It would be a stretch to say that the church is having some of its best days. The evidence tells us just the opposite—these are not the best of times, especially for evangelicals. There is a growing alienation between evangelical churches and culture. As a movement, American evangelicalism is deeply divided (something underscored in the last post). As a result, more and more pastors are demoralized. There is a greater degree of complexity and controversy within congregations. Politics and pandemics are injected in all too many conversations, and everyone is on a hair-trigger ready to argue or walk away. An article in yesterday’s Christianity Today Newsletter, entitled “The Pastors Are Not All Right,” points out that many pastors are reaching their breaking point. A recent Barna study reveals that nearly 4 out of 10 members of the clergy have considered leaving the ministry in the last year. This is a scary statistic.
I wonder if some of this is a result of losing our way when it comes to how we should be relating to the world. Looking back, there have been several responses to culture, and most have been misguided. Historically, some believers have chosen to withdraw from the world. The belief is that if the church is to guard its purity, it needs to separate. This fallen world is a wasteland of godlessness that threatens the well-being of the church. It’s critical, therefore, that the church build a protective wall lest the downward moral slide pulls the church down with it. The New Testament warns that friendship with the world is enmity toward God (Jas 4:4). But can we really escape culture? And if we could, wouldn’t it make sense for God to simply take us home? Didn’t Jesus pray that we not be taken out of the world but be protected as we live within it (John 17:15)?
Other Christians have approached culture in the opposite way, seeking to accommodate and become part of the world. To reach the world effectively, this position believes that Christians need to adapt their message and lifestyle to reach the maximum audience. Relevance is the keyword. The church must remove the barriers and become known for what it is for—not what it is against. Look at Scripture. When God chose to reveal himself, he adapted his message to reach humanity. Jesus didn’t build walls; he entered into the world’s neighborhood and went to its parties (Mark 2:15ff). The Apostle Paul determined to be all things to all people in hopes of reaching the lost. But this approach has its downside as well. History shows that churches that accommodate tend to become assimilated by the culture. Behaviors are not that different. In hopes of being relevant, they become irrelevant.
In contrast to these first two, some have approached culture with the goal to take on and take over the structures of culture and restore Christianity to its rightful place. We are in a spiritual war, and Jesus announced he has come to plunder the strong man’s house (Matt 12:22-29). According to these (who sometimes refer to themselves as warriors), it’s time to reclaim the arts, gain a seat at the head of the table of leadership, and get someone in the White House who will do our bidding. After all, cultures change from the top down. But could it be that this approaches also misses—and misses badly? Jesus did not concern himself with going after the levers of power. He never endorsed the idea of political activism as the means to advance his kingdom. He tended to hang out with those who had no power. As underscored in the rest of the New Testament, God has called us to be a gospel community—not a moral majority.
Surveying these approaches, I’m convinced they all are diminishing the church’s influence and hurting its witness. So, what are we to do? It’s not as if Jesus left us to figure this out on our own. He left a model, as well as a clear statement that we are to engage in culture. We are to permeate like salt and light (Matt 5:13-16). Only by scattering and penetrating will we bring healing to a fractured world; only by being the light that exposes will the darkness be dispelled. If the world is growing darker—and it is—the problem is not with the darkness but the light. This was John Stott’s point years ago.
Monday night, a core of us were talking about the church and culture, and near the end, we talked about this Anglican cleric. A pastor who knew Stott well and invited him to speak in his church recalled that Stott was the humblest man he had ever met. This theologian and leader of evangelicalism (in its better days) made it his habit to read and meditate on the beatitudes found in the Sermon on the Mount. Every morning, he spent an hour pondering the words, determined to incorporate them into his soul. It’s worth noting that Jesus’s admonition as to how to reach culture—to be the salt and light—comes right after these “Blessed are the. . .” Followers of Jesus who are poor in spirit, gentle, thirsty for righteousness, merciful, pure, and committed to peacemaking—are the salt and light.
If we quit isolating, capitulating, and coercing—and return to using the subversive tools of Word and prayer and living a life radicalized by righteousness and love—as outlined in the Sermon on the Mount—we just might recover and transform the world.
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