Is Christianity Too Narrow in Our Culture?
Is Christianity too outdated and narrow-minded to be relevant?
We don’t need historians to tell us that Western culture has changed enormously in the last century. Just think about technology innovations—the way we now travel, how we communicate, or the information and opportunities available at our fingertips, just a quick Google search away.
Consider the cultural advances we have made with civil rights. African-Americans are no longer segregated in our school systems and society. Women can vote. And anyone with drive and determination can pursue the American dream.
Reflect on the choices we now have—where we live, what we do, with whom we associate, what we buy, and the lifestyle we create for ourselves. It’s no secret that, in Western culture at least, we have reached a place that our ancestors could never have dreamed of.
Which, of course, raises a question: Why would anyone in our modern culture still cling to relics of the past? For twenty-first-century people, what good are the ancient superstitions and close-minded restrictions of a book written by Middle Eastern peasants two thousand years ago? Isn’t Christianity—with its outdated, prudish beliefs—a step backward, not forward? To put it plainly: Isn’t Christianity too narrow for our progressive culture?
The Narrow Way
It is true that Christianity could be labeled as “narrow.” Simply put, Christianity is about trusting and following Jesus—a man who lived and died thousands of years ago. And he himself said: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”1
Sounds a bit like a hellfire and brimstone sermon, doesn’t it? It seems to be saying that many of us are on the path to destruction, but Jesus’ way is narrow, exclusive, and hard to follow.
On one level, this may be true, but many who call themselves Christians would offer a different perspective. Following Jesus may sometimes go against the grain in our culture, they would say, but it is not exclusive, outdated, restrictive, or irrelevant to life today. In fact, many believers say that following the life and teachings of Jesus is the one thing that gives true meaning and fulfillment in our modern culture.
Perhaps Jesus’ ancient teachings and examples have endured not in spite of a changing culture but because of a changing culture. Some would argue that in a world of tremendous change, uncertainty, affluence, and modern luxury, Christianity is the one thing that our souls need the most.
Meaning and Life Now
For example, there are several key areas in our lives and culture today where this “narrow way” provides significant meaning.
Christianity gives meaning to our work.
Unfortunately, many of us do not find much meaning in our jobs or careers. We get up in the morning, check e-mail, and then work on isolated tasks all day long—often feeling like one cog among hundreds in a never-ending machine.
Whether it’s crunching financial numbers, making sales calls, waiting on customers, hammering nails, or keeping kids out of the principal’s office, it’s easy to feel like our work is tedious and largely meaningless. What difference do I really make? Take me away and the company will move on just fine without me, we think.2
But following Jesus means that all of our work—no matter how small and seemingly insignificant—is part of a larger story. It is done “for the glory of God” and to advance the common good of humanity.3 It is part of God’s mission to bring redemption, restoration, and meaning to every nook and cranny of our lives, families, neighborhoods, and culture.4
Christianity gives meaning to morality.
Sure, the Bible is often thought of as a list of rules—things you can and can’t do (with an emphasis on the can’ts). But what if following the teachings of Jesus and the Bible is more about embracing a way of life that gives the most life?
And what would society look like if there was no moral foundation—no North Star or compass to guide the way we live and treat each other? Left to our own devices, who’s to say we would make good decisions? Or would even know what good is?
It wasn’t long ago in our own “modern” culture that Martin Luther King Jr. stood up to say with firm Christian conviction: “The way our society treats black people is wrong; it is not what God intended.”5
Christianity gives unique meaning to relationships.
Cultures throughout history have honored the power of family, friendship, and the bonds we create with fellow humans. But we live in an increasingly fragmented culture: many families are broken; we have more Facebook friends than real friends; we long for authentic community amidst the poverty of cities and the isolation of suburbs.
Into this culture, the Christian community carries a distinct voice. Jesus and the apostle Paul taught that we could experience a new kind of community and family characterized by love, forgiveness, acceptance, and inclusion in the face of so much splintering and exclusion.6
Christianity gives real meaning to the nature of life itself.
In Jesus’ words, putting our faith in him and following him brings not just life, but “life . . . to the full”7 and “eternal life.”8
These words are not just about the afterlife, as if being a Christian is just about escaping punishment and “getting to heaven” when you die. That belief is itself a narrow and outdated misconception.
Jesus meant that following him brings an abundant life that has no end—a fulfilling and meaningful life that begins in the present, in this world, in our lives now.9 In other words, Christianity is not about fleeing earth for heaven but about bringing heaven to earth today.10
Of course, Jesus’ words about the way of life, love, and righteousness were spoken long ago, during a time and in a culture that was very different from ours. And the details of how people have practiced their faith in centuries past may look quite different from how Christians do now. But the deeper truths and larger story of the Bible have remained relevant to people searching for meaning today.11
We have many choices—from the products we buy and the time we spend to the various religious options of a pluralistic society. These are good qualities of our modern culture. But one invitation continues to beckon us. It is not a narrow, exclusive, or restrictive command. Rather, it is the simple invitation of Jesus to all who are interested: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”12
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Matthew 7:13–14.
- Many philosophers, sociologists, and theologians of the twentieth century have described this phenomenon of Western industrialized society. One noted how “the workers in the factory are related to each other anonymously as units in a mechanized process. They are replaceable parts.” Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 31.
- See The Holy Bible, 1 Corinthians 10:31, 1 Thessalonians 4:10–12, and Jeremiah 29:7.
- Ibid., Colossians 1:15–20.
- For more background on Martin Luther King Jr., his convictions, and the Civil Rights Movement, see Martin Luther King Jr., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. (New York: Warner Books, 1998).
- See The Holy Bible, John 13:34–35 and 15:9–17, and Ephesians 4:25–32.
- Ibid., John 10:10.
- Ibid., John 17:3.
- See N. T. Wright, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperCollins, 2008).
- Note Jesus’ famous prayer in Matthew 6:9–10: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
- For an excellent introduction in regard to reading the Bible this way, see Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003).
- The Holy Bible, Matthew 11:28.
- Photo Credit: InnvervisionArt / Shutterstock.com.