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Insights & Opinions | November 20, 2012

Seek the welfare of the city


As we prepare for life in post-Christian America, we should look to our brothers and sisters leading the way in other countries

©iStockPhoto/Denise Bush

The results of the election left many Americans almost paralyzed with disappointment, wringing their hands as they think about what the future holds. The Republican Party writ large seems to be in a tailspin, but so too are many Christians who oppose the Obama administration and its policies.

The election seemed to codify a trend building for decades: The U.S. is headed toward a post-Christian epoch. If it doesn't reverse course, American Christians will have to figure out what this change means for us as individuals. We'll also have to learn what it means for the life of the polity.

Of this much I'm sure: Hand wringing isn't the right response.

Greg Fleming doesn't think so either. Fleming is the CEO of the Maxim Institute, a conservative think tank in New Zealand that researches and advocates for particular national policies, much like Heritage Foundation does in the U.S. Fleming, 42, also founded and now chairs the board of Compass, an organization that seeks to illuminate the different worldviews vying for influence in New Zealand and Australia, not unlike my employer, Summit Ministries. For the last six months, I've had the pleasure of getting to know him and his family while he's been on sabbatical in the States.

Living in the center of public policy debate, Fleming has a front-row seat to watch a secularized, post-Christian culture play out in the public square. But he also holds a position not many men of his stature would. For seven years he's held a seat on his local school board. He does it because he obviously cares about his kids and the education they get. But he also cares about his local community.

According to Fleming, caring for a smaller community may be the key to living life well in the post-Christian public sphere.

This isn't a new idea. The philosopher Edmund Burke spoke of a love for "the little platoon" to which we belong--local communities and organizations. In his trademark work Democracy in America, French writer Alexis de Tocqueville observed it was these local communities and organizations that made America's silhouette against the backdrop of western civilization so sharp. In Scripture we're told the same by the prophet Jeremiah: "But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare." (Jeremiah 29:7)

Scripture tells us, and reality confirms, that sometimes the best way to "engage culture," "change the world" and all those other platitudes is to stop looking so far off. National politics is sexy. It's flashy. It's seemingly everywhere. But our gazes should be fixed closer to home, at the local level.

"When I look at the teachings of Christ, he nearly always takes his stories and his instructions down to the level of your neighbor, to the person right beside you," Fleming said. "He seldom escalates it to the levels of government. Yes, engaging with [federal] government is important; we would be remiss not to be engaged with that machine. But I do not think for one moment that that is the primary outworking of the Gospel."

If the U.S. really is headed toward a post-Christian age, we ought to look to other examples for prudent public engagement. In New Zealand, a country roughly four square miles larger than Colorado, with the population of Kentucky, only a small percentage of people describe themselves as Christians. But discussion of Christian beliefs and ideals rarely reaches the public square, Fleming said: "This persists largely because of the lack of courage or the lack of know-how of Christians to speak into the public debate."

Sound familiar?

While it's true that these types of conditions put the onus on us to better communicate our ideals, it really pressures us to lead by virtue of lives well lived. Thriving local communities - even at the family level - will always make the best argument for certain public policy at higher levels. But more than that, we ought to genuinely care for our local communities. The danger of an untempered focus on the higher echelons of power is that it can lead to utopianism, an ideology antithetical to Scripture's narrative, because it is based solely on man's doing. Grand visions of society's golden age demonstrate a dangerous ideology, Fleming told me.

It's been 11 years since Fleming took the helm of Maxim, nine since he founded Compass. After more than a decade of deep thought and an examination of these issues, he's just now realizing what it will take to transform culture, he said: "I think now I'm ready to lead. It's taken 11 years of really focusing on this. Eleven years of trials, mistakes, of being a parent. Of being a husband. And of thinking deeply."

As we prepare for a post-Christian America, we should follow Greg Fleming's example.

Michael Reneau is communications manager for Summit Ministries, a worldview education ministry based in Manitou Springs, Colo. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelReneau.