Historians can keep arguing about whether or not America was founded as a "Christian" country, but one thing is for sure: For most of this country's history, Christianity has been the dominate cultural force. From the engine behind social service outreaches, to the founding of our greatest educational institutions and hospitals, to prayers before government sessions and sporting events, the Christian faith has made an indelible mark on our society -- at least until recently.
Today that voice is in decline. Although a 2012 Pew Forum Study indicated that 73 percent of Americans still identify themselves as "Christian," that number would drop dramatically when it comes to significant areas of influence such as the media, academia, business, entertainment and more.
In my new book, "Unique: Telling Your Story in the Age of Brands and Social Media," I point out that Christianity has always had a love/hate relationship with the culture -- particularly the media. Historically, innovation and technology has more likely been perceived as a threat than friend. The Catholic Church rose up against the specter of the printing press, fearing the common man's ability to read the Bible for himself would undermine the Church's authority. As a result, William Tyndale spent most of his adult life running from the authorities, living among smugglers, and eventually being martyred, all for the "crime" of translating the Word of God into English.
Since that time, the Church has learned some important lessons. By 1833 the largest publisher in America, Harper and Company, boasted one horse-powered printing press and seven hand presses. But at the same time, the American Bible Society owned 16 new steam driven presses and 20 hand presses.
Early in the 20th century, the Church embraced motion pictures, radio, then television and now the Internet and social media. But in the vast majority of cases, we're not using those platforms to engage the greater culture, we're living inside a bubble. After all, why tweet, when you can join "Christian Chirp," the "Christian alternative to Twitter." And don't go to eHarmony or Match.com if you're looking for a Christian mate, use "Christian Mingle." From the web, to publishing, to record labels, TV networks, universities and more, the last 50 years have seen a remarkable withdrawal from mainstream culture and a move back to a cloistered, protective bubble.
In all honesty, the Church isn't losing it's voice, it's giving it away.
But Jesus never advocated protective bubbles, and never retreated from the challenges of the culture around him. Jesus spent his life where the people were -- in the marketplace, social gatherings, or the Temple Square -- and He wasn't afraid to answer the hard questions. And in Acts 17, the Apostle Paul went directly to the pagan philosophers at Mars Hill. He understood their beliefs as much as they did, and was so intriguing they invited him back. But today, when it comes to the culture around us, the Church is far more likely to protest, criticize and condemn, rather than actually engage.
To regain our voice and re-engage today's culture, we need to understand the power of perception. In the '80s, The Moral Majority may have been motivated by noble reasons, but to the greater culture, they were about condemnation, rather than grace. As a result, they were perceived as simply the frustrated and angry cry of those the culture had left behind.
The great challenge of the Church today is speaking into a culture that perceives us as an irrelevant, out of touch museum piece. During my lifetime, living by Judeo-Christian principles was assumed and taken for granted. We all new the rules, so it was acceptable to harshly question people who went against Bible teaching. But in a world where bestselling books are titled "God is Not Great," and hostility to the faith is championed by much of the culture, we must react differently if we're to engage the hearts and minds of those around us.
The Christian Church has to come to terms with the fact that while it's role in leading American culture may be over, it's voice at the table is not. That doesn't mean we side-step issues that matter, but we speak the truth in a way that engages rather than condemns. In a media-driven culture, perception matters. Two thousand years ago, an obscure, marginal group following the teachings of Jesus became the dominant religious force in the Western world. They didn't have political power, an army or vast wealth. But through their lifestyle, their relationships and their actions, they changed the perception of Rome, and eventually impacted the world.
Phil Cooke, Ph.D., is a filmmaker, media consultant, and author of 'Unique: Telling Your Story in the Age of Brands and Social Media.'
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