“Mindful of the Church’s teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before any others… ‘’
With this radio announcement 60 years ago, the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, called off her plans to marry a divorcee— Group Captain Peter Townsend. She was heartbroken.
I was 6 years old and have only the vaguest recollection of that event. But the Townsend affair illustrates something of the cultural scaffolding of shame and disapproval that was erected around immorality and divorce at that time. The wider culture of the 1950s—when divorce was spoken about in hushed tones, “fallen women” were shamed for their “illegitimate” children, and homosexuals were sent to prison—remains deeply embedded in my psyche. It shaped my early childhood as profoundly as the sexual revolution impacted my teens a few years later.
Today that cultural landscape has changed beyond recognition. From the 1960s the annual number of divorces rocketed six-fold. The number of people getting married started to fall dramatically too, and the institution of marriage itself entered a deep and prolonged recession, especially among the poor. Today, cohabitation is the norm. Nearly half of children are born out of wedlock and, by the age of 16, only 50% of children will be found living with both biological parents in the home. Couples of the same sex can get married and anyway we are no longer sure what being a particular “sex”—male or female—means anymore.
In the space of just a few decades, centuries old convictions rooted in the old biblical moral codes effectively collapsed. Most people today would think “good-riddance”. And those who do remain “mindful of the Church’s teaching” are held to be slightly odd at best—and knuckle-dragging bigots at worst.
Church-going people are shifting in their convictions too, including those who call themselves evangelicals. We shouldn’t be surprised, of course, because many Christian leaders appear like rabbits caught in the headlights over this issue. They seem to be hoping that if they keep their heads down the whole wretched business will somehow go away. But it doesn’t and it won’t. We can sit here like King Canute, rebuking the waves, but the water will just keep rising until we disappear from sight.
Hard and soft power
How did this great social and cultural revolution succeed? Why were the ancient beliefs and convictions that were so firmly woven into the fabric of our laws and culture so rapidly overwhelmed and abandoned? This question is important because efforts to mount an effective apologetic by Christians who still hold to biblical teaching will continue to fail unless we understand the secret of the revolution’s success. So what is it?
The political theorist Joseph Nye talks about hard power and soft power. Hard power is getting what you want by coercion. Soft power, on the other hand, is the ability to get what you want through attraction. And the secret of the sexual revolution, I believe, is its soft power.
The sexual revolutionaries know how to use hard power. Dare to offer an alternative view to theirs—for example on same-sex marriage—and you will soon experience the wrath of the Twitter mob shrieking “bigot!”.
But the secret weapon of the revolution isn’t found in its hard power, but its soft power. The change-makers were able to cast a vision and an offer an ideology that the human spirit finds deeply attractive. People see what is on offer and they want it to be true. And until we understand that and think it through seriously, our apologetics will remain feeble and our public posture confined to the defensive.
Of course, the cultural forces that drove the sexual revolution can be understood at many different levels of analysis – the economic and social changes that led to the emancipation of women from traditional roles in the home played a crucial part, as did the introduction of the contraceptive Pill.
But these shifts in society developed hand in hand with radical new ideas about morality and human identity. New thinking about equality and freedom. The revolutionaries cast an inspiring vision drawn from an underlying narrative of authenticity, freedom and fairness. In sitcoms and romcoms the story was told over and over: compelling narratives about the little people—the oppressed and marginalised—who found their voice and claimed their freedom. The freedom to be truly, authentically, themselves.
How to respond
You can’t respond to a great story like this simply with facts—you have to tell a better story. A different story that connects with the issues the revolution places at the centre of our cultural narrative—its vision of authenticity, freedom and fairness. Our culture isn’t interested right now in what Christians are against. People want to know what we are for—especially in relation to today’s big questions of what it means to be an authentic person, to be free to express yourself and to be treated fairly.
This represents a major shift in our thinking as Christians—whether you are a church leader who speaks from a pulpit, or a church member who chats with a friend over coffee. We need to learn a new, new way to tell the old, old story that resonates with the concerns, the hopes and the dreams of people today. And specifically, we need to learn how to better articulate the Bible’s story of human flourishing and freedom that can only be found in Christ.
This is the theme and aim of this year’s Evangelism Conference, where I will be joined by Rico Tice, John Steven and Jonty Allcock. Join us as we get very practical on this question of how we tell the better story of new life in Christ today.
Better. Story. The Evangelism Conference 2017:
- South: Tuesday 3rd October at All Soul’s Langham Place, London W1
- North: Thursday 5th October at Holy Trinity Platt Fields, Manchester.
Conferences run from 10am to 4pm. Materials, refreshments and lunch included.
Individual tickets are £20; reductions for students and groups.
For more information and to book tickets go here. Check out and like our Facebook page here.