In Post-Christian America, Should Christians Retreat from Mission?

Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is the bestselling and most discussed religious book of the past year. In it Dreher argues that the past few decades in American life have revealed the extent to which Bible-believing Christians have been decentered socially, culturally, and politically. An increasing number of Americans—including those with cultural power—view historic Christianity as implausible, unimaginable, and even evil. The effect of this attitude on America’s social and cultural institutions has been devastating.

For this reason, Dreher exhorts us to strengthen the church while there is still time. He sees encouraging signs that Christians have begun to come to grips with the reality of a post-Christian America, but argues that we have yet to take the necessary steps to strengthen our churches, families, and local communities for the difficult years ahead.

Light in the New Dark Ages

In order to carve out a viable path for the future, he argues, we must cast our eyes back to St. Benedict of Nursia, the early medieval monk who retreated to the forest after Rome’s fall. Benedict built monastic communities undergirded by habits and values such as order, prayer, work, asceticism, stability, community, hospitality, and balance. As Dreher sees it, we should learn from those Benedictine communities so that our own American faith communities can be pockets of light in the new Dark Ages.

If Americans nurtured a Benedictine type of Christianity, Dreher avers, we would take a few steps in a monastic direction in every aspect of life, such as work, leisure, politics, and education. In other words, we would spend a lot less energy on social, cultural, and political engagement, and a lot more energy strengthening our families, churches, and local communities.

“Instead of taking a step or two in a monastic direction, we should take a step or two in a missionary direction in every sphere of life.”

Dreher concludes that though the American church would never ask to be decentered, it should recognize its marginalization as a golden opportunity. Losing social, cultural, and political influence might just be the thing that saves the church’s soul.

American Christians should be grateful for Rod Dreher’s insights and the concerns that animate The Benedict Option. With a keen eye, Dreher discerns the way sin and unbelief have corrupted and misdirected our nation’s cultural institutions and culture-makers. With pastoral concern, he urges Christians to nourish our identity in Christ by strengthening our churches, families, and other associations. With proper humility, his book repeatedly urges Americans to learn from Christians in other nations. With a persuasive pen, he urges us to prepare for the challenges of the future.

A “Yes” and a “No” to The Benedict Option

And yet, Christians with a vested interest in global mission should say both “yes” and “no” to the prescriptions in The Benedict Option. To Dreher’s admonition to build a resilient ecclesial counter culture, we should give a wholehearted and full-throated “yes!” He’s right that on the whole, our churches, families, and Christian institutions have been weakened and corrupted by the acids of contemporary secularism, hedonism, and consumerism. We should, therefore, make every effort to strengthen them.

But to his admonition for us to take a few steps in a monastic direction in every dimension of our lives, we should say “not quite.” To retreat would inevitably undermine the outward thrust of the Christian life. This outward movement can be seen in two of the Bible’s great imperatives—the cultural mandate and the Great Commission.

The outward thrust of Christian life can be seen, first of all, in an imperative that is often called the cultural mandate, but I call it the First Great Commission. In the first two chapters of Genesis, God instructed Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply” (1:22), “till the soil” (2:5) and “have dominion” (1:28). Let’s consider the three commands that make up the First Great Commission. The first command is social in nature, instructing men and women to build families and cover the face of the earth with worshipers of God. The second command is cultural, instructing Adam and Eve to take what God had made and to bring out creation’s raw potential, not only agriculturally but culturally. The third command is political in nature, instructing Adam and Eve to lovingly govern God’s good world.

“We must preach the gospel so that sinners can be saved from their sins and for a full-orbed life of worship, witness, and obedience.”

Outward movement in Christian mission can be seen, second of all, in an imperative often called the Great Commission. In Matthew’s version (28:18–20), the resurrected Christ instructs his disciples to make disciples of all the nations, baptizing people in the name of the Trinity, teaching everything Christ affirms, while looking expectantly for Christ’s return.

A Call to Step in the Missionary Direction

The First Great Commission shows us what “mission” would have looked like without the Fall. God’s people would have spread his glory across the face of the earth by multiplying worshipers, making culture that glorifies God, and lovingly managing God’s creation to the praise of his glory. Yet, because of the Fall, the Great Commission now takes on an additional, significant, and urgent dimension: we must preach the gospel so that sinners can be saved from their sins and for a full-orbed life of worship, witness, and obedience. Taken together, these commissions reveal the Christian life’s vibrant outward focus.

In sum, we should heed Dreher’s powerful call to build a strong ecclesial counterculture. Only by doing so can Christians weather the opposition we will face in years to come. Yet, instead of taking a step or two in a monastic direction, we should take a step or two in a missionary direction in every sphere of life. We should build a resilient ecclesial counterculture while heeding the Bible’s call to sow the seed of the gospel into every sector of society, every dimension of culture, and every peoples across the face of the globe. Only when doing so can we do full justice to the Christian mission.

When the risen Jesus said to the apostles, “As the Father has sent me, I also send you” (John 20:21), he showed them the holes in his hands and side, affirming that their public witness would also follow the way of the cross. Just as he had reigned from a tree, so they would minister “from a tree” (1 Pet. 2:24). Similarly, American Christians should embrace the call to be public witnesses for Christ, whether in cultural power or weakness. In the example of our crucified Savior, we must minister from a tree until the day when our Lord returns to reign visibly from a throne.


Bruce Ashford serves as provost and professor of theology and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the coauthor of Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians. You can follow at BruceAshford.net and on Twitter @BruceAshford.