How the Church Can Be Agents of Change
Churches cannot be simply concerned with effectively connecting within their own community (or their walls, if they have them). They must go beyond their walls. The obvious question is, "How?"
It's hard because many churches become obsessed with their established way of doing things, unconcerned with if it connects with those living in the neighborhood. At that point, we become more about church preservation than community transformation.
Solely pursuing cultural relevance is not the answer either. Relevance is a tool; gospel proclamation is the goal. When we pursue relevance as the goal, it leads to an unhelpful pendulum swing—making relevance the focus.
Generations shift wildly back-and-forth between "pop psychology" preaching that is devoid of the Gospel and "pure preaching" that rejects cultural relevance entirely.
I would contend that there is a better course of action rather than going with the winds of evangelical church culture. Not surprisingly, it's found right in the Bible. Look to the example of Paul.
In Acts 17, Paul visits Athens. The narrative clearly exemplifies Paul's engagement and understanding of the culture. He quotes Epicurean and Stoic philosophers and poets, and then intentionally builds a bridge to the Gospel.
While we may not quote many Epicurean and Stoic philosophers today, the views espoused by Oprah and others are similar. It's part of a worldview that says that truth is relative, and the goal of spirituality is journeying and personal peace.
Paul beautifully portrays a timeless strategy for evangelism that doesn't overreact, underreact or counteract. Instead, it's a prayerful choice to consistently have a discerning ethic of engaging culture.
In order to reach our contemporary counterparts, we need to follow Paul's example and build bridges so that we can more effectively preach the Gospel in our own age. The reality is that the "how" of ministry is shaped by the "who, when and where" of culture.
Culture is the pond in which we swim and the lens through which we see the world. It is the context in which we proclaim a biblically faithful, never changing Gospel.
Consequently, a biblically faithful church in Seattle should look different than one in Selma, Alabama or Senegal on the coast of Africa, but it should still be biblically faithful. Where we are may influence the way we have conversations about Jesus, but the conversations should always be about Jesus.
The right reason to build a bridge is for the Gospel to cross over to the people in the culture. If you're only building a bridge to culture so people can find your church, then you'll be captured by the culture because your goal is a crowd. The goal of the Gospel is more disciples for Jesus, not a big congregation.
In North America, our culture is becoming more resistant and less overtly Judeo-Christian.
Yes, recent surveys show that a little more than 70 percent of Americans self-identify as Christians.
If we define a Christian, however, as someone who by faith and grace has trusted in Christ and has been redeemed and changed by the power of the Gospel, the number drops dramatically.
If we're going to stand faithful in faithless times, we're going to have to leave where we are comfortable. We can't engage effectively by going along with the culture, but neither can we can't engage evangelistically without living in the culture.
So how do we share Christ in the culture without being captured by it? I think it is partly by being subersive, as I shared in my book Subversive Kingdom.
Just before Jesus ascended to Heaven, His disciples were looking for an overt coming of His Kingdom-- they asked "at this time are you going to restore the Kingdom to Israel" (Acts 1:6). They wanted a political and military overthrow of Rome and a restoration of the Kingdom. What they missed was that Jesus' Kingdom had already come.
It's already broken into the world and it's breaking into the world, only it doesn't look like they or we would expect. It's subversive and underground, yet very real and present.
We can subvert this broken world order, not by some sinful subterfuge, but by serving those who are hurting and sharing Christ with those in need. In so doing, we live as agents of Gospel transformation in a time when it's so desperately needed.
Jesus compares us to yeast and small seeds that go in, mix, grow, and change everything.
If we want to see genuine community transformation, we have to think of ourselves as subversive and subsequently think differently about how we live.
We need to demand our rights less and live for our rightful King more. Our lives will reflect both Gospel demonstration, showing the love of Christ, and Gospel proclamation, proclaiming the good news of Christ, in ways our neighbor understands.
Paul was unashamed to say, "What you have worshiped in ignorance, this I proclaim to you" (Acts 17.23). When I look to Paul, I am struck with his boldness and savvy.
May we all be bold and wise as we engage an increasingly hostile and confused culture with the greatest news the world has ever known—Jesus Christ, the way, the truth, and the life.
You can learn more about my thoughts here in the small group study, Subversive Kingdom: Lessons in Rebellion from the Parables of Jesus or the book, Subversive Kingdom: Living as Agents of Gospel Transformation.