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The Jesus Enterprise
Engaging Culture to Reach the Unchurched
By Kent R. Hunter
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2004 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
What's Your Posture?
For the last two thousand years, the Christian Church has seemingly had a love/hate relationship with culture.
When I was in high school, I experienced a growth spurt. It affected my posture to the point that I needed to wear a back brace. It was necessary because poor posture affects all the other systems in the human body. If left uncorrected, it would have caused many serious problems.
Proper posture also affects the Body of Christ. Every Christian has a posture to the culture around them. Your posture is reflected in your attitudes and beliefs regarding culture. The level of your effectiveness in God's kingdom work depends greatly on your posture. A healthy posture allows God to accomplish God's purposes in and through you. An incorrect posture creates difficult, and sometimes painful, problems.
Discussions on Christianity and culture aren't new. In 1951, theologian H. Richard Niebuhr wrote the book Christ and Culture. In it, he describes the various approaches Christians have taken concerning the place of Christ in connection with culture. The chapters discuss Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ as transformer of culture. But while Niebuhr's work wrestled with the position of Christ and culture, this book is written to help you, as a Christian, relate to culture as Jesus did for the purpose of mission. Jesus engaged the culture around him. He had to. It was a part of his mission, and he's given you a part in that mission as well.
Walt Kallestad, senior pastor of Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Arizona says, "The church exists for no other reason than to participate in God's mission. Without mission there is no church." Kallestad believes this is the
time for the people of God to become a radically inclusive community. ... all are invited to sit at God's table. There are no outsiders for Jesus. All are included, all are invited.
Ironically, the only folks in the Gospels who could be called outsiders are those who, out of religious pride and prejudice, exclude themselves from God's inclusive reign.
This "all inclusiveness" is a posture toward people outside the Body of Christ. It is an intentional positioning toward the culture that is inviting and engaging. When you are involved in efforts that engage the culture, you are part of an enterprise ministry. Enterprise ministry meets real needs. Loving and caring for people without other motives is the genuine integrity of Christianity. Yet, as it meets needs, enterprise ministry builds bridges that engage people. This engagement ultimately provides a platform for relevant gospel communication. Why? You share the good news in the context of a relationship that began when you met someone's real needs. There are other ways to do it, but the gospel makes more sense when it's shared by someone you know, rather than two strangers knocking on your door or a person with a shaved head and a strange outfit handing out tracts at an airport. Tim Wright describes it this way:
For the last two thousand years, the Christian Church has seemingly had a love/hate relationship with culture. On the one hand, we know that Jesus invites us as his followers to go into culture and make disciples of all peoples. He calls us to be in the world in order to share his life-transforming love with others.
On the other hand, as people transformed by the love of Christ, we want to align ourselves with his values and increasingly distance ourselves from the impact of the negative values of culture. Although Jesus calls us into the world, the apostle Paul warns us not to conform to culture—or not to be of the world.
Wright asserts that Christians often focus more on not being of the world than they do on being in the world. When this happens, Christians tend to withdraw from culture and create their own subculture. In this subculture, they preserve their style of music, dress, structure, liturgy—everything that makes them comfortably insulated from the world and its culture. The problem arises when non-Christians attend events, usually worship services, within this subculture. To the non-Christian, much of it seems "foreign." The language is strange, the buildings are odd, the music is radically different, and the symbols make no sense. These are communication barriers. The components of this subculture work against Christians who want to share the good news of Jesus with people far from God, which is exactly what God has called us to do!
Tackling this issue is crucial because Christians often forget why the church exists. In the Christian subculture, the church exists for the members. But the church that Jesus envisioned and commissioned exists for others. My friend Charles Van Engen points out that the Bible "doesn't say, in John 3:16, that God so loved the church that He gave His only begotten Son. It says that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. Our mission is the world, not the church." Walt Kallestad also adds, "At the opening ceremony for Disney World, Walt Disney, the creative genius behind the theme park, proclaimed, 'We didn't build this for ourselves. We built it for others.'" Jesus' Great Commission calls us to have the same attitude.
As I work assessing and consulting churches, I often see symptoms of poor posture. Without correction, these symptoms hinder the very purpose of the local congregation. In other words, the effectiveness of God's work comes down to people like you—and the posture you have toward your culture.
Throughout history, Christians have chosen one of five different postures toward culture. Four of these postures have a debilitating effect on the Christian movement: retreating from culture, ignoring culture, judging culture, and preserving culture. The rest of this chapter will examine those four postures. The fifth one allows God to affect other people in a profound way (which will be the focus of the next chapter). Unfortunately, this correct posture is frequently lost in the lives of Christians and the work of churches—the very places where it should thrive! As we look at these various postures toward culture, I challenge you to evaluate your own posture with an open and receptive heart.
Retreating from Culture
There are many examples throughout history where Christians have chosen to retreat from culture. I live in northeast Indiana, a region that is home for numerous Amish communities. The Amish are wonderful, hardworking, and simple people who, by religious conviction, retreat from modern culture. The Amish believe they have chosen a period in history when life was better and, supposedly, more "Christian." Frozen in time, they resist various forms of modernism.
This isn't God's plan for the Christian church. The message of Christianity isn't confined to one specific period of time. Christianity transcends time and culture, even though today's culture may not be "as Christian" as the one the Amish picked.
Jesus spent most of his public ministry under the scrutiny of the religious leaders. They were so steeped in old customs and traditions that they were unwilling or unable to see that God was fulfilling his promise of a Messiah, even though Jesus was right in front of them! In their retreat from the culture, they were unable to receive the good news Jesus had for them. He compared them to old wineskins into which he was trying to pour new wine (Matthew 9:17).
The extreme case of Christian retreat from culture is life in convents and monasteries. Some live in complete isolation from the rest of the world, growing deeper in their walk with Christ. It is possible that God is calling some to that life. But the majority of Christians are commissioned to reach out to others who have yet to meet Christ. Salvation carries with it the challenge to engage others.
Many Christians have retreated to their own version of convents and monasteries. What would you do, for example, if your son or daughter brought home a friend who was gay? How would you react if a friend brought a prostitute to your Bible class? When you see a part of your culture that makes you uncomfortable, do you tend to back away from it? Is your faith integrated into all of life? Or do you tend to separate the sacred from the secular and retreat from culture? Ask yourself, "Is that what Jesus did? Is that what he called his church to do? Is that his plan for his mission through you in this world, to retreat from culture?" Retreating from culture doesn't address issues; it just prevents you from bringing Christ's influence to the solution.
Throughout history, Christians have often assumed the posture of ignoring the culture. I remember attending a church only two Sundays after the September 11, 2001, attack by terrorists on the United States. We were only twelve days removed from the haunting images of the twin towers. We were gripped by fear. The nation was still reeling, but God, in grace and mercy, was drawing people to worship. Spiritual receptivity was soaring, and people far from God were coming face-to-face with their own mortality. Some people were coming back to church. But in the worship service I attended, the pastor's sermon seemed to ignore what was going on in the world. Although he preached a wonderful exposition from a portion of Acts, he never once engaged the concerns and questions that every single attendee had that morning. He delivered a sound, theological message, but he ignored the culture.
Evidence of Christians ignoring culture is strong. In this twenty-first century, major ethical issues concerning genetic research, cloning, and biotechnology are making headlines on a regular basis. But most Christians are curiously silent on the issues. It's almost as if they don't like the difficult challenges that such issues raise. They ignore them in hopes that they'll eventually go away. Of course, that's wishful thinking—they never will.
In his challenging book, Learning the Language of Babylon, Terry Crist talks about the church's distance from political structures. "The Church is allowed a great deal of freedom, but at the same time expected to stay in her place. So we find ourselves seated at the table of unilateral disarmament, saying to the enemy, 'Just give us our tax-free status, leave us alone, and we will leave the popular culture to you.'" Christians sometimes ignore culture. This is why, for many years, churches in the U.S. allowed blatant segregation of African Americans and, before that, their enslavement. Crist also points out that one of the dangers of ignoring culture, especially in the twenty-first century, is that the "Church may continue to retreat to the cultural sidelines and revert to an expression of Christianity that prides itself in irrelevance."
I see this in some of the churches I serve as a consultant. An elderly greeter will smile and say, "Good morning," with a twinkle in his eye to guests and members as they enter the building—at least until a teenager with a nose ring and tattoos walks in. He pretends he doesn't even see him. Or the building committee that refuses to install a baby-changing table in the bathroom, even though many of the people moving into the new subdivision are young parents. Or the elder who changes the words on the church's sign, using archaic language: "Thou believest the prophets?" In each case, they're ignoring the reality of the world in which they live.
It is easy to ignore problems that create discomfort, embarrassment, or fear of confrontation. Many people refuse to talk about the HIV virus. It's hard to imagine why; so many millions are sick and dying from this terrible condition. Dr. Doug Kinne left his successful medical practice to serve in the area of medical missions. With his wife, Jan, Doug trained health care workers from numerous countries all over the world. Before he died, Doug wrote a course on how to serve people with the HIV virus. Today, that course is training medical missionaries all over the world on how to go into areas of great need and effectively serve people stricken with HIV. Through the context of their loving mission work, each missionary has incredible opportunities to demonstrate God's love and to share the good news of Jesus Christ. But work like that would never have happened if Doug had lived a posture that ignored culture.
What is your posture? Remember the story Jesus told the religious leaders about the man who was beaten up and robbed on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho (Luke 10:30-35)? Two people passed him by and ignored his plight, not wanting to get involved. They were religious people who were ignoring the obvious need of a bleeding and broken person. Many Christians read that and think, "Well, I'd never do that!" Yet Christians fail just as monumentally when they ignore a broken and bleeding culture because it is uncomfortable to engage it. What about you?
None of these postures are self-contained. You can ignore culture and retreat from it as well. You can have one or both postures and also judge the culture. Judging culture occurs when individuals act as judge, jury, and executioner of the culture around them. It is the most overtly antagonistic posture toward culture.
Have you ever wondered why unchurched people often refer to Christians as hypocrites? Interview unchurched people and you will discover something startling: Christians bring this criticism upon themselves. It isn't that Christians shouldn't ever disagree with the culture. If they never had a word about culture that pointed out the wrongs, Christians would be in the posture of ignoring culture. The real issue is that, in the absence of anything positive, many Christians take the posture of being totally negative. The world knows clearly what Christians are against, but it's not too sure what they're for. When non-Christians hear the pronouncements of judging Christians, they make the connection that Christians think they're perfect, or at least better. Then, when unbelievers see these imperfect Christians fail, they conclude they are hypocrites. This makes it nearly impossible for judging Christians to have any kind of evangelistic influence. As Ravi Zacharias pointed out: "The old Indian proverb holds true: Once you've cut off a person's nose, there's no point giving him a rose to smell."
How do you avoid ignoring culture without judging it? A proactive change in positioning can make a noticeable difference. You could be against abortion, but that has a negative ring to it. It makes unbelievers think you're positioning yourself in a posture of judgment. Instead, you could be pro-life, which is a positive approach to the same issue. Likewise, you could be against sexually offensive material and adult nightclubs, or you could be for healthy families and purity.
This posture of judgment doesn't just show up in individual Christians. Unfortunately, many sermons emphasize what's wrong with certain types of people. You can even hear messages that focus on what's wrong with other Christians. This is what occupies the void when proper biblical truths aren't upheld. Even denominations have this problem. Most denominations have a biannual or triannual national denominational meeting. It's about the only time the media covers the organizational side of the Christian church in the press. What most often makes the news? Usually, it's the rampant division and infighting in the denomination. It's no wonder many unbelievers hold the perspective that Christians have a posture of judgment. What about you? Do you talk about what you're against more than what you're for? Are you guilty of a judgmental posture?
Excerpted from The Jesus Enterprise by Kent R. Hunter. Copyright © 2004 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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