Leading Fearlessly in a Changing Culture

Declining denominations, dropping church attendance, rising numbers of people claiming no religion—these recent trends are enough to keep church leaders up at night. Amid the barrage of bad news, Trevin Wax’s latest book, This Is Our Time, might seem oddly sunny. But it’s not because Wax—a blogger and Bible publisher for LifeWay and teaching pastor at Third Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee—is out of touch. He sees the challenges facing the church, yet he believes they also create opportunities for a powerful Christian witness. CT Pastors contributing editor Drew Dyck talked to Wax about how Christians can respond to the current cultural climate and how pastors can lead the way.

We’ve seen a lot of books recently that offer different reactions to how Christians can respond to our rapidly changing culture. Some are saying, “Let’s hunker down and wait out the storm.” Others are saying, “Let’s come out swinging.” What would you suggest?

We don’t make great decisions as leaders when we are motivated by fear. Fear clouds our judgment and distorts our view of reality. To say Christians in North America should be scared is painting too gloomy an assessment of where we are as a culture. A lot of Christians feel unsettled right now and lack the confidence to be faithful in this moment. That feeling of being overwhelmed is fine. But we need to respond by getting our gospel bearings.

When the earth is shaking and you’re not quite sure what faithfulness looks like, that’s when you go back to the essentials. That’s when you focus on the gospel. We also need some perspective. What’s going on in 21st Century North America is not unique. This is not the first generation to deal with problems like this. We’re not the only people in the world, or in church history, to deal with challenges to Christian faith.

In your book you recount sitting down with a newly retired pastor who confessed, “I no longer feel at home in my country.” What kind of encouragement do you give pastors who feel irrelevant in this cultural moment?

People grieve because they feel they’ve lost something. Our first reaction to that feeling should be empathy. The feeling of alienation and losing cultural clout is real. But it’s also important to examine those feelings. If you’re an older evangelical pastor who feels that loss of clout, that loss of cultural privilege, you’re likely a white evangelical pastor. Many black pastors have a completely different mindset when it comes to feeling at home or not at home in our contemporary American society. That experience of not feeling at home is something evangelical brothers and sisters from other ethnicities have felt for a long time. They aren’t losing cultural privilege because many never had it in the first place.

We shouldn’t feel at home in any culture, not completely.

Second, I would tell people who feel this way, “Embrace that feeling.” We shouldn’t feel at home in any culture, not completely. Hey, it’s good to have patriotism. My country is my country, and I love where God has placed me. I love my mission field. But if I ever feel completely at home, it means I’m not doing enough to run afoul of what the cultural authorities of the day are saying Christianity should and shouldn’t be, right? The cultural winds are changing, and we have an opportunity to sense the disconnect between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of our Lord and Christ.

How does that attitude manifest itself in how we actually do ministry?

We need to know the dominant modes of thought and practice in our world today, even in our churches, and show how the gospel tells a better story. Practically, that means we apply Christian truth to our habits with our smartphones, our entertainment choices, how we shop, and what we believe about marriage. We need to ask if our life choices actually line up with what we preach from the pulpit. The gospel speaks to all of life.

We need to be aware of how people in our mission field see the world. How many people in our churches have views of life that don’t quite line up with Scripture? When we see that disconnect, we are able to show how the gospel tells a better story and creates a society that is true and good and beautiful.

In your book, you spend a lot of time describing the myths emanating from the broader culture. As a church leader, how do you go about exposing those myths with the light of Scripture while not alienating the people who believe those myths?

There are many pastors who see those lies very clearly and want to warn everyone about them. That’s a pastoral impulse. If you are protecting your flock and you see wolves on the horizon, you want to do whatever you can to protect the sheep. At the same time, though, the best way to keep sheep from going astray is to actually get into the heart and mind and motivations of your sheep—to know why they would fall for the lie in the first place.

I try to do this at the church where I serve as a teaching pastor. When you walk through a biblical text or you bring the Christian view to bear on some pressing issue, you want to describe the vision of life you think is wrong in such a way that the people in your congregation can at least resonate with it. You might say, “Maybe some of you hear this and it seems to make sense.” Then you can list a few things that are inadequate about that worldview. But all the while, you express the frustration they feel as they go down that path. Then when you warn them and show how the gospel tells a better story, your warning will be heard because you’ve communicated, I understand the appeal of this lie. Let me show you why the gospel is better. There are two ways of approaching pastoral ministry: you can constantly try to keep the flock from wandering, or you can keep the flock from wanting to wander. Going to the heart motivation in our preaching and teaching is very difficult to do. I don’t do it well. But that is what I hope to do—it’s important to try.

You encourage young Christians to be “sex rebels.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

The world likes to cast sexual revolutionaries as countercultural people, uninhibited by silly moralistic rules that were forced upon sexuality in previous generations. You saw this in the 60s and 70s in particular. Now we continue to move those boundaries in order to maintain the narrative of casting off the shackles of the past. Even when people don’t have skin in the game, they declare themselves being for “progress” in the sexual revolution. It’s a sign of “righteousness,” of them being on the right side of history, of them leading the charge for more and more freedom.

There are two ways of approaching pastoral ministry: you can constantly try to keep the flock from wandering, or you can keep the flock from wanting to wander.

Unfortunately, all that freedom comes at a cost. I want to hijack the attractiveness of the American appeal to rebellion and say the true rebel is the Christian who swims upstream against that current. Everyone else is swimming downstream without questioning it. G. K. Chesterton said, “Any dead thing can float downstream.” Swimming upstream means you’re alive and kicking. It’s exciting being against the world for the good of the world in those areas.

You’re part of the millennial generation. What do you see in this generation that worries you?

I see some of the same trends I find in the broader culture. We are losing the ability to have charitable dialogue and disagreements, to discuss and debate things rationally. That’s disappearing because we have a loss of literacy across the board. In the church we mourn a loss of biblical literacy. But many Americans don’t read the Bible because they just don’t read. How long can a society as cultured and sophisticated as ours go on without reason and rationality in our discourse?

What gives you hope about this generation?

I’m with millennials all the time who love Jesus, love the church, and are passionate about their faith. I see them at conferences. I see them in my own congregation. I work with them. They’re excited and willing to be on the outside of mainstream society. Those who recently converted understand how the world operates because they lived there, and they know they weren’t happy. They’re not grieving a loss; they’re celebrating what they’ve gained by coming into the Christian community. That gives me hope.

So I don’t spend too much time worrying. Sure, we have challenges ahead. We can’t see the future, but we know we’re walking forward with Jesus and with a great cloud of witnesses around us. The gospel is powerful. The Word is still true. God’s Church will endure. God’s got this.

Drew Dyck is a contributing editor to CT Pastors and an acquisitions editor at Moody Publishers living in Portland, Oregon.

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