God, promoting a mix of tailored strategies to dominate specific sectors of society – from politics, to business, to the media and beyond. The efforts vary in their energy and effectiveness, but as cultural elites give way to various forms of combative conformity, Christians appear to be ever more drawn to their own spiritualized versions of the same.
In assessing such developments, David French recently highlighted the Seven Mountains Mandate as a potential source of such action. Originating with Loren Cunningham, founder of Youth With a Mission, the concept offers a broad framework for Christians to engage across distinct spheres of society.
“In its distilled essence, the Seven Mountain concept describes seven key cultural/religious institutions that should be influenced and transformed by Christian believers to create ‘Godly change’ in America,” French explains. “The key to transforming the nation rests with reaching the family, the church, education, media, arts, the economy, and the government with the truth of the Gospel.”
Properly understood, the framework offers plenty of value, particularly for Christians who are prone to confining their faith to Sunday morning church services or the privacy of their own homes. “At one level, this analysis seems less like revelation and more like logic,” French says.
Yes, we should bear a distinctively Christian witness across society. Yes, Christians should seek to be “salt and light,” to be “in but not of the world.” Yes, this is the path to “Godly change” in America:
When those seven key institutions become instruments of injustice, Christians should respond. To take some obvious examples, if the “mountain” of government turns against its citizens, Christians have an obligation to stand with the oppressed. If the mountain of popular culture transforms the beauty of art into the perversion of porn, Christians must resist. And if the mountain of education teaches falsehoods, Christians have an obligation to tell the truth.
The command to “do justice” has real force, and it’s incumbent on Christians to seek justice across the length and breadth of American life.
The question, then, is not whether but how we bear such witness. What is the basic arc and orientation of our action? How are we to align our attitudes and imaginations when the surrounding culture grows increasingly hostile and heavy-handed? What should be the posture of our hearts as we engage with our neighbors as strangers in a strange land? When we disagree, what is our ultimate motivation and aim?
How we answer these questions is bound to transform the shape of our daily lives, which is why we continue to see a wide diversity of rhetoric and action, even among Christians who agree on basic theological commitments and big-picture virtues and cultural priorities.
On this, French worries that too many of today’s Christians view the Seven Mountains through a lens of power, control, and domination. “There is an immense and important difference between seeking justice and seeking power,” French explains. “In fact, the quest for power can sideline or derail the quest for justice. And that’s where we get to the real problem—the difference between a Seven Mountain concept and a Seven Mountain mandate or Seven Mountain dominionism.”
When one listens to Cunningham himself, it’s easy to see how Christians of various perspectives might come to different interpretations and conclusions. French is correct to draw a distinction; diversity in this area abounds.
Having been born and raised in these same evangelical/charismatic circles, I have heard such theology leveraged toward a wide range of manifestations, from day-to-day love of our neighbor and faithful institutional leadership to the more concerted quests to play “king of the mountain” via top-down cultural invasion and control. Yet for some, like Bethel Church Pastor Bill Johnson and author Lance Wallnau (both of whom French references), the latter approach is evident. “I sensed the Lord telling me, ‘He who can take these mountains can take the harvest of nations,’” wrote Wallnau in his book, Invading Babylon: The 7 Mountain Mandate. Former White House spiritual advisor Paula White concurs.
Thus, beyond simply recognizing our basic role and responsibility within these spheres, and beyond debating the hot-button issues of the day, Christians would do well to also refine our posture toward the culture at large. French sets his sights on one particular area of lopsided emphasis – domination – but it’s not the only one.
This topic lies at the center of the Acton Institute’s film series, For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles, which begins with a wider critique of three common ditches when it comes to Christian cultural engagement: domination (“Invade, defeat, and destroy!”), fortification (“Hide and hunker down!”), or accommodation (“Keep it cool and blend in”). The framework comes from Pastor Greg Thompson’s paper “The Church in Our Time,” which summarizes the paradigms as follows:
The fortification paradigm suggests that the fundamental calling of the church is to guard the integrity of its divinely wrought life against the assaults of the world. In this view, the basic task of the church is vigilant preservation and the basic threat to the church is the destructive character of the larger culture …
The domination paradigm suggests that the fundamental calling of the church is to triumph over her cultural enemies. In this view the basic task of the church is to extend its own values into the world while the basic threat to the church is those whose values differ from its own …
Contrary to fortification, the accommodation paradigm suggests that the fundamental calling of the church is collaboration with the world in the service of the larger good. From this perspective the basic task of the church is active partnership with its neighbors in the interest of social renewal, and the basic threat to the church is its own separatist tendencies.
As Greg Forster has noted elsewhere, each stems from a legitimate theological starting point. Likewise, each has its own set of distinctive contributions in Christian history, and it may be the case that we should simply seek to learn from each and lean toward some sort of balance.
Yet many of the underlying excesses and blind spots are rooted in common confusions and conflations between the sacred and secular. Thompson’s own paper seeks to avoid these pitfalls by pointing to a “fourth way,” drawing heavily on James Davison Hunter’s influential notion of “faithful presence.”
For the Life of the World takes a similar approach, promoting a perspective of Christian exile – one through which we stay both deeply embedded and intently focused on Jeremiah’s call to “seek the welfare of the city,” regardless of whatever cultural hostility may surround us. Focused on five “economies” of creation – love, creative service, order, wisdom, and wonder – the film still promotes an active and distinctively Christian pioneering of those cultural mountains, but without the false dichotomy of zero-sum confrontation vs. outright surrender.
As Evan Koons explains in the film, “Simply put, we are being called by God to spend the remainder of our days serving our captors, working with them (not fighting them or conforming to them or fleeing from them – but serving them) and compromising nothing. It’s rooted in the belief that all of our vocations (family, work, public service, education, art, and more) matter.”
Many will say that such an approach relies on over- or under-heated notions of anti-Christian persecution and subjugation in modern American – either, “Chill out!” or “Wake up!” But again, such a perspective doesn’t hinge on the practical hostilities of the day. Our position as exiles is not based on a temporal ascendancy or decline from this earthly rule to that — in our case, from some nostalgic memory of a “Christian nation” to our present post-Christian dysphoria. This is, most simply, the point.
The Scriptures call on all Christians everywhere to be “strangers and exiles” in whatever culture we inhabit. This doesn’t mean a lack of engagement. Exile didn’t mean that for Old Testament Israel (see Joseph in Egypt or Daniel in Babylon, for parts of their sojourns there). And it certainly doesn’t mean that for the church. Right after speaking of the church as exiles, Peter instructs the church on how to act among the Gentiles, how to respond to human institutions, including political institutions (1 Pet. 2:12-17).
The kind of exiles we are to be is not a bitter, resentful people, harkening back to better days, when we had more power and influence. We are to be instead those who know that the culture around us, whatever culture that is, is temporary. We are to pattern our lives not after nostalgia for the past but hope for the future. This means a discontent. We pray for the kingdom to come (Matt. 6:10). We groan with the creation around us for the end of the wreckage of the curse (Rom. 8:23).
The political and cultural climate of America does not make us exiles. It can, however, remind us that we are exiles and strangers, just as our ancestors were. American Christians can wake up from the hypnosis of an illusory “Christian America” and learn to seek first the kingdom of God. We can stop counting on the culture to do pre-evangelism and moral catechesis.
In his focus on “creative minorities,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has touched on something similar, highlighting Christianity’s moral responsibility when surrounded by an antagonistic culture or an oppressive political regime.
“You can be a minority, living in a country whose religion, culture, and legal system are not your own, and yet sustain your identity, live your faith, and contribute to the common good, exactly as Jeremiah said,” Rabbi Sacks argued. “It isn’t easy. It demands a complex finessing of identities. It involves a willingness to live in a state of cognitive dissonance. It isn’t for the fainthearted. But it is creative.”
Rather than embracing a paradigm of domination, Rabbi Sacks said, Christians can thoughtfully resist the allure of power while still openly and creatively contributing to the wider culture:
What if [creative minorities] knew that truth and power have nothing to do with one another and that you do not need to rule the world to bring truth into the world? What if they had realized that once you seek to create a universal state, you have already begun down a road from which there is no escape, a process that ends in disintegration and decline? What if they were convinced that in the long run, the real battle is spiritual, not political or military, and that in this battle influence matters more than power?
What if they believed they had heard God calling on them to be a creative minority that never sought to become a dominant minority, that never sought to become a universal state, nor even in the conventional sense a universal church? What if they believed that God is universal but that love – all love, even God’s love – is irreducibly particular? What if they were convinced that the God Who created biodiversity cares for human diversity? What if they had seen the great empires conquer smaller nations and impose their culture on them, and had been profoundly disturbed by this, as we today are disturbed when an animal species is driven to extinction by human exploitation and carelessness?
This does not mean that we shrug at the battles before us, seeking some sort of syrupy neighborliness where everyone sings kumbaya – quite the contrary.
Rather than run from the hostile world (fortification), we are to run to it. Rather than bludgeoning our enemies with “Christian culture” (domination), we are to find ways to love and serve them, bearing witness to the truth in love, but in ways that embrace the goodness of the material world and stretch beyond knee-jerk evangelism and social-media signaling. Rather than quietly surrendering to the whims of materialism and the darkness of despotism (accommodation), we are to stay bold in declaring the good news of Jesus Christ in all things, even when it costs us.
In traveling the Seven Mountains, we need not diminish the spiritual nor run from the material. Instead, we hold both together as we are transformed into a new life in God.
“For all our work in this world is made of stuff of the earth — our families, our labor, our governments and charities and schools and art forms — all of it takes place here below, but all of it is pointed toward Heaven,” says Koons at the end of the film. “All of it is in a sense holy. Imagine if all of us offered our work for the good of the cities around us. How might we be able to change those cities? What would it look like if we only understood that our humble work is a heavenward offering? What would our city of exile look like then?”