I led our H2O interns through a life-mapping exercise a couple of weeks back. We talked about looking for Spiritual Inukshuks, as I often do with interns. Even though it takes some explanation, I think this concept from Inuit culture and iconography really help highlight one’s path through what can often feel like a featureless landscape. Anyway: in the course of applying the metaphor of Spiritual Inukshuks to our own lives, we all spent some time in reflection and journaling. I’ve done this many times before, with many groups of H2O interns. But this time around, I made some new connections with the route I’ve traced over the last twenty-five years of more meaningfully walking by faith in Jesus. And one thing was particularly striking: the way that God has repeatedly compelled me to be a part of proclaiming Christ in Post-Christian contexts.
Going to College at Bowling Green State University
It started with my move from Shelby, Ohio, to Bowling Green, Ohio, as an eighteen-year-old college freshman. In particular, this recent round of reflection reminded me of a consistent message that I heard from people in my extended family and in my home church: “Watch out! You’re heading into a hostile environment. That’s going to be a tough place to be a Christian. Beware!” BGSU had a reputation as a party school at that time. And I really did come face-to-face with the brokenness of our Post-Christian society while there. Alcohol abuse and sexual abuse were common. Drunk drivers killed others and ended up being killed, themselves. Women were abused in the campus residence halls where I lived, by men who lived in the campus residence halls where I lived. And in my classes, I learned about entire categories of people around the world who were being oppressed and ignored.
But, just as unsettling (in a different way), I met atheists… and Democrats… and stoners who were genuinely decent people. I learned that Post-Christian society was not necessarily evil. It was just unreached. And there were not only hardships in such a space. There were opportunities, as well.
Ironically, my time in that “hostile environment” of the college campus ended up being a time of significant spiritual growth for me. I tapped into a more “underground” sort of Christian community. These believers weren’t demanding or expecting political power or preferential treatment from the establishment. They just wanted to live the Christian life and look for ways to include others: or, to phrase it slightly differently: “Proclaiming Christ in Post-Christian Contexts.” Many of the Christians I met in college were hockey players and pranksters. They were fun, but they were also intellectual and authentic. They were idealistic and serious about the Bible, studying the book as if it was something new and revolutionary. And through them, I got to know Jesus in a more meaningful, more personal way at Bowling Green State University.
Going on Staff to Do Collegiate Ministry
When I chose to go on staff with H2O at the end of college, there were many motivating factors. But one particular motivation was intentionally proclaiming Christ in the “Post-Christian” context of Bowling Green State University. I knew from personal experience that there was an opportunity there. And as I talked about this opportunity regularly with prospective ministry partners, more and more fuel was added to the fire. They got excited about this ministry opportunity. I got excited about this ministry opportunity. And when I got back to campus, after five months of raising support, I jumped right into action.
During this time, I saw stoners become Christians, and then student-leaders for our church. I saw guys make deliberate decisions to depart from worldly standards for sexuality and meaningfully pursue women, while both of them continued to meaningfully pursue Jesus. I witnessed the transformative power of Christ in a space that was supposedly “Post-Christian.” And it changed the way that I looked at culture and Christianity.
Moving Out on Mission to Amsterdam
Our church grew considerably during my time in Bowling Green. In fact, it grew to the point that we started thinking, talking, and praying about opportunities to replicate the experience elsewhere. We wanted to find a place that had a lot of young people, a place that could serve as a strategic crossroads location with the potential to sow seeds of the Gospel around the world, and a place that needed churches. And through a long search process (which I won’t detail here), our focus fell to Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
We traveled to Amsterdam in May of 2001 with a team of thirty young adults. The vast majority of our two weeks in the city were spent going out, two-by-two, meeting random strangers and striking up conversation. What do you think about God? What do you think about church? How would you describe your spiritual beliefs? We had a lot of interesting conversations. However, in all of these conversations, we didn’t meet a single person who had ever even been to a church before! Talk about “Post-Christian!”
Later that summer, we decided to move to Amsterdam and work together to start a new church, proclaiming Christ in that Post-Christian context. To make a very long story very short, we eventually managed to succeed in this endeavor. But we learned a lot in the process! We went through a process of deconstructing and reconstructing almost every aspect of our Christian lives. Still, we kept proclaiming Christ — even inviting others into our messy process of figuring things out, ourselves. And in time, we found our footing. We learned how to be the church in Post-Christian contexts. Even today, more than a decade past our decade in the Netherlands, I’m still drawing deeply from the experiences that we had over there in Europe.
A Return to (Increasingly) Post-Christian Ohio
We decided to move back to Ohio in 2012. And it took us quite a while to adjust, culturally and spiritually. Over time, though, we noticed the ways that Northeast Ohio (and particularly the Northeastern Ohio college campus) was starting to trend more and more from “Christian Culture” to “Post-Christian Culture.”
Generally, we’re talking less and less about America’s “Judeo-Christian values” and more and more about living as a pluralistic society. I understand, of course, that this is a hard transition for many American Christians. But I feel like an important part of my ministry over these last ten years has been speaking hope to the church even in the midst of these shifting dynamics. It’s almost like I’ve traveled to the future in a time machine, and I’ve come back with perspective to help chart a course forward. Namely: “Proclaiming Christ in Post-Christian Contexts” is not impossible! If anything, it might be closer to what we read about in the New Testament.
I hope to keep thinking, talking, and praying through these things for decades to come. But I guess I just wanted to mark this observation about the surprising synergy through all of the disparate twists and turns in my years of following Jesus. How great to discover some unifying element after all this time! It’s been a long and winding road, over my last twenty-five years of Proclaiming Christ in Post-Christian contexts. But I’m glad to be on this path.