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Culture and the Church

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Should the church adapt to its culture? This is the question many concerned Christians are asking as they struggle for relevance in the world.

The Emerging Church Movement answers this question with a resounding yes. Its leaders would rather embrace culture than run from it, which is what many Christians appear to be doing. They say the traditional church is not reaching the lost, and it’s hard to argue with them. The percentage of people who call themselves some type of Christ has dropped more than 11 percent in a generation. When it comes to New Testament churches, we have not even been able to keep pace with the U.S. population, growing an abysmal 1.6 percent since 1980. Emergents say Christians must look more like the world around them if they are going to reach the lost.

The idea that God’s people need to adapt to their culture is nothing new. At the end of the period of the judges, Israel approached Samuel in his old age and said, “Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations” (1 Sam. 8:5). Samuel read their request as a rejection of his leadership, but God revealed that it was more than that. “They have not rejected you,” he said, “but they have rejected me” (1 Sam. 8:7). It seems, at least from this example, that God’s people must consider more than culture as they approach their world. In some cases, embracing culture means rejecting God.

When you think about it, culture is a shaky foundation for churches. Our world is constantly changing. What happens to the church that adapts to its culture when the styles change in twenty years? When culture is the main consideration, Christians lose their footing.

Furthermore, there is the problem of compromise. The church is necessarily caught in a tension of trying to reach the world without becoming a part of it. Jesus knew the challenge, calling his disciples to be in the world, but not of the world (Jn. 17:15-16).

Perhaps we should listen to the strategy of the most successful evangelist in history, the apostle Paul. Writing to the church at Corinth, he said, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). At first this sounds like adapting to the culture is Paul’s primary concern. But then he says, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:23). Here is the secret to how far we may go in our quest for relevance. We must not forget the reason why Christ left us in the world in the first place. We are here to preach the gospel. If we adapt the church until it becomes another part of the world, we have failed our mission. The gospel is our anchor in changing tides. As long as it is central to our efforts, we won’t make the mistake of our Israelite forerunners.

Looking for new ways to reach the lost is fine. We just need to keep our mission before us so that we don’t find ourselves in a senseless exercise of attracting our neighbors by reject the God who sent us to rescue them.

The Principle of Christian Excellencies

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

Aristotle’s Principle of Human Excellencies looks for the “excellencies” or “virtues” proper to life.  Human artifacts, he explains, have distinctive purposes.  A pen, for example, is for writing; a lamp, for lighting; a knife, for cutting.  And when you know the purpose of any artifact, you also know how to tell whether it is a good or bad one.  A knife with a strong blade is better than one with a weak blade.  So is a knife with a handle that gives us a sure, comfortable grip better than one with a handle that does not.  You could call a strong blade and a sure grip “excellencies” proper to a knife.

Aristotle asked, “What is the purpose of a human being?”  He believed this was something called eudaimonia, a Greek work usually translated  “happiness” but better understood as total well-being.  To Aristotle, eudaimonia is what all of us are striving for.  Therefore, he defined things such as a well-ordered life not given to extremes, loyalty, generosity, honesty, kindness, and anything else that might lead to total well-being as “excellencies” or “virtues.”

What is the purpose of a human being from a Christian point of view?  Ephesians 2:10 reads, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”  According to Paul, we were renewed in Christ to walk in good works.  Christians were put on earth to make it a better place.  We are the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” (Mt. 5:13-16).  Like our Master, we came not to be served but to serve (Mt. 20:26-28).  Every day we should be using our talents and opportunities to improve the quality of others’ lives.  Ultimately this means sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.  What good does it do to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and comfort the bereaved if we do not help them find salvation in Christ?  Everything takes a back seat to the soul.

Taking a cue from Aristotle, we ask, “What qualities should Christians be cultivating in their lives?”  In other words, what are some excellencies or virtues proper to Christian life?  Peter gives this sample list:

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.  (2 Peter 1:5-7)

Where did Peter come up with that list?  These attributes are nothing more than virtues proper to Christian life.  Things like self-control and brotherly affection are virtuous for Christians because they help us fulfill our purpose of walking in good works.  Peter continues, “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8).  Christians cannot be truly fruitful unless they grow in the virtues Peter lists.  A pen without ink is not a good pen.  A lamp without a bulb is not a good lamp.  A knife with a dull blade is not a good knife.  And a Christian who does not possess things like compassion, love, and forbearance is not a good Christian.  Call it the Principle of Christian Excellencies.

A lot of the things that consume our time in our churches and in our homes are good things, but they do not cultivate virtues proper to our role as Christians.  We need to prioritize.  Of first importance are those things that will help us become better at fulfilling our purpose as the workmanship of God.  The hundreds of other good things we like to do have a place, but they should never come first.  We must never forget why we’re here.

Relational Evangelism

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

God wants people to obey the gospel from the heart. Even though he has unlimited power, he exercises incredible restraint to wait for us to respond to the costly gift of his Son Jesus, who died on the cross. We see this restraint in 1 Timothy 2:4, which tells us God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. Despite the fact that his desire is for all to be saved, he gives humanity a choice by revealing the truth and leaving it up to us to decide whether or not to obey it.

Because conversion cannot be forced, Paul expresses gratitude for those who had obeyed the gospel in Rome: “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed” (Rom. 6:17, emphasis added). This is real obedience. Their response was a genuine belief in the gospel’s power to save.

When a person is coerced into obedience, he will not remain faithful. There is no love for God in his heart, only a feeling produced by pressure applied by another person. Either he will recognize the insincerity of his heart, or the other person will tire and withdraw the pressure, and he will fall away.

Despite what we know about the ineffectiveness of coerced responses to the gospel, we have a tendency to fall back on this strategy to bring the lost to Christ. Our tactics are sometimes not all that different from an intervention staged by family and friends to confront an addict. After years of saying nothing, we blitz the prospect with scare tactics and arguments, hoping one frantic conversation will undo years of sin and false information.

Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “You do not lead by hitting people over the head. That’s assault, not leadership.” Before you can teach someone the gospel, you must win his heart. After all, teaching, if it is done right, penetrates the heart. Solomon said “wisdom will come into your heart” (Prov. 2:10). As in the Parable of the Sower, evangelism is not unlike farming. First the ground must be properly cultivated, then you can sow, expecting a crop.

Start working on your relationships with those whom you want to reach with the gospel. You must win a heart before you can turn it to Christ. Evangelism requires effort. Jesus described the soul-winner as a “laborer” (Mt. 9:37-38). There are no shortcuts to evangelism. Labor for lost souls. Your work will not be in vain.