Now, I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world... They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by Your truth. (John 17:11,16-17)
A half-century ago, theologian Langdon Gilkey wrote a book titled "How the Church Can Minister to the World Without Losing Itself."
It's worth buying just for the title.
That's the challenge. God's people are sent to be in the world but not of it, to relate to the world without loving it, to bring the gospel to the world without succumbing to its enticements.
And yet, many of us love the culture where we find ourselves. Is this wrong?
Adrian Rogers used to say, "We are like a fellow in a boat. As long as the boat is in the water, he's fine. But as soon as the water gets in the boat, he's in trouble."
At what point does the culture threaten to swamp our lifeboats? I'm a football fan and love cheering on the New Orleans Saints. Am I succumbing to the world?
Seminarians discuss these matters in classrooms. They study books in which philosophers and theologians bring up the ramifications of engaging culture. Eventually, the young minister develops a set of principles for future ministry. In time, he graduates and goes forth to pastor a church with real people.
Suddenly, all bets are off.
In the urban setting where his seminary was located, the culture was one thing. In rural America where he has gone to pastor, it's something else entirely.
One of his classmates has started an innovative church in the artsy section of Chicago where the culture is unlike anything he has ever known.
A classmate is now serving a mission in small-town Ohio, a community dominated by labor unions and factory life. The highpoint of the social season, he says, is the tractor pull at the local arena.
Another friend has been appointed missionary to the bush country of West Africa where the culture is pagan, primitive, and powerful.
Lastly, a colleague has taken a county seat ministry in the heart of the Bible Belt, where four churches stand on the corners of the major intersection and every community leader belongs to one of them.
Nothing to it, right? Just "preach the gospel, servant of God."
There are no easy fields in which to labor.
This being a fallen world, all people groups on the planet are known to be sinners, therefore in need of salvation, and yet strongly resistant to the Holy Spirit.
The servant of God who goes to bring the Lord's word to the Bible Belt or the untaught primitives of the most backward nation will face similar challenges: How to relate to the cultures of the people to whom he has been sent.
This week on ESPN radio, the sports guys were tossing this subject around in connection with professional football teams. Should San Diego, for instance, go after players who will mesh with their laid-back "beach" culture? Should the New York City teams draft athletes with star appeal who will fit right in?
They finally answered their own question: Regardless of background and culture, if a player makes that team a winner, the people will welcome him as he is and not require him to adapt to them.
The easiest approach is to remain aloof from the culture and condemn it.
I live in metropolitan New Orleans. Today—January 6, 2012—marks the official end of the Christmas season and the opening of what is locally called the Carnival Season. This means parades and parties, endless theme-oriented displays and colors and conversation, king cakes in the stores and on the tables, all of which ends with a full-fledged holiday in which the city shuts down. February 21 is "Mardi Gras."
A new pastor moves to this city and takes over the leadership of a church. The first question some will ask is his position on Mardi Gras. It's a loaded question. Local church people are not in agreement at all on how Christians should relate to this festive culture. Some attend the parades, insisting that theirs are as benign as a homecoming parade back in their Alabama hometown. Others arm themselves with tracts and march forth into the throngs to witness for Christ. Most simply stay home and treat the day as a holiday.
My friend Jerry Clower, a widely acclaimed Christian comedian and first-rate storyteller, was a Baptist deacon and outspoken Christian. Some 20 years ago, when a "krewe" in this city invited him to ride as their "king" or grand marshal, Jerry took them up on it. Immediately he began to be criticized. Mostly he ignored the barbs, but a couple of times he told how this opened doors for witness. After all, as a member of the Grand Ol' Opry, he frequently found himself backstage counseling entertainers whose marriages were on the rocks or whose lives were being ruined by strong drink and wayward living.
Did he do the right thing? To join the culture or try to avoid it altogether is a matter between oneself and the Lord.
Who are you to judge another man's servant? To his own master he stands or falls (Romans 14:4).
Psalm 137 is the perfect illustration of the Lord's people remaining aloof from the culture in which they found themselves....
By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion (Jerusalem). We hung our harps upon the willows... for those who carried us away captive required of us a song. Those who plundered us requested mirth, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion."
Got the picture here? Exiled in Babylon, Israel's temple singers are being asked to perform some of the songs of their faith.
Looks to us like a great opportunity to witness.
They didn't see it that way.
How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill. If I do not remember you, let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy.
It all goes downhill from there.
Think of that question, Christian: "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?"
That is precisely what we have been called on to do.
Our "strange land" lies just outside the doors of church. Anyone can sing the hymns of Zion indoors where the faithful gather and no one minds. But to sing the Lord's song in the factories and schools, in the clubs and restaurants, in the theaters and concert halls and playgrounds and stadiums is far better, much harder, more productive, and far more hazardous.
The Apostle Paul and Don Richardson have a great approach.
In Acts 17, when the Apostle confronted the philosophers of Athens with the message of Jesus Christ, he began with their own culture. Paul was sufficiently familiar with Athens to know of their addiction for new ideas and their fear of all the possible gods in the universe to the point of erecting a monument to "The Unknown God," just in case.
Paul said, "Therefore, the one whom you ignorantly worship, I proclaim to you" (17:23).
A good approach? It seems so. I'm impressed, I'll tell you that.
But others disagree.
Now, Paul had found a point of connection with those people, an area where the message of Christ touched them perfectly. No syncretism here, in which one simply treats the gospel as an additive and mixes well with the current religious fads and erroneous ideas.
However, critics point out that Paul's message that day never was finished. The moment he mentioned the resurrection (17:32), the crowd turned into a mob and took over the meeting. Some say Paul even admits as much when he tells the Corinthians—the group to whom he went immediately on leaving Athens—that "when I came to you, I did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God" (I Cor. 2:1). They say Paul was reacting against the approach he had attempted in Athens.
Don Richardson wrote a book called "Peace Child" some years ago detailing the discovery he and his missionary team made with a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea. The work was hard and slow and the results were miniscule, until the day Richardson learned of a custom the warring tribes had by which one group would give the other a small baby, called a "peace child." The receiving tribe had to raise the infant. So long as the child lived, peace reigned between the tribes.
Thereafter, in his ministry to these people Richardson drew parallels between God giving us Jesus Christ His Son—who came to us as a Baby—and "He himself is our peace" (Ephesians 2:14). That day, the people began to "see" and to believe.
Later, Richardson's second book, "Eternity in Their Hearts," recounts tales from tribal cultures across the globe wherein missionaries had found stories, myths, customs, and legends that were ready-made vehicles for the gospel. The title came from Ecclesiastes 3:11.
This principle calls on us to learn the culture of the people to whom we were sent, then prayerfully look for avenues and tie-ins and parallels which the Lord has prepared for alert disciples to present the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Let the Christian worker not look for the easy way out, but become a student of the culture and look for the hand of God in what he finds.
No gospel worker who chooses to remain aloof from the culture where he goes to minister will have much effect on it. He will not know how to relate his message to its intricacies or needs.
There is no place for lazy evangelists.
I received a note once from a young minister in another state looking for a church to pastor. "But let me emphasize," he said, "I do not want to waste my time with a lot of people stuck in their traditions. I'm looking for a church poised for growth, where everyone loves the Lord and each other. They're ready to follow a dynamic leader and willing to do whatever it takes."
I responded that we did not have any churches like that, that all our churches were made up of believers at every conceivable stage of spirituality and maturity, that most of our people were struggling to rebuild their homes and their lives after a devastating hurricane, and that he should probably look elsewhere.
I never heard of him again.
An old manual for missionaries puts it this way: A necessary qualification for missionary work is a love and appreciation of one's own culture demonstrated by involvement in it. A Christian who has a lively interest in history, economics, politics, music, art, and literature will appreciate the same things in other cultures. If he cherishes his own social values and institutions, he will be more likely to respect those of others.
The multicultural nature of the United States makes it an ideal training ground for the missionary who will be communicating across cultural barriers. It offers unlimited opportunities for involvement with different cultures and subcultures, which will give invaluable experience on the foreign field.
I have difficulty believing the sincerity of a man who has no concern at all for Afro-Americans, Chicanos, Indians, and Chinese here in America but who will cross ocenas to love these same people in other parts of the world. The English say, "Charity begins at home." (from Pius Wakatama in "Cultural and Social Qualifications for Overseas Service")
The Lord's workers must avoid the extremes.
The church of Constantine's day seems to have joined the culture and adopted its values and lust for riches. As a reaction against this surrender to the world, concerned priests—monks—began to pull aside from the culture and live in isolation in deserts and mountains. Monasteries were built for groups of monks whose isolation was a protest against the self-indulgence and surrender of the church to the standards of the world.
Both extremes are just that, however. Extremes. We should not join the culture; we must not abandon it. We must engage it. That will require us to study and learn it, to appreciate what is good about it, and to identify and use the portions which prepare the hearts of its people for the gospel of Jesus.
Therefore, most Christian workers will learn to live with tension.
There seems to be no clear path between the world on one side and the Lord's way on the other. The two seem to overlap at places and to be strangers to the other at other times.
In the racially troubled south of my early days in the ministry, some pastors I knew turned their pulpits into platforms for their own racial prejudice or rage against racism. Others—among whom I count myself—tried to find ways to minister to our people who were themselves struggling to find "the way" out of their Jim Crow past but without capitulating to the liberal theology of some of the extreme activists.
There was always tension. We were always getting shot at by both sides.
In time, I came to believe that tension is the norm for those trying to bring the gospel into their culture. They will be working to learn it and relate to it, but working just as hard to keep a healthy distance from its worst values and seductive charms.
There are no easy answers. I like them as much as the next person, but there just don't seem to be any.
We will give the Apostle Paul the final word on this today. "I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some" (I Corinthians 9:22).
Now, all we have to do is figure out what that means.
Dr. Joe McKeever is a preacher, cartoonist and the retired Director of Missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. Currently he loves to serve as a speaker/pulpit fill for revivals, prayer conferences, deacon trainings, leadership banquets and other church events. Visit him and enjoy his insights on nearly 50 years of ministry at JoeMcKeever.com.