Over the last century, Christianity has declined in social influence across much of the Western world, leading many to believe it has little place or purpose in public life.
In response, Christian reactions have varied, with the more typical approaches being fortification (“hide!”), domination (“fight!”), or accommodation (“blend in!”). In each case, the response takes the shape of heavy-handed strategery or top-down mobilization, whether to or from the hills.
And yet the cultural witness of the church ought to flow (or overflow) a bit differently. For Greg Forster, it has less to do with “cultural lever-pulling,” and a whole lot more to do with joy.
“Christianity is losing its influence in contemporary America because people outside the church just don’t encounter the joy of God as much as they used to,” Forster writes in his latest book, Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It. “…The joy of God can do what cultural lever-pulling can’t do.”
As we experience the joy of God in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, our attitudes and activities are transformed. As Christians, our primary task is not to take that transformation and funnel it toward end-game tactics, but to faithfully embody it across culture: blessing our neighbors and cultivating civilization, whether in the family, our work and the economy, or citizenship and community (Forster’s three main categories).
This sort of bottom-up cultivation takes time, to be sure. It is “generational work,” as Stephen Grabill puts it in For the Life of the World. But it is also work that can begin right where we are and across our daily activities and responsibilities, whatever they may be.
As Forster explains:
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. 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.
So what do you know? It turns out that evangelism, discipleship, and impacting our civilization all require the same thing [hint: joy]. It’s almost like it was all designed by someone who knew what he was doing.
In the beginning of the book, Forster recounts a certain set of “cultural artifacts” that bore that witness rather well throughout his childhood: Christmas carols.
Not growing up in a Christian home, he still recognized a certain joy that was attached to Christmas hymns. As he ran around his house, “belting out ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ and ‘Joy to the World,’” Forster noticed a distinct difference in the Christmas canon. “Nobody ever sang ‘Frosty the Snowman’ that way,” he writes.
It would take years for those small seeds to sprout — for the joy of God to transform his heart, mind, and way of living — but the simple cultural witness of Christmas rituals was enough to offer a small foretaste. It was enough to begin making clear the difference between earthbound jolliness and the “joyful seriousness” of the Gospel, as Andrew Ferguson recently called it.
Thus, though the book is not a “Christmas book,” it 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.”
This holiday season, as we seek to connect the coming of Christ with the cultivation of culture, Forster’s framing of each phrase offers a timely 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. Howe 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.
In Christmas and beyond, then, we should surrender any primary allegiances to contrived “cultural lever-pulling.” Instead, let us seek to pursue, embody, and rest in the joy of God in Christ. Let it flow and overflow in and across 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.