Monday is for Missiology: Engaging Well -- Staying Faithful in Faithless Times
In January 2010, I spoke at the Jacksonville Pastors Conference. It's always a good conference with a great opportunity to encourage pastors (they go to great effort to serve the pastors-- and I look forward to being back in 2013).
Anyway, the message I gave tied into the theme and I entitled it, "Engaging Well-- Staying Faithful in Faithless Times." The editor of Preaching magazine, Michael Duduit, was in attendance and asked if I could turn the message into an article. I did, and they ran it here. I will be running the series-- a primer on contextualization for pastors-- over the next few weeks.
Many years ago, the apostle Paul confronted a Christless culture in Athens, Greece. Yet his challenge on that day is identical to the challenge we face in our culture. How do we remain faithful in faithless times? How can we connect with culture without becoming trapped or ruined by the culture?
Some leaders feel the solution is simple: Just engage the culture. The problem is that engaging culture means different things to different people. Others say you need to be relevant. Whose definition should we use? Both suggestions--engaging culture and being relevant--can be steps in the right direction; but without definition, they are fraught with danger. Some who have gone before us have failed at this task. The current culture of our North American landscape is filled with churches that once preached the gospel but no longer do so. Why? Because they didn't capture their culture; their culture captured them.
The apostle Paul lived in faithless times, yet he remained faithful. His missionary approach to connect with people and culture is considered a pattern to imitate. How did he endure with such effectiveness for the kingdom? He began with conforming himself to Christ. Paul said, "Be imitators of me, as I also am of Christ" (1 Cor. 11:1). Paul presented himself as an example from which we can learn because Christ was his example to follow.
Equal parts theologian, businessman and philosopher, Paul walked headlong into the heart of Greek culture in order to engage it. He never considered ignoring or avoiding culture. Rather, he engaged with meaningful dialogue on the home field of those he attempted to influence with the gospel. The spiritual conversation began this way:
"Then Paul stood in the middle of the Areopagus and said: 'Men of Athens! I see that you are extremely religious in every respect. For as I was passing through and observing the objects of your worship, I even found an altar on which was inscribed: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it--He is Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in shrines made by hands. Neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives everyone life and breath and all things" (Acts 17:22-25).
By watching Paul in this story we learn from his example how to engage our context today, staying faithful in faithless times. Three clear lessons emerge from the story.
To Engage Well Today, We Must Discern the Times
So, how do we understand culture? Paul engaged the cultural context where he found himself. "While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, his spirit was troubled within him when he saw that the city was full of idols" (Acts 17:16). Our cities and towns today are filled with idols. All around us are idols of money, power, sex and knowledge. John Calvin said, "the human heart is an idol factory." Idols take the space that belongs to Christ alone. Each community produces its own unique idols. Part of understanding a culture is understanding its unique idols.
Paul's cultural engagement was challenged when he was labeled as a "pseudo-intellectual" by the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (Acts 17:18). Still, he pressed into culture. "For as I was passing through and observing the objects of your worship, I found an altar on which was inscribed: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD" (Acts 17:23).
Paul openly approached the culture and demonstrated a strong desire to understand who they were and what was important to them. He was aware of their philosophies, worldview and religious beliefs. He even said at one point, "I see that you are extremely religious in every respect" (v. 17:22). His passion for engaging the culture showed how he was grieved by its idols. He remained aware of the religious and spiritual questions with which people struggled.
The same Paul, in front of different people, said in Acts 13:16, "Men of Israel, and you who fear God, listen!" Paul addressed different cultures at different starting points, yet he brought them to the same place. He gave a message rich in history of the Jews to the men of Israel (vv. 13:16-26).
Paul discerned the context but brought people to the Savior. He made necessary adjustments to communicate well. We are called to do the same that we might proclaim the gospel that changes everything. Paul moved people from where they were to an understanding of a bloody cross and an empty tomb. In Acts 13:32-33, he concluded, "And we ourselves proclaim to you the good news of the promise that was made to our forefathers. God has fulfilled this to us their children by raising up Jesus."
Relevance is a tool; gospel proclamation is the goal. Too many people pursue cultural relevance as the goal. Relevance is merely a tool that can shape the way we do ministry. The reality is that the "how" of ministry is shaped by the "who, when and where" of culture. Separating ourselves from culture is not possible, though some try. Culture is the pond in which we swim and the lens through which we see the world. Culture is the context in which we proclaim a biblically faithful, never changing gospel.
When I led the North American Mission Board Center for Missional Research, we surveyed 1,200 people about heaven. The findings may help shape the right question to start the conversation. We asked if they could strongly agree with this question: "If you were to die today, do you know for sure you'd go to heaven?" Another question we specifically asked them was: "How often do you wonder, 'If I were to die today, do I know for sure I'd go to heaven?'"
That question has been the standard evangelical pick-up line for the past 50 years. Our conversation starts out, "Hey, how are you? How are you doing? Hey, listen, just wondering, if you were to die today..." You subtly work it into every awkward conversation. You ask, "How's the team doing?" They answer, "Oh, they're doing pretty good." Then you pop the question, "Hey, listen, if you were to die today, do you know...?"
We wanted to know if people were really asking that question. Why? Because the Bible teaches us, "But set apart the Messiah as Lord in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Pet. 3:15). Believers should focus on answering the questions that people in the culture actually are asking. One of the things I love about my work is to research what people in the culture are asking. So we called 1,200 people and we asked, "How often do you wonder, 'If I were to die today, do I know for sure if I would go to heaven?'"
I assumed a low percentage of people think about that question. I have a lot of conversations with people who are far from understanding the gospel, and they never seem anxious about dying and facing eternity without Christ. To my surprise, about 20 percent of people indicated they wondered at least once a week if they would go to heaven if they were to die. Do you know why I was surprised that a fifth of respondents wondered if they would go to heaven at least weekly? I was surprised, because I had experienced something different.
To the question, "How can I find more meaning and purpose in my life?" an even a higher number (1 in 3) indicated they wondered about it every day. The reality is that people are asking all kinds of questions in our culture, and the gospel answers those questions with Jesus Christ. We must prepare to engage our context as Paul did, adjusting to different people but bringing them all to the gospel.
Often we are guilty of thinking, "Well, if they would just come to church and think the way we think, act the way we act, dress the way we dress and vote the way we vote, they'd come to know Jesus." It is unfortunate, but many congregations simply busy themselves with moralizing the unconverted rather than preaching the gospel to the lost.
Church members too often have been taught that the goal of discipleship is to get away from the world. We need to encourage the opposite. Maybe more of us need to hear the criticism Jesus often heard: You are too close to the wrong people. May that be said about all of us! So to engage well and faithfully today, we have to discern the times.