“I can’t believe how out of touch the church is with the reality of what is happening in our culture. There is no way we can expect to reach the culture with our archaic and irrelevant posture.” “The church has completely lost its distinctiveness in our generation. There is no way the church can expect to make an impact on our world if the gospel has made such an insignificant impact in the lives of those who claim to be Christians.”
We tend to gravitate toward one of these two positions based on our age, experiences, personal philosophies and personal baggage. Which one is correct? Should we as a church morph ourselves into the dominant forms of current cultural expression? Should we as a church fight against the “faddish trends” of cultural expression? Which is view has more credence? Which view is more biblical? I think it is not an “either/or” but a “both/and” situation for the church. I believe we are called to a “Relevant Irrelevance” or “being in the world but not of the world” as Jesus would put it. Let me unpack this statement a bit.
rel·e·vant – def. – “related to the matter”
Any missionary worth his or her salt undertakes to communicate the gospel in a way that will be understandable. Gary and Esther Smith and their team (missionaries to a tribe in Papua New Guinea) have spent endless hours learning the language and the culture of the tribe they are attempting to reach. While this is a “no duh” concept for those engaging in cross cultural missions, we as a church have often failed to realize that we are living in a culture that is very foreign to the culture of the Kingdom of which we are citizens. Current research is showing that less than 17% of those in the US are affiliated with any type of church. Therefore, the majority of those living in our culture (83%) will have a very difficult time understanding the language and culture of the Kingdom. What does this mean for those of us who have become followers of Jesus Christ? How much time and effort have we spent studying the language and culture of the “tribe” to which God sent us?
The apostle Paul was very inflexible when it came to the content of the Gospel (Gal 1:6-9) but extremely pliable when it came to the methods or means he employed to proclaim the Gospel (I Cor. 9:19-22). So when it comes to our culture, have we thought through, in a missional way, how to communicate the never changing Gospel to those who do not believe in the concept of truth at all, whose primary means of expression are visual and auditory, who have seen a seemingly never ending stream major moral failures from “church leaders” of every flavor, who are so saturated with information that it is almost impossible to distinguish the important from the trivial, and who are the target of a never ending marketing barrage of products and services by those who want access to the plastic cards that stuff our wallets and purses. Have we seriously considered what it means to communicate the gospel to a culture that by 2050 will have no racial majority at all? According to the US Census Bureau, by 2050 the racial makeup of the US is projected to be 47% Anglo, 30% Hispanic, 13 % Black and 9% Asian and 1 in 3 children born in the US will be born to immigrants. Like it or not, our culture is changing and changing rapidly.
Are we, as followers of a Savior that came to seek and save the lost and as ambassadors of the King, learning to speak the “language” of this rapidly changing culture to which we were sent as his ambassadors? We are his ambassadors whether we are “professional” missionaries or not. We may be ineffective ambassadors who stay locked in the embassy and refuse to learn the language and culture of the people to whom we were sent or we may be effective ambassadors that learn to communicate the heart of our King in a way that is culturally understandable. The choice is ours but either way, we cannot avoid the reality that we are his ambassadors (II Cor 5:20).
Far too often we have secluded ourselves from the culture forming a type of evangelical ghetto which has an insignificant impact on the culture at large. We have our own literature, music, social organizations and we often seek to dissuade our young people from interacting and impacting the culture at large. “It’s too dangerous”…yes, it will be dangerous. “It’s too challenging”…yes, it will be challenging. “We’ll face all sorts of complex and difficult situations”…yes, it will be confusing and difficult at times. “We’ll encounter all sorts of alluring temptations”…yes, we will face temptations. “We’ll be misunderstood and maligned”…yes, we will be misunderstood and berated. One question to ponder: Did Jesus live a safe, easy, temptation-free, complexity-free life that was always understood as he sought to avoid contact with the culture of his day and age?
ir·rel·e·vant – def. – “not related to the matter”
Though we are called by God to be “in the world” “ambassadors” for Christ mingling with those who have yet to respond to the message of the gospel, we are also called to be distinct, unique, and holy – a “peculiar people” as the King James would put it (Titus 2:14). This “irrelevance” and “peculiarity” is not primarily to be noted by external differences but by lives marked by the imprint of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22ff). We are called and challenged to be a holy people, wholly committed to following our Lord Jesus, who are becoming whole. While those around us frantically rush to some form of anesthesia to deaden the pain of life on a fallen planet – be it through materialism and an attempt to find life at the mall; be it through hedonism and an attempt to find life between the sheets or in a bottle, a bong or a pill; be it through achievement and an attempt to find life in the latest accolades of the adoring masses; be it through religion and an attempt to find life through being more enlightened or better than others; – we as believers can experience a love, joy, peace and contentment with the circumstances in which God has placed us knowing his love and care for us transcends the temporal.
While what constitutes a legitimate marriage is hotly debated and over 50% of marriages end in the heartbreak of divorce, we can demonstrate a cultural irrelevance by loving the “wife (or husband) or our youth” and caring deeply for the children we have been given until we breathe our last breath. While the world around us loves things and uses people we can, in a very peculiar way, use the things we have to deeply love the people around us. While the world deems character irrelevant and results paramount, we can, in a very irrelevant way, hold up character as paramount and leave the results in the hands of the Lord. While the world is cynical and skeptical regarding truth and tossed here and there by the latest fads and theories, we can live with confidence and stability grounded on the bedrock of Jesus Christ and the truth of his Word.
Notice, in all this comparisons above, I said “we can”. However, the problem is we often do not live in a distinctive and peculiar manner…we are in the world and of the world. We often have doctrinal content with out heartfelt conviction, creeds without deeds, truth without grace and love. Mark Gatewood just told me of an incident where he was repairing a car on Sunday morning that had broken down right in front of a local church here in Pensacola. As he watched all the people going into the church, not a single one stopped to inquire if he needed help…does this remind you of any of Jesus’ stories? If Mark were not a believer, what do you think his impression would have been of those who claim to follow Jesus?
A recent survey asked young Canadians (18-34) what they most longed for and the most common response was “someone to look up to and trust”! What an indictment of our Western world…so stuffed with stuff yet so vacuous in character. Here the true church has a tremendous opportunity to shine the light.
Yet, if we are to be used by God to open the eyes of those in our culture so that they can turn from darkness to light we are going to need to be relevantly irrelevant. Relevance alone will not be enough – the world is constantly bombarded with slick, culturally savvy messages promising impressive results. Irrelevance alone will not be enough – we will be viewed as cultural oddities, akin to the Amish. Yet, combine relevant communication of the Gospel with the irrelevant character of lives shaped by the values of the Kingdom and not of the culture and you have a potent elixir that can be used by the Holy Spirit to provide sight to the spiritually blind.
Let us press on to be relevantly irrelevant ambassadors of Jesus Christ…disguised as professors, mothers, doctors, carpenters, pilots, electricians, students, counselors, husbands, wives, truck drivers, foresters, real estate agents, entrepreneurs, contractors, teachers, pastors, engineers, financial advisors, nurses, lawyers, etc…living in the world but not as the world in order to love those of the world. It won’t be safe. It won’t be easy. It won’t be free of confusion and difficulty. But, it will be worth it! Following Him always is!