European Leadership Forum kicks off in Poland, highlights need for Biblical attitude in post-Christian culture

By Timothy Goropevsek |
John Dickins speaking at the European Leadership Forum 2024 in Wisla, Poland
John Dickins speaking at the European Leadership Forum 2024 in Wisla, Poland | Christian Daily International

The European Leadership Forum (ELF) 2024 has kicked off with more than 800 Christian leaders from all over the continent meeting from May 25-30 in Wisla, Poland. It is the 22nd annual ELF that aims to “unite, equip, and resource evangelical leaders to renew the biblical church and evangelize Europe,” according to organizers.

Keynote speaker during the opening session was Australian author, professor, and historian John Dickson who talked about the attitude that Christian leaders should espouse in the post-Christian culture that is prevalent in Europe today.

Dickson, who now lives in the United States and teaches at Wheaton College but spent most of his life and ministry in his native Australia, pointed out that already in 1975, historian Patrick O’Farrell described Australia as the “first genuinely post-Christian society.”

What does post-Christian mean?

He recalled the experience of a public debate in 2008 as his personal turning point in understanding what it means to live in a formerly majority-Christian country where more than 50% of the population today no longer identify with any branch of Christianity. With the topic “We'd be better off without religion” in front of an audience of a thousand people and broadcasted on national television in Australia, three panelists brought arguments in favor and three against.

Dickson said that despite brilliant arguments by John Lennox and two other panelists, polls before and after the debate clearly showed that the result was a resounding defeat for those highlighting the important contributions of Judaism and Christianity to society. A significant majority of the Australian public agreed that religion is bad.

“This is the night I came away able to put my finger on something that have been percolating in the back of my mind for years,” Dickson said, and explained that he realized post-Christian society still retains certain Christian values but disconnects them from the Church.

“It [became] clear that values traditionally thought to be Christian, like humility and compassion and equality were actually presented as secular values, Enlightenment values,” he said. Similarly, the culture still holds a generally high view of Jesus and retains a sense of spirituality and belief in a higher being. Yet, paradoxically, it is mixed with a strong skepticism against Christianity accusing it of being immoral and dangerous.

Another sign of this seeming contradiction is a survey that asked Australians about their perception of Christians, and among the “Top 10” were five negative attributes, such as traditional, judgmental, old-fashioned, opinionated, and hypocritical. Yet at the same time, the five highest scoring attributes were positive ones, including caring, loving, kind, honest, and faithful.

“In post Christendom, it's as if people had two Christianities sitting in their heads at the same time,” Dickson commented, saying that there may be a public perception of hypocrisy but then people might remember “good aunty Judy who is loving and nice.”

It is important for Christians to understand this mixture of perspectives in order to effectively engage with culture today, he argued.

Four temptations for Christians

He then went on to name four common responses among Christians who live in a post-Christian society, describing them as “temptations”.

The first one is “dooming” where believers would only dwell on bad news and regard the entire world with an attitude as if “it's all going to hell.” This is theologically problematic because “it downplays the grace and power of God,” and no one knows how God might suddenly turn the situation around, Dickson argued. And he warned that it also paralyzes believers who then end up doing nothing to meaningfully contribute to society.

The second temptation – which may also result from the first one – is “compromising” where believers don’t want to “annoy” people. Therefore, they only highlight the parts of Scripture that resonate with society and leave out other elements of faith that might cause offense. He lamented that some Christian churches or ministries even consider this an effective mission strategy.

Thirdly, Dickson cautioned not to fall into “retreating” where Christians would live a life isolated from society, like withdrawing into a monastery. And fourthly, the opposite attitude of “attacking”, where Christians try to “reclaim a Christian heritage” and highlight that hospitals, schools and other institutions were originally Christian inventions and should therefore be protected from secular influences.

None of the four attitudes could ever succeed at redeeming a post-Christian society as they do not reflect the Biblical way of engaging with culture, Dickins emphasized.

Cheerful confidence “to stand up for Christ” and “to lose well”

Reading the well-known passage in 1 Peter 3:8-16, Dickins highlighted that despite the fiery trials that the early Church experienced during Roman times, “the Apostle Peter does not endorse dooming or compromising or retreating or attacking. Instead, he offers what I've described as a double demeanor, perfectly suited for his pre-Christian context and our post-Christian context.”

Firstly, “Peter urges a cheerful confidence to stand up for Christ in every situation. And [secondly], less popular: a cheerful humility to lose well if we must.”

The first one is evident in that the Apostle says believers should always be ready to share their hope with everyone, Dickins said, highlighting that both terms are absolute. But in the original Greek, that sentence is connected with the previous one where it says, “in your hearts revere Christ as Lord.” (Verse 15)

Therefore, Dickins argues, Christians should not be made feel guilty about their failure or hesitation to share their faith, rather they should be inspired and reminded that Christ is exalted over everything and that he is Lord over all. Out of this conviction and joy, they can share their hope with everyone always, Dickins said.

The second demeanor is equally important and speaks about “losing well.” In arguments with others, there may be a misconception that confidence could mean to be ready to attack and overpower. Dickins, however, said that the Bible teaches us that “a truly confident Christian knows that Christ has won, and so we can lose.”

Pointing again to the passage in Peter’s letter, he commented, “Notice there was no attack in this message, not a hint of attack. Just a cheerful humility.” This is the image that Jesus Christ himself showed as he loved his enemies and prayed for forgiveness for those who crucified him, Dickins said.

Losing well is not an attitude of defeat or resignation when people slander or persecute Christians, instead it is endurance in confidence and hope. It is about knowing that after the cross there is resurrection and that God can use bad situations for His good, he said.

Dickins also gave examples of his personal life, such as a time when one of his books was banned in Australian schools because an atheist group said it reflected Christian values that are unwelcome. Rather than fighting back when media interviewed him about the ban, he just commented that he stood by what he wrote and believed that the truth will prevail.

This then led to unexpected conversations with the education minister who called him and expressed his appreciation that Dickins didn’t publicly fight back. It also opened opportunities for Dickins to share the gospel with the minister, and a few weeks later, the book ban was lifted as well.

Learning from the Church Fathers

Finally, Dickins also pointed to the Church Fathers in the first three centuries and their response to pressure from Roman society. While there are many examples, he specifically highlighted Lantatius, a scholar at a secular university who lost his job and had to flee for his life during a time of great persecution.

Dickins said Lantatius modeled this cheerful confidence in his Divine Institutes, where he wrote: Do they [Romans] try to compel us by talk, or by offering any kind of argument? Not at all: they use violence and torture. But worship cannot be forced; it is something to be achieved by talk rather than blows. If their reasoning is sound, let them argue it! If they have any confidence in their truth, let them teach it to us: let them engage in debate of some such sort with us. Religion must be defended not by killing but by dying, not by violence but by endurance.

And he goes on to add: There is a further reason why [God] lets persecution come upon us: it increases the number of God’s people, and it is not difficult to show why or how that happens. […] They want to know what that good is which is defended even unto death and which is preferred to all the happy precious things there are in this life. […] Some people standing by hear us say amidst the tortures that we do not sacrifice to stones shaped by human hands but to a living God who is in heaven.

Believers should be inspired by those who effectively shared the gospel in the pre-Christian world, imitating the same two-fold attitude, Dickins concluded.

“Public Christianity for a post-Christian world requires of us a cheerful confidence to stand up for Christ to everyone always. And a cheerful humility to lose when we must, knowing the Father can take painful losses and turn them into a wonderful gospel witness.”