As the nation continues to work through the angst or jubilation of Donald Trump’s election as President (depending on whether you’re a Democrat or Republican), one segment is particularly relieved—the evangelical church. Over the last few years the government has encroached into the arena of religious liberty to the degree that many of us were wondering how long it would be before we would face legal action or civil lawsuits if we failed to conform to new laws regarding marriage, sexuality and public expressions of our faith.
I wouldn’t say that now the pressure is off. The arc of moral behavior continues to bend away from Christian tradition, and America’s legal, economic, educational and cultural beliefs as well as practices are moving steadily away from biblical standards. It’s just that President-elect Trump seems to hold more respect for the church’s role in America’s public life than did President Obama. The onerous demands of the Department of Education on local school districts regarding transexualism; the Justice Department’s investigations of religious organizations; even the IRS’s slow-walking of the applications of conservative religious groups for non-profit status—these are the kinds of actions that evangelicals believe will come to an end. There will continue to be challenges, lawsuits and complaints about the Christian influence in America, but the momentum against the church we were seeing over the last couple of years will surely slow down.
I’m not saying the church in America is going to return to the 1950s—nor do I think we should. I hope the church will never again be so entangled in the state that we lose our sense of identity and purpose. Churches in that earlier era were so closely identified with the political power structure that they weren’t able to maintain the kind of prophetic distance necessary in order for their ministries to have integrity and real spiritual authority. My own Southern Baptist denomination failed this test badly in our opposition to the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King. We were so invested in the status quo that we couldn’t see the gospel truth of Rev. King. That’s why I often return to Philippians 3:20 as the touchstone for a realistic understanding of our place in America: “Out citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
It feels like we’re in an in-between time, a season when anti-Christian forces are held at bay even though the long-term outlook remains thoroughly secular, if not hostile. Sooner or later, I expect the combination of Big Government, Big Business, and Big Law to once again begin their slow steady erosion of religious liberty. The church right now has a window of opportunity to establish a presence, a foundation, a credibility that we’ll need—and need badly—when the window closes.
How do we in evangelical churches live, minister and worship in the Age of Trump? First, don’t try to jump back into political power. The days of the Moral Majority are over—and I’m not sure they did any good to start with. Our integrity as a force for the Kingdom is our first priority.
Second, don’t get sucked back into the whirlwind of building more and more buildings. The golden age of church building was in the 1980s and 1990s when growing churches across America sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into building ever larger facilities with the expectation that if you built it, the people would come. Many of those buildings now are half-full; many others are closed altogether. We need to turn away from the temptation of building impressive new buildings in this new era of relative freedom and instead invest in mission and outreach. Younger generations could care less about what our buildings look like; they want to encounter the genuine power of the Kingdom of God. When the worm turns and our nation once again enters a cycle of opposition to the Christian faith, I’d much rather face it with a congregation of mature, passionate believers ready to die for their faith than with an impressive building half full of prosperous people.
Third, let’s keep our churches and ministries simple, clean and uncluttered. The New Testament calls the church to do only a few things: worship, evangelism and discipleship, and caring for desperate people. The more we get complicated—and the great temptation of large, growing churches is always to do more and more—the more we dilute the simplicity and purity of the gospel.
I don’t know if it’s a good idea to call the next four years (or eight) the Age of Trump, but I do know that the status of America’s churches has substantially improved with his election. We have the opportunity to move forward with the gospel in ways that must a few months ago we didn’t have. Let’s make the most of it.