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A Resilient Church in a Cancel Culture

Photo of Bobby HarringtonBobby Harrington | Bio

Bobby Harrington

Bobby is the point-leader of Renew.org and Discipleship.org, both collaborative, disciple-making organizations. He is the founding and lead pastor of Harpeth Christian Church (by the Harpeth River, just outside of Nashville, TN). He has an M.A.R. and an M.Div. from Harding School of Theology and a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of more than 10 books on discipleship, including Discipleshift (with Jim Putman and Robert Coleman), The Disciple Maker’s Handbook (with Josh Patrick) and Becoming a Disciple Maker: The Pursuit of Level 5 Disciple Making (with Greg Weins). He lives in the greater Nashville area with his wife and near his children and grandchildren.
Photo of Daniel McCoyDaniel McCoy | Bio

Daniel McCoy

Daniel is happily married to Susanna, and they have 3 daughters and 2 sons. He has his bachelor’s in theology (Ozark Christian College), his master of arts in apologetics (Veritas International University), and his PhD in theology (North-West University, South Africa). His master’s thesis was on apologetics to atheists, and his doctoral dissertation was on apologetics to Buddhists. In 2014, he co-authored The Atheist’s Fatal Flaw with Norman Geisler. Daniel works as editorial director for the Renew Network. His passion is to help people understand that they can totally trust Jesus. He plays guitar and piano and occasionally enjoys writing songs. daniel@renew.org

There’s a joke that’s told about a couple of hunting buddies who are walking along outside when one of them collapses to the ground and goes motionless. When his friend discovers that he’s stopped breathing, he calls 911 and says, “My friend just died! What do I do?”

The operator answers, “Calm down. First, what you need to do is make sure he is, in fact, dead.”

“Okay,” he says. She waits. Suddenly she hears the “Boom!” of a shotgun.

Back on the phone, he says, “Okay, now what?”

We live in an age of canceling people until we are sure their influence is, in fact, dead. It’s called “cancel culture.”

People who say something out of step with cultural values aren’t gently redirected or soundly debated. Rather, when an outraged social media mob piles on enough accusations of offense, the person is canceled, their influence blotted out.

What we are describing is more than a matter of justly holding people accountable for reprehensible actions, which is a necessary and important thing. Rather, “cancel culture” punishes people for merely sharing views that go against cultural sensibilities. Numerous examples abound, from Disney’s recent firing of The Mandalorian’s star actress Gina Carano over social media posts to outrage toward Christian author Max Lucado for a 2004 sermon’s comparison of same-sex marriage to legalized polygamy, bestiality, and incest. YouTube permanently banned pro-life website LifeSiteNews (e.g., for videos explaining the usage of tissue from aborted babies for COVID vaccines) and Twitter censored The Daily Citizen, a publication of Focus on the Family, for a tweet defining a transgender woman as “a man who believes he is a woman.”

Where does grace fit into a culture of cancelation? It’s apparently evaporated. In a post-Christian world, it’s becoming a safer bet not to bring grace up. When photos surfaced of a contestant of The Bachelor attending a Plantation-themed ball two years ago, viewers voiced outrage and the contestant apologized profusely, denouncing her past unconscious racism. Then, when the host of The Bachelor issued a call to “have a little grace, a little understanding, a little compassion,” the rage turned on him, and he stepped down from the show. True, it’s the kind of show everybody should step down from so they can do something more productive with their lives. Still, it’s an instructive snapshot on how grace is faring these days.

In light of this impulse to “kill” until dead—and then keep shooting—it makes us wonder how a church which publicly teaches increasingly unacceptable beliefs can navigate a cancel culture.

And, no, this isn’t a reference to pugnacious ministers giddy to preach fire and brimstone upon their political enemies. No, we’re talking about any church that teaches basic biblical truths: God created us male and female. Marriage is between a husband and wife. Non-Christian religions are false. There is a hell. Even (perhaps especially) progressive churches will face intense scrutiny because once you claim to be woke, the tests of wokeness only get more radical.

In an age of cancelation, how can a church with unpopular convictions avoid being “canceled”?

There’s always the tried-and-troubled path of keeping your head down and going along to get along. This can mean a retreat into a privatized, not public, faith which might get you into heaven—but not anybody else. Yet a purely privatized faith is no answer for the follower of Jesus, for the Spirit that “God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7, NIV).

Timidity might be a technical way to avoid cancelation, except that it’s almost a form of self-cancelation itself. A much better answer is to aim for resilience. A resilient church can’t be canceled no matter how much outrage it faces for its convictions. Like the gutsy moles in a Whac-a-Mole game, resilient Christians keep popping back up with the same resilience as before. Resilient Christians show themselves stubbornly convictional and defiantly joyful.

Now, where have we seen a resilient church before?

Right! We’ve seen a resilient church in the pages of the New Testament. The church shone in the shadow of a monstrous empire who at times made the church’s extinction the focus of its ferocity. Yet the church grew, outlasted the Roman empire, and continues to march onward. The exciting news for those of us committed to restoring or renewing the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament church is that this challenge is precisely what we are best suited for. Restoration and renewal are our goal. They are our heritage.

So, does our emphasis on restoration and renewal make us resilient churches?

It depends a lot on what we are renewing or restoring. If the focus is on the forms of worship, baptism, and leadership structures of New Testament Christianity, we will not get far.[1] These are clearly not unimportant questions. Yet accuracy in them does not automatically produce a resilient community of disciples of Jesus.

Even doctrinal accuracy won’t do the trick by itself. Take the evangelical emphasis on “by grace through faith” salvation. That might help combat legalism in the church, but it won’t automatically produce a resilient community of disciples.

Resilience begins with the cost of discipleship. As Jeremy Bacon explained in a recent RENEW.org article on the Sermon on the Mount, “If we want a Christianity that has no power to change those within, let’s spend all our time telling the Church that admission is free, but never flesh out what we’re being admitted to.” We believe that the Jesus we preach, the gospel we uphold, and the faith we coach will determine the disciple we will create.

Resilience requires renewal. And true renewal means more than just true doctrine and accurate worship practices. It requires nothing less than serious disciple making.

Our culture is out-discipling the church. A resilient church means renewing the local church’s countercultural disciple making focus.

Christianity as America’s apple-pie civil religion is gone. The tectonic plates have shifted, and we find ourselves straddling two separating continents: biblical discipleship and American culture. The divide has always been there, but we who have tried to follow the demands of both are now presented with a clear choice.

The choice is between fitting in to the dogma of culture and going back to the teachings of Jesus. We could retain our cultural privilege by becoming culture’s spiritual puppets. Or we could restore our identity as countercultural disciples of another kingdom.

Who are we at core?

Modern culture’s answer is that we are a backwards and unenlightened but potentially useful group of people who need to go progressive or die off.

God’s answer:

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9, NIV).

A chosen, royal, priestly, holy people are also something else by their very nature: resilient. Just imagine if we can be and make that kind of disciple.

Let’s cast a better vision, show a better way, and tell a better story.

Here are some hallmarks of a resilient church:
  • The core mission of the church is disciple making (Matt. 28:18–20; Col. 1:27–29).
  • Everyone’s highest allegiance is to King Jesus, as everyone seeks to trust and follow him in all things (Acts 2:36).
  • Cross-shaped-love is the hallmark and central attribute of this church community (John 13:34-35).
  • The church asks for greater engagement than just Sunday morning, as everyone seeks to be disciples and make disciples both publicly and from house to house (Acts 2:42-47).
  • The people live holy lives, as they uphold God’s standards when it comes to sexuality, greed, addictions, hatred, slander, and the like (Gal. 5:19-21).
  • Parents in resilient churches disciple their children with the goal of raising them to be true, real-life, tough-minded, and faithful disciples of Jesus (Deut. 6:6-9).

In short, a resilient church believes that Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords, and he alone guides our lives and determines our eternal destiny.

A cancel culture has less power over the members of a community like that than it has over any other community we can envision. The Roman world of the early centuries tried to cancel the early church, the original version of the resilient church we just described. It eventually failed. The resilient church can succeed again.

We must renew the resilient church.

We recently had a conversation with a RENEW.org Regional Director in Eastern Canada, Tim Cook. He described, as many Canadians describe, what it is like to live in a post-Christian world. Single digit percentages attend church. A church of 200 is considered a large church. A lot of privileges American churches enjoy, such as full-time vocational ministries, have faded away. The Canadian churches that want to make it are strategizing on how to be resilient.

The middle and southern States in America appear to be only a few years behind Canada in some of these progressions. The eastern and western coasts are already there. We asked Tim, “If you had one piece of advice to give to the American church, what would it be?”

Tim answered, “Focus on disciple making. You catch what you fish for. If they came for the great show, they’ll often leave as quickly as they came.”

Tim’s got the answer. How do we renew the church to be resilient in an age of cancelation?

Focus on countercultural disciple making.

In a cancel culture, we will be seeing a lot of groveling apologies in desperate attempts to win back what was lost.

But when it comes to groveling before the cancel squad or giving up convictions, we disciples of Jesus are given a much better alternative to excessive apologizing. The biblical alternative is joy. Why? Because every loss is yet another reminder to value the things God gives us that we can’t lose.

Disciples of Jesus face cancel culture not by groveling, but by resilience.

Disciples of Jesus face cancel culture, not by groveling, but by resilience. We face versions of cancelation as opportunities to reaffirm our hope in “a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called our God, for he has prepared a city for us” (Heb. 11:16). The author of Hebrews applauded the early Christians, explaining that “you…accepted with joy the confiscation of your possessions, because you know that you yourselves have a better and enduring possession” (Heb. 10:34, CSB). In light of current trends, Hebrews 10:34 might be the most fitting verse you’ll memorize in a cancel culture.

Better and enduring are the eternal focus of the resilient.


[1] Richard Hughes, “Reclaiming a Heritage,” Restoration Quarterly, Volume 37/Number 3 Third Quarter 1995, 129.