How did Christianity lose its cultural influence and how can it begin rebuilding it again? That’s the question Greg Forster asks in Joy For The World. And his answer is implied in the title – joy! Yes, real, unique, holistic, Spirit-produced Christian joy is THE most vital tool for engaging our culture AND changing it.
Greg begins with memories of his largely non-Christian childhood, in which his most memorable experiences of joy were associated with Christmas when it expressed a truly Christian, Jesus-centered spiritual celebration. None of these brief annual encounters with Christian joy created or resulted from a real Christian faith, but Greg argues that they made him more receptive to the Christian message later on, prepared him for faith, and even made him a better person in the meantime.
Although he doesn’t want to make his experience the rule for everyone, he insists that his experience is quite common.
I don’t think it’s unusual for people outside the church to be powerfully changed by the way they encounter the joy of God through Christians’ participation in their civilization.
He then clarifies what he means by the joy of God:
I’m not talking about an emotion. I mean the state of flourishing in mind, heart, and life that Christians experience by the Holy Spirit.
This, says Forster, is what’s so missing from today’s culture.
I think Christianity is losing its influence in contemporary America because people outside the church just don’t encounter the joy of God as much as they used to.
This book then is a challenge to Christian to “help our neighbors encounter the joy of God through the way we behave in society.”
This really is quite revolutionary, isn’t it. So many of our evangelistic and apologetic methods are so heady, so rational, so intellectual, so logical…and so miserable and angry and joyless and ineffectual.
But don’t think that this is some shallow and superficial book that just appeals to the emotions at the expense of truth. The author is a Yale PhD, a program director at the Kern Family Foundation, and a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. The book itself is a demanding read and will probably become required reading in many Christian colleges and worldview courses.
But for all the intellectual firepower directed at flawed approaches to cultural engagement, the basic message is consistent: the joy of God alone is what makes the church distinct from the world.
The clincher verse for me was when Greg referenced Psalm 126 and asked:
Consider the relationship in this passage between the joy of God among God’s people and the way the nations respond to God’s people. What do the nations notice about God’s people? “The LORD has done great things for them.” And how do they notice that? “Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.”
Time for some laughter, people!
This book will test you but it will also teach you. You’ll learn a lot about the historical and philosophical roots of today’s culture and the church’s disengagement from it. But you’ll also be challenged to re-think your disengagement or your faulty engagement. It’s a book then for the head as well as for the heart.
Tomorrow I want to look at the most radical proposal in the book. It’s going to make some VanTillians’ hair stand on end, if not fall out.