Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence & Can Begin Rebuilding It, by Greg Forster. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014. 313 pp. $18.99.
Christianity has lost its impact on American civilization. In fact, in North America and Europe, “pessimism about whether Christianity itself has a place in civilization” is prevalent (18). How have we come to this, and how can we turn the tide? Greg Forster, program director at the Kern Family Foundation, takes a discerning look at the true causes of this loss and prescribes a plan for regaining Christian influence in America. Forster (PhD, Yale University) is a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, editor of the blog Hang Together, and a regular contributor to the Gospel Coalition, First Thoughts, and other online resources. He has authored numerous articles and books on theology, economics, political philosophy, and education policy.
The key to influencing America, Forster believes, is joy—true joy from the Holy Spirit that transforms us in mind, heart, and life, and which overflows into civilization. To truly impact the world for Christ, Forster states you must “train and prepare yourself to infuse the joy of God into your daily participation in human civilization” (278). This joy affects how we relate to other believers, how the Spirit uses the church to further this transformative work, and how we interact with the world. The joy of the Lord, Forster argues, changes people even before they truly have faith in the Lord (22).
To begin with, Forster challenges common Christian thinking about America’s inception. The American social order, he contends, is not and never was a Christian one. Our nation’s founders espoused a great variety of religious beliefs, and even some who claimed to be Christian were not orthodox (39). Rather, America was organized around freedom of religion, which drives how we deal with all other policy and social questions (45). The result, therefore, is that the relationship between the church and the social order is necessarily ambiguous (41).
Religious freedom is dependent upon a society in which people are allowed to disagree (47), but it is also dependent upon people being religious in some way, who will uphold moral standards (50). As Evangelicals witnessed moral decay and saw American society begin to break down, they tried to intervene with Christian activism aimed at quick results, but these efforts were inadequate and actually resulted in society having a greater impact on Christianity than the other way around. The church was relegated to “a sort of spiritual entertainment center” or “a marketing agency for secular do-gooder movements” (60).
The lesson is this: we cannot force religion on people; we can only show them how the gospel lived out can transform one’s life and society for the better. However, this is a slow process with no quick strategies (62). “The more a Christian intentionally cultivates the joy of God in daily life, the more deeply embedded the joy of God will become in American civilization, through him” (77). It starts, according to Forster, with pastors who preach the Word, but also know their congregations and their culture. In this way they can “make biblical knowledge effective to change the lives of congregants,” nurturing the joy of God, which then in turn will impact American civilization (127).
Next, we must learn when it is appropriate to share our faith explicitly and when it is better to show our faith through our actions (279). When we make every situation about “Christians evangelizing heathens,” we dehumanize people and undermine our efforts to spread the gospel (280). On the other hand, “implicit evangelism doesn’t just mean ‘be a nice person.’ It means infusing the radical, life-changing gospel into everything we do” (284).
We must be realistic about our spheres of influence, or stewardship, and other people’s spheres of influence. We must realize what is within our control and what is not, “neither overestimating nor underestimating [our] ability to change social dynamics and get positive results” (287). Finally, Forster admonishes that we must stop striving for immediate victory and persevere in doing the right things for the right reasons, trusting God to “accomplish things in his own good time, through the unfolding processes of human history” (290).
Forster’s greatest strength is his ability to step back from the culture war of Christian versus non-Christian and identify the truth of what American society is and where Christians stand. He does not just focus on one aspect of society, but affirms that the church needs to interact with all of society, “politics, education, worldview, evangelism, emotions, causes,” and encourages Christians to think seriously about these issues (58). He combats accommodationism and activism and claims that the most important element is that which only the Holy Spirit gives: the joy of God. That is the one thing that cannot be duplicated in the world (59). This is how Christianity can regain its influence in American culture.
This book is essential for every Christian scholar or layman who sincerely desires to have an impact on the world. Its principles apply not only to American society, but also to societies at large. It is critically relevant and important at this time, as it unveils the mistakes Evangelicals continue to make as they attempt to reach the world, and reveals how we can truly make a lasting difference for the Kingdom.
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Fort Worth, TX