Christians in the Public Arena: Our Calling from God

“My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world…. My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message” – John 17:15-18, 20

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” – Matthew 5:13-16

“Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” – Genesis 28:16

As people around the world listen to the news each day, two questions reverberate in our minds, (1) “What can be done?” and (2) “Who will do it?” Whether we are watching as over 200,000 gallons (about 800,000 litres) of oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico each day, or hearing of the lives lost in train crashes in India and China, or the continuing violence and tensions between North and South Korea, the problems seem so large and overwhelming that we are inclined to throw up our hands in resignation.

As Chuck Colson once asked, “Where is the hope? I meet millions of people who feel demoralized by the decay around us.” Colson continues to answer this question by saying,

The hope that each of us has is not in who governs us, or what laws we pass, or what great things we do as a nation. Our hope is in the power of God working through the hearts of people….that’s where our hope is in life.

To expound further, our hope is not in any specific or particular institution around us; rather, it is through the power of God working through individual Christians.

This includes Christians working in the private areas of our lives—in our hearts, in our families, and among our friends. However, it also includes Christians working in the public areas of our lives—in government, business, education, science, and media, arts, music, etc.

Christians and the public arena for the most part have not been peaceful bedfellows. Often, Christians are portrayed in the media as strident fundamentalist protesters calling for values the public has long since deemed unpopular and/or outdated.

Additionally, Christians have often retreated into private ghettos, deeming the public sphere as “too messy” or “too dirty.” Both are extreme caricatures and not entirely valid. More importantly, neither approach is biblically validated.

Christ calls his believers to be in the world but not of the world. Christ’s own high priestly prayer asks the Father not to take them out of the world, but to protect them from the evil one (John 17:15). Christians are called to be in the world as active participants, not to forfeit their voices by removing themselves from the world into their own private ghettos. This is because Christ’s purpose is for “those who will believe in [him] through their message” (John 17:20). We are called to be active in the public arena—to deliver his message of hope so others will believe in him.

Christians are also called to deliver this message of hope not stridently, but naturally. Just as salt’s main role in a dish is not to call attention to itself, but rather to preserve and enhance the flavors around it, Christians are called to preserve and enhance goodness wherever we are.

And although salt is not to call attention to itself, it must not lose its distinctiveness or it is useless. In the same way, Christians must not lose our distinctiveness and merely conform to the ways of this world; rather, we must add our own flavor and the Lord’s preserving power into the world. Just as the purpose of light is not to draw attention to itself, but to dispel darkness and to illuminate and highlight what is around us, so too are Christians to dispel darkness and to illuminate or highlight truth wherever we are.

Wherever we are actively connecting with the world constitutes the public arena, whether in the halls of trade, the academy, restaurants, or scientific laboratories. The public arena is not reserved solely for Hollywood and government. Although many of us want to see those in media living out their faith to encourage us, more often it is through people like Ralph Winter, who quietly but deeply impact their fields as salt and light. Both Ralph Winter (USCWM), as well as Ralph Winter (producer of X-men Trilogy, Star Trek movies) became two of the most influential and respected Christians in their fields. With their extraordinary credentials and meticulous, uncompromising work, both have earned a right to be heard. Additionally, both have been active in mentoring and encouraging Christians in their fields.

We must work toward creatively engaging the public arena with excellence in our work and testimony and furthering development of personal relationships in not only mentoring and encouraging fellow Christians in our fields, but also in reaching our colleagues as salt and light.

It is my hope and prayer that we are able to creatively and successfully engage the public arena with a better understanding of the marketplace and the media, and a better understanding to connect with people personally and dynamically. I pray that the studies and meditations in this issue would inspire us to recognize where God is already at work in the world and engage with him by being salt and light to bring the gospel to all.

Doug Birdsall is executive chair of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. He served as president of Asian Access from 1991 to 2007 and continues to serve on their board of directors. Birdsall is a graduate of Wheaton College, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Harvard University. He is co-publisher of Lausanne World Pulse.