Dealing with Culture in the Church, Part 2
“The World I Know” is a song by the American alternative rock band Collective Soul. The year was 1995. I was a Freshman in college and could be found either on the baseball field or in the cafeteria. And I suppose I went to a class here and there. This was one of my favorite songs. I loved the music and the tune of the lyrics. But it is an interesting song to say the least. Listen to the lyrics (those of you who have heard the song will recognize these lyrics):
“Has our conscience shown? Has the sweet breeze blown? Has all kindness gone? Hope still lingers on. I drink myself of newfound pity, sitting alone in New York City and I don't know why.”
“Are we listening? Hymns of offering. Have we eyes to see? Love is gathering. All the words that I've been reading have now started the act of bleeding into one.”
“So I walk up on high and I step to the edge to see my world below. And I laugh at myself while the tears roll down. 'Cause it's the world I know. It's the world I know.”
The music video to this song shows a man in a suit, presumably on his way to work. As he is on his way through the city, the man stops to buy a bagel and some coffee. He is reading the morning paper and seeing the plight of the world around him. The disconcerting reality of the world and his own life drive him to such intense sorrow that he climbs to the top of a building and steps to the edge, ready to take a deadly leap. As he stretches out his arms and prepares for the fall a bird lands on his arm. He begins feeding the bird with the bagel he bought earlier. As the crumbs fall, ants scurry up to take advantage. The man notices that the people on the street below are much like the ants running to the crumbs. He then takes all his money and throws it from the rooftop. The money floats down to all the passing people. And the man begins to spin around in the sunlight on the top of the building.
I realize how strange this sounds, but this song teaches us about the reality of our world. The “world I know” is much different today than it was 3 or 4 decades ago. Our society has changed. We have experienced a dramatic philosophical transition that cannot be undone. Sadly, our minds are flooded with this reality and we become disenfranchised to the point of withdrawing. We retreat into the world of our own mind where we can avoid any hint of engaging others intellectually. The truth is, the philosophical shift into postmodernism has forever changed the way people view the world, and really knowledge itself. As a result, the approaches we have used to share our faith in the past seem less effective. So what are some methods by which we can effectively and positively present the truth of the gospel in a culture?
How can we effectively bridge the gap over the challenges these cultural shifts have brought our way? We can take advantage of the fact that people take for granted the possibility of God or the supernatural. We can share the gospel by tapping into the desire among many to belong. We can present the gospel as a story, not just principles and/or rules. We can share with others the possibility of an experiential encounter with the living God. Postmoderns like irony, and there’s plenty of irony when it comes to the redemptive plan God has for his people. And postmoderns have already rejected scientific reductionism; they’re ready for a “wider rationality” that includes intuition and emotion. In his book, Finding Faith, Brian McLaren said, “Many of the answers that were most helpful to you and me twenty-five years ago land with a thud today, and other questions that you and I had never thought of twenty-five years ago are electric and unavoidable.” Our world has changed. Unless we are willing to think anew regarding our methods we will most certainly be ineffective in reaching the lost.
To be effective at reaching this postmodern culture we need to be culturally relevant in our approach, method, and style. We need to build relationships with non-believers. We need to understand that evangelism is both a process and an event. We need to maintain a biblically functioning community. We need to use updated apologetics which address the new questions of this generation. We need to be practical. And we need to recapture a proper vision of the church. George Hunter III, in his book, How to Reach Secular People, gives several characteristics of Christians and churches that are effective at reaching the lost. He says that Christians who reach unchurched people: 1) Engage people in dialogue, not monologue, 2) Deal with doubts early on, 3) Are “transparently credible” people, 4) Help people overcome their alienation, 5) Understand secular people, and 6) Have driving core convictions. Hunter says that churches who are effective at reaching unchurched people: 1) Create an atmosphere where members are encouraged to have a relational focus on their relationships with God, their inner self, significant others, and the world, 2) Members are involved in “multiple conversations” with prospective members, 3) Members are trained to communicate their faith with unchurched people, 4) Pursue a definite strategy that begins with prayer, 5) Know what methods to change, and 6) Get the sequence right: good news, bad news, good news.
When we think about dealing with culture in the church, we must realize that we all bring into the broader culture of the assembly our own understandings and perceptions of the world around us. It is vital to the life of the church that our leaders develop an understanding of this desperate need to equip our members for service in an ever-changing world. Sadly, many of our members, and many leaders for that matter, have put their Christianity on cruise-control. Our churches experienced a great deal of growth 3 or 4 decades ago and since that time many have been gliding along, basking in the glory of that growth. But this must not continue. We must always be seeking to grow spiritually, searching for ways to engage our world. But this takes an investment of our time and energy. This requires a dedication to intellectual excellence with regard to God’s word and our culture. I love this quote from William Lane Craig, “Our churches are filled with Christians who are idling in intellectual neutral. As Christians, their minds are going to waste. One result of this is an immature, superficial faith. People who simply ride the roller coaster of emotional experience are cheating themselves out of a deeper and richer Christian faith by neglecting the intellectual side of that faith.”
While we live in a world in which many no longer believe in absolute truth, we must maintain a Christ-like spirit as we interact with those around us. We need to find common ground others. We need to give respect where respect is due. We need to acknowledge the good. We need to be kind. (Do not attack — especially do not attack those that others honor greatly.) We need to introduce others to the gospel and begin to help them see where the fundamental differences lie between what the world says and what God has said. Notice the way Paul introduced the men of Athens to God. He doesn’t attack, but acknowledges that good he sees. He uses their common interest in religious matters as a springboard for sharing the message of Christ with them. Let’s make sure we understand the cultural shifts that have taken place in our recent past and be diligent to find and implement effective methods for reaching the lost in our communities.