No one less than Robert Louis Wilken (an acquaintance of mine) was asked how modern culture and ancient Roman culture presented similar challenges to the Church. He wrote: In some ways [they are similiar], yes: this culture is no longer our culture. It still has many Christian elements in it: the calendar (with major holidays like Christmas and Easter—though even they have been denuded), church architecture, choral music (much of which is Christian), art, and the like. But with the passing of each generation, the sensibility of the culture is less Christian. The feeling of being a distinct minority was very much the experience of early Christians. But our situations are different in one key respect: today we in the West live in a post-Christian world, in an aggressive secular culture. This culture has known Christianity, and it is bitter toward Christianity; the culture is in revolt against what existed before. Ancient paganism did not have that kind of bitterness. It was curious about Christianity, even incredulous. (Emphasis added)
There are many who have lip synced the common assertion that we are facing the same kind of challenges today that Christianity once faced in its earliest life. While there are certainly commonalities between the positions, there is one unique difference. Paganism had never even heard of Christianity and found itself curiously attracted to the claims of this new faith. As antagonistic as Roman and pagan culture was to Christian faith and preaching, it was also drawn to the ideas that formed the core of the kerygma. What drew their interest was the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and the consequences of this resurrection for those who believe in Him. In other words, the whole idea of new and everlasting life stood in stark contrast to the limits of the moment and it piqued their curiosity about this new faith. They were hungry for the prospect of life beyond death.
In contrast today, our culture has adopted the idea that everyone will live after death -- some vague spiritual existence maybe, but some sort of existence, nonetheless. They don't hunger for this nor do they need a faith to introduce this idea. They expect a spiritual existence to transcend death and no one seems to live in much fear that such an existence might not be all that fulfilling (they have little real fear of hell or some sort of equivalence). Since our people today expect that some sort of spiritualized life will continue past death, they no longer need to focus upon this or shape their lives in anticipation of this and are thus free to indulge fully and freely into everything this present moment offers (emphasis here upon pleasure).
A second difference is the attention the early Christian martyrs drew to Christianity. Theirs was a faith that could not be compromised and compelled them to risk all and even death in order to be faithful to its doctrine and life. In contrast to this unbending commitment to the truth that is Jesus Christ, Christianity today is soft and flexible, easily bended and shaped by the culture and quick to jettison its most basic tenants and longest held convictions in the face of question or challenge. Look, for example, at how quickly many Christians adopted a cultural shape of worship that fully embraced the moden penchant for technology, video, and entertainment or how quickly many Christians changed their minds about such things as abortion, same sex relationships and marriage, etc... They ditched the long held positions of the church before them in order to adopt positions more friendly to the move of modern culture. Sure, there are many people still dying for the faith (look at the Middle East) but it seems modern Christianity is not willing to risk even a hangnail for the sake of Christ and the faith yesterday, today, and forever the same.
Finally Wilken reminds us that the church in its earliest days had full confidence in their leaders. They not only paid attention to their leaders but they followed them much more willingly than the average Christians will hear and heed their leaders today. In fact, we tend to view the leaders of the church with the same disdain and suspicion we view our political leaders in Washington. There is, thus, little discipline of the faith and of the faithful. Each person ends up being the arbiter of what will be believed and lived out in the name of Christianity. The stance of the church is questioned first by the faithful even before those outside the faith have had their two cents worth at what is believed, taught, and confessed.
Modern culture is not curious about Christianity but has tasted it and spit it out. Modern culture detests the taste of doctrine and truth, of disciplined confession and practice, of public piety and faithfulness. We live in a world unfriendly to Christianity -- not because it has never encountered it -- no, modern culture presumes it knows all about Christianity and has decided that Christianity was found wanting, offensive, and objectionable. It has rejected the faith. And now its goal is to marginalize the faith, the faithful, and the church.