“Older Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Israel. Younger Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Babylon.” —Trevin Wax
The more I think about this quote from Trevin Wax’s recent 5 Observations about Younger Southern Baptists, the more I agree. I would even broaden it to include evangelical Millennials in general. I think it’s extremely relevant to the political field, the area to which Trevin applies it, but I don’t think it stops there.
When I look at how my peers (and I) view the relationship between the Church and society at large in comparison to how previous generations view that relationship, I see an ever-widening gap. As we continue to form our own ideas about the Church and culture rather than going along with those of others, we are realizing that many things are different than we once believed.
What does this contrast actually mean? The modern United States is clearly not biblical Israel or ancient Babylon in any literal sense, nor is this a discussion of dispensationalism (unless you want to take it that far, but that’s tiresome). This quote identifies the variance of the church-and-culture worldview between present generations. To me, it means something like this:
When I think about older generations of Christians viewing the U.S. as Israel, there are several generalizations at play. Many of those who grew up in the early and mid-20th century still see the United States as an undeniably Christian nation that has traditionally been (and should continue to be) guided by Christian principles and ideals in every aspect of society, from politics to art to business. Most see the Christian-ness of our nation as something that can and should be salvaged. We should expect our morality to be the standard in everything our culture produces, and if it doesn’t meet the standard, we should battle against it. These Christians often believe in using politics and stand-your-ground activism to keep modern society in check with their standards. It’s about playing defense, focusing on protection and preservation.
This certainly isn’t the mindset of all Christians in the Great, Silent, Boomer, and X generations, and all of these generalizations might not apply to any one person, but this is the overall mindset communicated when we talk about viewing the U.S. as Israel. There are also still some younger Christians who would hold to this thought process. I appreciate the tenacity of those who hold this outlook, and I think there are some good reasons many ascribe to it. But personally I do think that the times they are a’changin’ and sometimes a new perspective is needed.
The Millennial view of the U.S. is vastly different. If you keep to the analogy, we see ourselves as living as the exiled Jews in Babylon. Our society is post-Christian (depending on your definition). We accept that the values and guiding influences of our culture at large are secular, not Christian. The battle to preserve our Christian ideals is over, we didn’t win, and in the process we’ve alienated people with a defensive Church. For us, it’s not about salvaging– it’s about plowing new ground and planting new seeds. Missions is something to be done in your everyday life, because our nation is not a “church on every corner” Christian bubble. It’s a mission field where millions aren’t just failing to uphold Christian values, they’re failing to know Christ.
Instead of expecting our morality to be the standard, we celebrate when we see it in bits and pieces in the culture. We are more concerned with seeing stories of redemption than squeaky-clean language or flawless characters. We look for quality, creativity, and deeper meaning as marks of God’s image more than we look for adherence to a moral code.
Though I find it more applicable to our times, there are weaknesses to this worldview, too. We are often in danger of being so far in the world that it’s hard for anyone to tell we’re not of the world. While the Israel view often struggles to be relevant and winsome, the Babylon view often struggles to have a spine. We tend to be wishy-washy, and there are some things we should still stand up for.
The great thing about the Church is that we all– including different generations– are totally dependent on one another. The only reason any of us know the name of Jesus today is because God used the generations who came before us to pass it on. And the only reason any future generations will know the gospel is if God uses us to pass it on. We will hold different views, because our times will shape us in different ways, but we are called to be one Church in the short time we have together.
As Millennials, there’s a lot we can learn from those who hold the Israel view– both victories and mistakes. But there’s also a lot on our plate. We have much to contribute through how we see the world. God set us in this time and place for a reason. Living in Babylon is not easy. But it’s our little dot on the map of history.
So we adapt. We live, we work, we go where God calls us. We look for ways to relate. We don’t seek to reform behavior, we seek to make friends and form community centered around Christ. We do our best to stand up for the things worth fighting for, but always with people on our hearts. We carry a light that shines truer than the glitz of our culture, and we cling to a hope beyond our adopted home.
The truth is, this isn’t Israel or Babylon– this is 21st century America, and it’s its own beast altogether. God, give us not just the right perspective, but the right practice as we live here, now.
For a much more in-depth look at the different models by which the Church approaches culture, check out chapters 15-18 of Tim Keller’s Center Church, available here as an individual selection.