10 Cultural Trends Impacting the Church
I often think about the future. I have a responsibility as the lead minister/pastor in my local church and as the point leader of Renew.org (and Discipleship.org) to help provide spiritual guidance into that future. And personally, my daily conversations are juxtaposed between my talks with my father who is about to turn 89 and my interactions with my grandchildren, including the newborns, who come to my house regularly and whom I see at church every week. I keep thinking about the future in which my grandchildren may or may not live. Will they get to live over 80 years like my father? And what is the journey they will have to take in our new world in the future?
If I strive to see it as clearly as possible, maybe I can help them, my church, and the national ministries for which I’m responsible prepare for their future.
For better or for worse, I was trained in the graduate philosophy department at the University of Calgary to see history as the unfolding of beliefs and ideals. My attention is riveted daily to the practical outworking of the philosophies that drive our culture. I have analyzed what I have seen, and I believe that what I describe below is an important guide to the future. I may be more focused on philosophical trajectories than most preachers and pastors I know, but it is part of my unique calling. I am trying to see as clearly as possible so that we can raise up resilient disciples in my extended family, in my church, and in the Renew tribe.
This blog post is not intended as a political commentary. I do not believe politics can change our country—only a revival brought by God’s Spirit that results in churches who are full of disciple makers will be able to change our culture.
“My goal is to describe the realities that we face as disciples of Jesus in North America so that we can equip the people in our churches to live faithfully for King Jesus and reach their neighbors with the gospel.”
My goal is to describe the realities that we face as disciples of Jesus in North America so that we can equip the people in our churches to live faithfully for King Jesus and reach their neighbors with the gospel. In my view, we want to raise up faithful disciples and faithful churches so that we can live for God, as we hope and pray for revival throughout the country.
That said, here are my 10 observations. I hope you find them helpful.
#1 – Major changes in our culture—over 50 years in the making—became apparent to most people only during the COVID pandemic and the George Floyd protests.
Many people that I know first started expressing major concerns about what they saw in our country when COVID hit in early 2020. Many were confused by the strict government controls, especially as they were imposed on churches in states like California and Kentucky. The perplexity then significantly increased that summer when people saw the nightly demonstrations around the country as people reacted to George Floyd’s death.
COVID and the George Floyd protests made us visibly aware of significant societal changes that had been underway for decades. Both the governmental mandates around COVID and the intense cultural desire to identify with the racially oppressed expressed common beliefs about life that had been building for some time. I would suggest that the changes in politics, social policy, and our general lives have been going on since we started changing our cultural beliefs, practices, and narratives in earnest in the 1960s (more on this point below). We now live in a world of rapidly changing politics, institutions, and cultural practices. Most have now become aware of the changes, but many are still mystified by them.
#2 – Emerging political realities and social policies reflect a profound change in our culture.
Winston Churchill, the famous British statesman used to tweak a quote by Thomas Jefferson and say that “in a democracy you get the government that you deserve.” What he meant is that the people will vote based upon the common person’s understanding of what is politically best for the people, which itself will be based upon their common cultural beliefs.
Social policy is the same. We institute policies based upon the dominant belief systems that prevail in our country. We now have such things as “Drag Queen Story Hour” in our public libraries because more and more people believe that public expression and experimentation regarding nontraditional sexualities are good things, or at least things we should just let other people do and “not worry about it.”
“We institute policies based upon the dominant belief systems that prevail in our country.”
Sexualized activities of this kind have never focused on children before in American history. Our cultural beliefs, however, have been changing, and the public and policy expression of those beliefs are noteworthy. We are changing. There is a new cultural consensus of what makes for an authentic life.
#3 – Think of culture as being down a river: society’s beliefs, practices, and narratives flow downstream (from their source) to create culture.
The upstream of a culture are the beliefs and values upon which a society is based. This is often called a worldview—the lens by which we understand life. Going back to the founding of North American culture (even Western Civilization), many of our beliefs and values—and subsequently the worldview upon which our common lives depended—derived from Judeo-Christian origins.
A few years ago, I wrote a post on how a culture is created in a business or a church. The same principles apply to a society:
Why Is the Culture of a Disciple Making Church So Important?
Here are the basics of how this works. It’s helpful to think of concentric circles expanding outward, starting with values and beliefs at the core.
Values and Beliefs
These are the things that are truly important to us. They are what we really believe in and value. The beliefs are both theological and philosophical. They define our identity and motives as a people. Together, our values and beliefs are the basis around which we form our lives.
These are specific practices that embed the beliefs and values. These typically emerge first out of requirement, morality, and obligation. Think of a disciplined pursuit of what we believe through practical actions. The discipline of specific practices then leads to habits. These habits, applied time and time again, become lifestyles. Our lifestyles in turn are defined as our behaviors, which reflect what we really believe and value. They are reflected by our rules (often informal and unspoken), rituals, and behaviors.
These are the stories we tell and the sayings, music, and art that back them up. These are the stories, holiday-lines (think Christmas and Thanksgiving), and symbols that give meaning to our behaviors and disciplines. They include things we regularly say and celebrate. Our narrative is how we tell others about who we are and why we do what we do.
Many historic beliefs and values of America are based upon the Judeo-Christian roots of those who established the nation. Those roots help provide the foundation of our culture. Our forefathers and foremothers then established common behaviors—laws, business rules, and social practices—based upon these common beliefs and values. For example, think about how Moses and the 10 Commandments are included, alongside other historic lawgivers, in a marble frieze displayed at the Supreme Court Building. Moses’ and his commandments’ presence in the building represented at least some of the core values at the basis of the nation’s laws. The leaders at that time developed narratives, common proverbs, and expressions of our foundational beliefs and values. By these means, our cultural forefathers and foremothers expressed and repeated many of the themes and metaphors of our Judeo-Christian foundations.
“Our forefathers and foremothers then established common behaviors—laws, business rules, and social practices—based upon these common beliefs and values.”
For example, Northrop Frye’s book The Great Code: The Bible and Literature demonstrates that behind our common literary ideals expressed in many of our stories, narratives, and movies—as well as our sense of virtue—was the Bible itself. For example, think about how often in the past our common cultural heroes, as with Jesus, were those who were willing to give up their lives for others: Superman, Batman, Jack Bauer in the 24 TV series, the revived Tom Cruise in Top Gun Maverick, etc. Compare that storyline or the common plot line in the new movies on Netflix or HBO Max which typically tell stories of institutional cynicism and cultural deconstruction, and which tend to romanticize nontraditional sexual arrangements and genders and to downplay traditional marriage.
#4 – The new beliefs, practices, and narrative are largely based on progressive ideals.
People on the left tend to prefer the term “progressive” to the term “woke.” “Progressive” is likely a more appropriate expression because it includes things that go beyond the common, oppressed-oppressor binary inherent in the idea of being woke (sometimes referred to as “cultural Marxism”).
By “progressive,” I am also including Carl Trueman’s concept of the modern self, with its emphasis on the authority of our inner feelings. I am thinking of the ways progressives press us to think of human selfhood not simply in terms of expressive individualism but specifically in terms of sexual identity and the freedom to practice it as they see fit. I’m thinking of their tendency toward obsession when it comes to abortion rights. I’m also thinking of a message they commonly communicate that sexual fulfillment is the highest component of a happy and fulfilled life. Progressives believe that a person’s own feelings must have, in Trueman’s words, “such authority that it is hard to see how any person might challenge an individual’s view of their own identity without being immediately liable to accusations of oppression or worse.”
“…a message they commonly communicate that sexual fulfillment is the highest component of a happy and fulfilled life.”
I am also thinking of the progressive pre-occupation with climate change as more than just an environmental challenge, but as an existential threat that takes priority over every other consideration. This obsession often surpasses reason and reveals a lack of faith in God as Creator or in his promises of an afterlife.
#5 – Progressive beliefs have taken root in all the major institutions of society.
For me personally, the most helpful research into cultural analysis I’ve done was a few years ago and based on the famous line by Antonio Gramsci in the 1930s and Rudi Dutschke in the 1960s, “The Long March Through the Institutions of Society.” They talked about how they would eventually win everyone over to a Marxist view if they took their time and first won over the universities. I won’t repeat my description of how that happened here, but you can click on the following link to read my thoughts:
The Long March Through the Institutions of Society
This “long march” seems to have begun in our universities, as they undermined the Judeo-Christian foundations of our culture. From there, they worked through the other major institutions such as public and private school systems, HR Departments, the arts, social media, etc. A recent Daily Wire post was written describing how a famous UCLA professor of the history of ideas recently admitted he was wrong when he scolded conservatives over thirty years ago, telling them this could not happen.
There was once a common sentiment you might hear regarding how the zeal of new college graduates would change when faced with the realities of life. According to the expression, “If you are not a liberal in your twenties, you do not have a heart. And if you are not a conservative in your forties, you do not have a brain.” But that old adage isn’t bearing out anymore. The “long march” has reached far beyond the university.
“The ‘long march’ has reached far beyond the university.”
As the Daily Wire pointed out, “The self-righteous professors have spawned self-righteous students who filter into the public square….We are witnessing the invasion of the public square by the campus.”
At this time, progressives truly control the narratives, with few exceptions, in all the major institutions of our society.
#6 – Technology is transforming all of life and is largely guided by progressive beliefs and ideals.
In early 2021, I stumbled across an article from the British Broadcasting Corporation online. In the title, they quoted the CEO of Microsoft in the United Kingdom: Microsoft President: Orwell’s 1984 Could Happen in 2024. Here’s what he said:
“I’m constantly reminded of George Orwell’s lessons in his book 1984. You know the fundamental story…was about a government who could see everything that everyone did and hear everything that everyone said all the time. Well, that didn’t come to pass in 1984, but if we’re not careful that could come to pass in 2024.”
The release of the “Twitter Files,” although barely discussed by the mainstream media at the time of this publication (there are more to come), has made clear that progressives long dominated the filtering and control of information at Twitter. And certainly, they are doing the same in the other social media giants like Google, Facebook, and Apple.
Our team at Renew.org has been investigating an application of Artificial Intelligence (AI) recently. We found that AI can write articles that are 95% usable in just seconds or a few minutes at most (see ChatGPT). Wow, we are collectively amazed and sobered by it. It will be important to develop practices to avoid the downsides of AI (where possible), as it is radically changing the world of content creation, whether writing and blogs or graphic art or any number of other lines of work. Interestingly, I recently discovered that much AI has been programmed on sexual and gender issues to either not write articles in ways that offend progressives or to not be able to write them at all (depending on the search).
“As a culture, we mostly get information right now that is slanted in a progressive direction.”
As a culture, we mostly get information right now that is slanted in a progressive direction. Finding truth will only become more challenging for historic Christians as time passes, in part because of the next point.
#7 – Progressives have to progress.
I think you’ll find this axiomatic statement a helpful guide for understanding the culture.
Let me explain.
One of my friends and intellectual mentors over the last few years is Bill Hull. He said something to me several times, as a throw away comment, before it finally clicked with me. “Well, Bobby,” he would say, after a discussion on what is happening in our culture, “progressives have to progress.” Finally, one day it hit me. He is right: progressive people, over time, have to keep moving further and further left. It is a philosophical commitment that, as the culture moves, you keep moving further left.
It made me think of Canada, where I grew up, and how the Liberal Party went from tolerating abortion on behalf of a minority of pro-choice party members to excluding anyone from the party who opposed abortion to then politically punishing Canadian organizations who did not fully support abortion.
“It is a philosophical commitment that, as the culture moves, you keep moving further left.”
Think about how progressivism works in a church context. I have seen some leaders make what seems like a slight shift in adopting the progressive view of our culture on just one difficult topic—say, the topic of gender roles in the home and church. Yet, with just one shift, something fundamental happens to their mindset. They start moving in a progressive direction, based upon the pull of progressive culture values and thought leadership, and they soon become enamored with other progressive ideals on sexuality, the nature of Scripture, and even salvation. I am not saying this happens whenever a person adopts a cultural or a progressive view on a particular topic. But I have seen it happen in multiple cases.
#8 – The progressive worldview is religious (but without God).
I read the book 1984 in high school. I found it a fascinating book. I was inspired to personally check out communism in the late 1970s by traveling through the former Soviet Union and into Moscow itself. I was a political science major in university and I wanted to explore it for myself. (This was before I become a disciple of Jesus.) The signs of many of the realities reflected in 1984 were everywhere in the Soviet Union on that trip. George Orwell’s book and my experience with Communism rocked my world.
I later learn that Marxism, and progressivism more generally, are deeply entrenched worldviews. You can find out more about worldviews by looking at a post we published last year. I think you’ll find it a helpful introduction.
What Is a Biblical Worldview? Definitions, Dilemmas, and Dangers
Essentially, a worldview is the lens by which you answer life’s biggest questions and the framework in which you integrate all your experiences. Worldviews can be very religious. And I am convinced it is that way for our leading progressives as well.
“A worldview is the lens by which you answer life’s biggest questions and the framework in which you integrate all your experiences.”
I found many religious zealots for Marxism both in the Soviet Union and at the University of Calgary. I used to get so upset with their distorted views of reality that I would argue with the communists at their booths in the foyers at the university. My friends laughed at my zeal because they did not think Marxism could be a real threat in North America. Then, like most people, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (and Soviet communism), I thought my concerns had been misplaced.
But I soon learned that we were to get only a twenty- or twenty-five-year reprieve.
Marxism never went away. It simply morphed and kept growing on university campuses. Adding in the other ideas described above, Marxism has blended into progressivism and it has now taken over most institutions in North America, even making inroads into something as staunchly American as the US military. Few realize how pervasive the takeover has been.
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines religion most fundamentally as “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.” Their definitions go on to bring in God and the supernatural, but they then go on to describe religion as “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.” According to this more general type of definition, progressivism is definitely religious.
“Consider the strong attitudes, beliefs, and practices in devout adherents of progressivism, and it’s hard not to see it as religious.”
Consider the strong attitudes, beliefs, and practices in devout adherents of progressivism, and it’s hard not to see it as religious. This zeal can explain some seemingly odd things today—including the intolerance to free speech and alternative beliefs (what Elon Musk derides as “the woke mind virus”). Take, for example, the reaction of the staff at the New York Times in 2020. The paper published an op-ed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton advocating for military intervention during the George Floyd riots. In response, the paper’s staff said they felt his post put them “in danger.” The article caused such upset and outrage that the op-ed editor, James Bennett, was forced to apologize and resign. When employees revolt and threaten to resign en masse because they feel unsafe when their company is publishing an article or book by someone with different ideas—ideas that are contrary to progressive ones—we can hardly describe it as being less than deeply held, religious-level conviction.
And there are far more organizations with this mindset, led by zealous progressives, than the average person realizes.
#9 – Don’t be naïve: progressives can’t change without conversion to another religious worldview.
My doctoral work focused on evangelism and conversion, and through my studies, I learned that true conversion is a complex thing. Conversion requires a person to stop believing some things as true and to believe other things instead. But it also involves changing specific commitments, practices, and lifestyles. And it typically involves change in core relationships, to name just a few of the elements. Whether it is a conversion to a major world religion or to a secular worldview, many factors are involved. It is not easy.
Worldviews also prove incredibly resilient. They can tend to explain (or explain away) almost anything for their adherents, including the bad consequences found in the implementation of the worldview. If you add in social pressure, corporate pressure, and all the propaganda, to say nothing of the pressure from friends and even family, most people are very resistant to ever change their worldview.
“Most people are very resistant to ever change their worldview.”
A friend of mine has a national show where every day he articulates what is happening in our country with incredible clarity. He warns his viewers—in the hundreds of thousands—how we as a culture are undermining and turning our backs on our Judeo-Christian foundations. And he rightly points out (in my opinion) that politics are not the answer.
Politics are downstream from culture. We must go back upstream. In one part my friend gets it right—in my opinion—because he repeatedly tells people that Jesus is the answer. I am grateful for that. At the same time, I want to suggest that he is not providing a complete or substantive solution.
In my understanding, the only way back is through a massive, national repentance and conversion to Jesus—and a life of discipleship in local churches. Again, the local church is part of the answer, as it is the only group in the world where the proclamation of Jesus’ gospel and the practice of making disciples of Jesus is central. The local church is the only entity that can rebuild Judeo-Christian foundations if they are ever to prevail in our culture again.
Politics will not rebuild our Judeo-Christian foundations. Laws and Supreme Court justices will not rebuild it, and neither will schools or Christian businessmen—even though these are all important.
“Politics will not rebuild our Judeo-Christian foundations.”
Here is the thing: many of my friends keep talking like people will wake up one day and reject progressivism or wokeism because they will see the damage that results from these ideas. That’s a misconception because their progressive viewpoint is a worldview and, for them, it’s religious. And people don’t typically change their views like that. They typically assume that their ideals are still right, but that only the implementation of the ideas was defective. As one friend told me, to progressives, the answer to the failures is always more or better progressivism.
#10 – Masses are being duped because of their current pleasures and wealth, as well as a loss of consciousness of God’s holiness.
Someone that is close to me was a corporate rising star at Walmart. I met up with him one day and wanted to find out about progressivism’s inroads into Walmart’s headquarters. “Well,” he said, “I hate to break it to you, but Walmart is as woke as any corporation.” It was not long after that that he left—after forced conversation on embracing, even celebrating, LGBTQ identities and practices in the work pace.
We caught up recently and had a more in-depth conversation. “There are lot guys in their late 50s that could make a difference,” he said. “They are traditional Christians that could make a difference, maybe even change the policies,” he said. “But it is not going to happen. They do not want to rock the boat; they are just holding on for their good financial retirement.” Their personal comfort and pleasures mean that they will not risk doing what needs to be done.
This capitulation is happening all across North America.
Most people are accommodating themselves to progressive ideals. Politicians adapt. Preachers want to keep the crowds and so they do not voice certain controversial truths anymore. Corporate executives want to embrace the new ideals so they can advance their careers. And some people know they must stay quiet just to keep their jobs.
“Some people know they must stay quiet just to keep their jobs.”
But what world is our capitulation creating?
We can add to this mixture a loss of consciousness by many Christians in our time of the holiness of God. We do not fear God—for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren. I’d suggest that we are becoming like Sodom and Gomorrah even as we’re not even sure that such a state is sinful anymore, let alone a reminder of God’s wrath. Too many do not truly believe that we will reap what we sow.
Let me pause and say: There is a better way. We are focused on that way in my extended family, my church, and our Renew Network.
But first, one last paragraph on this point.
The late cultural critic Neil Postman wrote a very incisive forward to his 1987 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. In it, he contrasted two dystopian works of fiction: George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Please consider his words:
Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
I think Orwell was predictive: We are moving into a time where the state will know and control many things in our lives. But so was Huxley, and perhaps even more so. For even as our freedoms to dissent erode, we tend not to care that much yet. We have too many self-indulgent distractions, for we remain wealthy, satisfied, and numb.
“We have too many self-indulgent distractions, for we remain wealthy, satisfied, and numb.”
I know that it can be difficult to wrap our minds around these 10 cultural trends. But the church can respond and thrive.
Let’s not let these trends describe our future!
At the conclusion of each of these points, I wanted to tell you about the way disciples of Jesus should handle these items. But I also knew that, at each point, because of space, we couldn’t develop a full strategy for charting a path for resilient disciples. But I also knew something else.
We have a very important book and national Gathering coming up that will provide answers and flesh out the substance of our way forward.
Are you interested in a better way? Are you interested in being part of a community of resilient disciples, families, church leaders, and churches?
Then join our National Gathering called Resilient: Standing Firm in a Hostile World. It’s in Indianapolis on Tuesday and Wednesday, April 25-26.
“Are you interested in being part of a community of resilient disciples, families, church leaders, and churches?”
At the Gathering, you will receive a free copy of David Young’s book called Resilient. Jeff Duerler, PhD, describes the book (and the National Gathering) this way:
If you’re a Bible-believing, God-fearing, Jesus-loving person who senses something horrific happening in our country, but you are nonetheless apprehensive about alarmist rhetoric and doomsday cynicism, David Young’s Resilient: Standing Firm in a Hostile World is a breath of fresh air. It doesn’t just document the crisis at hand with real-world specificity, it helps you cut through the cloud of confusion to diagnose the root problem, it inspires you with a constant flow of gripping, true stories, and it equips you with practical strategies to stand firm in this rising hostility…and to do so with a heart that is engulfed with love for King Jesus and His mission.
 Carl R. Trueman, Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution (Wheaton: Crossway, 2022).
 Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (pp. xxii). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition).