Column Entry: “The Need for Faithful Witness”
By Mark Allan Steiner, PhD, Christopher Newport University
Column Description: It is all too often true that American Christians, just as the Apostle Paul warned against in Romans 12:2, are conformed to the pattern of this world in ways we don’t realize and are hard to see. In this column, a religious rhetoric scholar and aspiring theologian reflects on how we can avoid this kind of cultural conformity, and how we can speak and live in genuinely countercultural and God-honoring ways.
The Need for Faithful Witness
Welcome to the beginning of my column on “faithful witness”! I’m writing as a follower of Jesus, a husband and a father of four children, a religious rhetoric scholar, a college professor, a reformed Presbyterian who embraces the positive and the theological senses of the term “evangelical,” and an elder in my local church. I have published and am continuing to publish on this topic, and I’ve been thinking about this topic for over 20 years now. I’m also currently writing a book that shows how Justin Martyr, the second-century Christian apologist and martyr (pictured in the logo for the column), was one of the most prominent early practitioners of faithful witness, and how we can emulate his example in our own day.
In the work I’ve done over the years, I’ve come to see that one of the biggest problems (if not the biggest problem) in the contemporary American evangelical community is the same problem that the Apostle Paul warned the Church about in Romans 12:2—that we are “conformed to the pattern of this world” far more extensively than we realize. As a result, we make choices and pursue lifestyles that fall short—even far short—of the true flourishing that God has in mind for us, as well as of doing the kind of work and witness in this world to which we are called. What also too easily happens as a result is that those outside the Church don’t see its true nature and value, but instead see something far less flattering, enticing, and intriguing.
A book that has haunted me for a while now is David Kinnaman’s and Gabe Lyons’s Unchristian. As experienced researchers for the Barna Group, these two men conducted extensive survey research with young people outside of the Church, probing their understandings of what the Church is really like and what it means to them. To the degree that their findings are correct—and I strongly suspect that they are much more correct than we would like to admit—we should be saddened and contrite. How much does our own lack of faithfulness contribute to the church as a whole being seen as “hypocritical,” as “too political,” as “judgmental,” and as having a tendency to dehumanize people who are different, none of which should be true of us?
One of the fundamental questions we must wrestle with is the degree to which these deeply-held perceptions and conclusions about the Church of Jesus Christ are reinforced by the fact that, collectively speaking, our lives and lifestyles simply don’t match our stated or proclaimed beliefs. In Mustard Seed versus McWorld, evangelical Tom Sine declares that American evangelical Christians “are being eaten alive by a secularism that we haven’t named.” We are “so much like the culture around us that we have little to call people to. We hang around church buildings more than others do. We abstain from a few things. We don’t practice hedonism as well as the people around us—but we sure keep trying.” In The Transformation of American Religion, sociologist Alan Wolfe is equally blunt, noting that “in the United States culture has transformed Christ, as well as all other religions found within these shores.” “In every aspect of the religious life,” he emphasizes, “American faith has met American culture—and American culture has triumphed.”
This is why the charge of hypocrisy is essentially different and significantly more devastating in the ways that it is leveled against the Church. Most people recognize that all of us at times act at times and in various ways that aren’t consistent with what we stand for and who we want to be. But with the Church the charge is much more fundamental and systemic. We claim to be what Rodney Clapp calls “a peculiar people,” but we really don’t look like we are. In fact, in how we collectively behave, how we collectively treat others who aren’t like us, and how we collectively spend our money, we’re pretty much just like everyone else. We claim not to be “of the world,” but we really are, far more than we should be.
It’s easy to blame these problems and failings as somehow inherent to people of faith, or to the inherently superficial, corrupting, and irrational nature of religious faith itself. But I think that it’s both fairer and more honest to think of these problems not as existential in nature, but instead as cultural and especially rhetorical. What mistakes have Christians—particularly American evangelical Christians—been making in how they understand the nature of God? The nature of faith? The nature of biblical truth? The nature of the fundamental tasks in grappling with and applying biblical truth? The purpose of the Church in this present age? What “faithfulness” and “success” look like in God’s kingdom?
Ultimately, I think the first major step for the Church, particularly in America, is one of vision. We need to cultivate a clear, compelling, and thoroughly biblical sense of who we fundamentally are as followers of Christ and what we—individually and collectively—are called to do while we are in this world. And this is where the idea of faithful witness comes in. It isn’t just a label. It’s a more fundamental metaphor through which we can and should see our own identity and work. It’s the basis for an entire framework by which we can see and apply to our own lives how to think about the world, how to think about engaging the popular and political cultures in which we live, and (more ultimately) how to conceptualize our purpose in this world and the “Kingdom” mission we have been given. Just as the conformity to “the pattern of this world” is in large part a product of a deficient vision (or even no explicit vision at all), the vision inspired by a “faithful witness” perspective can do much to help us—as individuals and as the Church as a whole—offer a compelling, authentic, and countercultural alternative to the dominant thinking of the broader culture(s) in which we live.
So, what I hope to do in this column is to do some careful and continual “thinking out loud” about what faithful witness is, what it means, and how to apply this perspective to our own challenges in speaking and living authentic and divinely-approved conviction in our world. I welcome and encourage you to think out loud with me as we strive to do these things together. To God be the glory!
* The views of any CCSN columnists are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the CCSN. We invite and embrace a wide range of views and critiques on important communication and cultural issues. The CCSN is a community of Jesus followers who study communciation. We do not support or promote a particular social, political, or denominational agenda.
 David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity … and Why That Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007).
 Tom Sine, Mustard Seed versus McWorld: Reinventing Life and Faith for the Future (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999), 154, 156-7.
 Alan Wolfe, The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith (2003, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 2-3.