[This article is also available in Turkish.]

As Christianity continues to decline in the West, the broader world has begun to notice something’s missing. There seems to be a growing awareness that—for all the scandals and failings of the church—the loss of a Christian culture leaves us all worse off, and that there are benefits to being a Christian and to living in a Christian society.

For example, Derek Thompson recently wrote in The Atlantic about the loss of community that comes with declining church attendance. “Maybe religion, for all of its faults, works a bit like a retaining wall,” he concluded, “hold[ing] back the destabilizing pressure of American hyper-individualism, which threatens to swell and spill over in its absence.”

Likewise, Harvard scholar Tyler J. VanderWeele has extensively researched the benefits of participation in religious services, finding that it leads to improved mental and physical health, happiness, and sense of meaning. Statistically, going to church regularly will help you flourish as a human being. As Brad Wilcox, a professor at the University of Virginia, has shown, regular church attendance even correlates with a more satisfying sex life!

And then you have those like former atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali who explain their conversion to Christianity at least partly as a response to the decay of the contemporary world, a world threatened by “woke ideology,” “global Islam,” and authoritarianism. “The only credible answer, I believe, lies in our desire to uphold the legacy of the Judeo-Christian tradition,” Hirsi Ali said in an essay announcing her new faith. Famous atheist Richard Dawkins objected to Hirsi Ali’s conversion yet seems to resonate with her reasoning, as he recently described himself as a “cultural Christian” in response to the growing influence of Islam in the UK.

What these arguments have in common is the recognition that Christianity is tangibly good for the human person and society. It improves our sex lives, mental health, and social networks, and it gives us a stability, order, and foundation for liberty and justice that the contemporary secular world can’t replicate. These are powerful reasons to become a Christian and encourage the spread of at least a superficially Christian culture—one that assumes the ethos of Christianity even if it doesn’t accept the orthodoxy of Christianity. After all, the data seems clear: A more Christian culture would produce more human flourishing.

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But is this awareness of Christianity’s measurable benefits a threat to authentic faith or an opportunity for the gospel?

On the one hand, as Christians who do accept the orthodox doctrines of the faith, it is unsurprising to us that living according to God’s law will produce blessings. Living against the grain of the universe is bound to cause harm to individuals and society alike. And since we are called to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile” (Jer. 29:7), we ought to advocate for policies, practices, and social norms that align with our Christian faith. If we believe that God’s will for our lives is to live according to his design of the universe, and if we love our neighbor, we should encourage our neighbor to live according to that design. In this light, even Dawkins’s faithless “cultural Christianity” is perhaps a small step in the right direction.

But God’s will for our lives is not just that we live according to his law. His will is that we know him through his Son, Jesus Christ. And this introduces a challenge for Christians as more people are becoming aware of the personal and social benefits of our faith: How do we proclaim the goodness of Christianity without turning it into just another tool for achieving well-being? In other words, we must ask ourselves whether a culture that adopts the virtues of our faith for its material benefits might perpetually neglect or even become inoculated against its spiritual benefits.

In a recent article about Dawkins’s comment, CT editor in chief Russell Moore expressed just this concern. “Christianity is not about national anthems and village chapels and candlelight carol sings,” he wrote. It isn’t simply not-Islam (as Dawkins would like) or not-wokeness (as Hirsi Ali wants). And if “the gospel isn’t real, the gospel doesn’t work. Genuine paganism will win out over pretend Christianity every time.” Christianity without orthodoxy—Christianity that is not a living faith in response to a living God—becomes nothing more than a social identity.

And the world is filled with social identities. If one can receive the material benefits of Christianity without actually believing the gospel, then why bother dying to self and living in radical obedience to Christ? As I argued in Disruptive Witness, the modern tendency is to view Christianity as a lifestyle option, not as a revealed truth from a transcendent God who entered into history in the form of Christ. If people come to Christianity only because they see it as a superior way to self-optimize, then when the demands of Christianity become too great, they will abandon it for some easier fad.

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In that context, it’s easy to imagine an alternative Christianity evolving that truly makes a mockery of the faith by denaturing it, removing the Christ from Christianity. Even worse, Christ could come to be understood as a mere symbol, a meme for a largely political movement which is utterly unconcerned with the truth of Scripture.

It’s easy to imagine this because it’s already happened for a long time in some segments of American Christianity. The social gospel of progressives who have abandoned core doctrines like the Resurrection is a perfect example. And on the political right, Christianity can become a form of civic religion, as in former president Donald Trump’s recent promotion of an America-themed Bible. Christianity is always at risk of being co-opted by those who want the material benefits of the faith without the spiritual reality of the gospel.

But is it necessarily the case that those attracted by the material benefits will fail to adopt a deep, personal, orthodox faith? Is it possible that people concerned about a world gone insane could come to faith via this mundane path—first drawn to the God-designed order that is inherent in Christianity, and then drawn to God himself? Is it possible that people who are lonely and depressed could come to faith by first being drawn to the God-designed community inherent in the church?

I see the real risks of cultural Christianity. But I believe unbelievers who are first attracted by the benefits, not the gospel, may yet stumble into the faith. They may seek God “and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:27).

There is danger here, and we must be wary of encouraging a superficial, denatured Christian culture. But we find ourselves with a remarkable opening to proclaim the gospel. Whether people come to church to socialize or out of obedience to God, they need to hear the gospel. Whether people show interest in Christianity because of their fears about progressive culture or because they are convinced about the historicity of the Resurrection, they need to hear the gospel.

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The challenge is to invite those who see the benefits of our faith to see that these are perfect gifts from the Father, not merely positive outcomes from an optimized lifestyle. The gospel is that invitation. Proclaiming it is how we can explain to our neighbors that Christian culture is good because it comes from a loving God who “richly blesses all who call on him” (Rom. 10:12), a God who desires them to repent and turn to him.

O. Alan Noble is associate professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University and author of three books: On Getting Out of Bed: The Burden and Gift of Living, You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World, and Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age.

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