In 1972 the iconic rock band, The Rolling Stones, released its groundbreaking album titled, Exile on Main Street. While the album was recorded in France, the reference to Main Street was an effort to connect with an American audience where the ubiquitous Main Street could be found in every town. Seen from one perspective, Main Street became a synonym for a uniform and safe culture where certain assumptions about right and wrong, good and evil, mom and dad, God and faith were secure. When visiting Disneyland, you enter the Magic Kingdom by a stroll down the gateway to the park, where turn-of-the-century architecture and transportation bring the small-town Middle America of the early 1900s to life. Welcome to Main Street, USA — home, sweet home and a reminder of a gentler, more idyllic, and secure American culture. Fast-forward to 2015 and Main Street has changed, if not disappeared altogether, from the American landscape. In the span of less than one generation in America, our cultural landscape has changed dramatically–possibly forever–and in the process, many Christians are left to feel like they are Exiles on Main Street. Think about some of the changes in our society we have experienced in just the last few years.
In roughly the last 18 months, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship groups have been kicked off campuses of the California State University system. After many decades of meeting in campus facilities, IVCF was derecognized as an official student group. IVCF, one of the largest, oldest, strongest and most respected Christian ministries on the college campus was derecognized for the error of a simple proposal: that student leaders of a Christian ministry needed to be, well, Christians. Of course, as you might suspect, there was a little more to the story. The offensive issue in our newly untethered culture was that these IVCF student leaders were expected to believe in and hold to a biblical standard of sexual morality. The lesson is that if you do not acquiesce to the new moral orthodoxy, you get derecognized.
Or, consider the recent firing of Atlanta, Georgia fire chief Kelvin Cochran. Cochran’s sin was to write a book critical of the LGBT agenda and beliefs based on his personal understanding of the Bible. (Disclaimer: I have not read the book and have no idea if it is a good one or a bad one.) This did not happen in Portland or Manhattan, but in what was at one time, not very long ago, the heart of Main Street America. The lesson is that you are now in a vulnerable position of employment if you hold to what the church of Christ has held to unwaveringly for the last 2,000 years.
The Boy Scouts of America has recently been deemed a discriminatory organization because, in spite of their embrace of openly gay scouts, they are not accepting of openly gay scout leaders. Judges have ruled that exclusion of openly gay scout leaders violates the judicial code of the State of California.
Belief in God is changing, too. Main Street, USA has witnessed the rise of a more militant, even evangelistic, new atheism. In some sections of our culture, it is now considered very enlightened and progressive to advertise one’s disbelief. While the vast majority of Americans still say they believe in God, this deity is more often than not a god constructed for one’s own personal comfort, bearing little resemblance to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In the process, we have seen the rise of the Nones and the Millennials who seem very content to fashion their own spirituality independent of any outside authority, creed, or local church involvement.
Long-held cultural assumptions about the nature of marriage, the character of God, and the basis for moral authority have essentially evaporated from the public square in a few short years. What happened in Europe with a rapid secularization of the culture and the victory of an Enlightenment worldview seems to be now happening in the United States at an ever-increasing pace. And it could get dangerous for Christians faithful to the Bible. (Think: employment, social position and acceptance, legal rights, and religious freedoms.)
If you are still reading this article, I will spare you and cease with any more dire examples of American cultural and spiritual decline and cut to the chase. If you are a Christian and feel like an exile on Main Street…get over it. Really. What American Christians are facing in 2015 should not surprise any believer who has read the Bible. Jesus was very clear to his followers in John 15:18-25 where he said, essentially, The world hated me, and if it hated me it is going to hate you, too. The hostility of our culture toward Christians should not shock any believer. That disciples of Jesus would find themselves at odds with current cultural sensibilities was promised in Scripture. The Bible often refers to those who love and follow Jesus Christ as sojourners, aliens, and as in 1 Peter 1:1, elect exiles. The trouble is, that in our churches we may have sung the old gospel song, This World Is Not My Home, but we didn’t mean it.
So what is the disenfranchised believer in America, who loved the older version of Main Street and laments feeling like an exile, to make of his faith in 2015? We have some work to do. At a bare minimum, the church needs to be prepared, and to be preparing, its members for a very different cultural engagement. Christians, and our churches, need courage. As a pastor I think a lot about this. I ponder how I can help prepare SBCC to live without fear in our changing world.
But I am also a grandparent who passionately loves his grandchildren (all 5 of them), and I want them to give their hearts to Jesus. My grandchildren bring these new cultural realities even closer to home. They will walk down a different Main Street than I did. Their experience of being an exile will be different from my experience. I do indeed worry about the challenges that the church I love, and the grandchildren I love, will face in a post-Christian America. But while these new cultural realities will be more antagonistic to faith from the world in which I grew up, it will not be different from what followers of Jesus have experienced for two thousand years. The church was born into an unfriendly culture that hated them to the extent that homes, jobs and even lives were lost because of faith in Christ. What first-century Christians believed and practiced did not fit with the prevailing cultural norms. But the church flourished and lives were changed for eternity in the midst of this hostility. The beauty and truth of the gospel message trumped the high cost of discipleship.
While the challenges ahead will be real, and most likely very difficult, let’s remind ourselves of what is certain. God is still on his throne, the gates of hell will not prevail against the church, and Christ reigns. He rules right now, and he will return to set all things right. So, let’s find our confidence in the words and promises of Jesus the Good Shepherd, Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom (Luke 12:32). And, I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world (John 16:33).