To grow churches, we must adapt Gospel innovations in an increasingly resistant culture

We need to know our culture and context, engage it well, live for Christ and subvert the brokenness around us — and do it in culturally relevant ways. | by Ed Stetzer People have a tendency to get willfully locked into their way of doing ministry. In doing so, we end up loving the particular way we do church more than the particular people our churches have been called to reach. I’ve said many times before that if the 1950s were to make a comeback, there would be all too many churches that could go on without missing a beat. The good news is that they have found a ministry strategy that works. The bad news is that the only people they reach now are seventy years old. Before long, the ministry strategy is as old as the congregation. The church that once thrived with innovative ways to reach its community has now shriveled to a handful of people who have completely lost touch with the surrounding neighborhood. Now, church is more than a body that engages its community. It should have certain biblical marks and should be focused on eternal purposes. However, it must also take the faith it believes and live it out in context.

Church Should Impact the Community

There should be a difference in the community because the church exists, and if it left for some reason, a void should be felt. Unfortunately, that’s not often the case. We tend to become more about church preservation than community transformation. Perhaps no one sees this more keenly than church planters. Many are entering communities with a church presence that is long gone. They find it easier to simply start a church, with new, innovative strategies that will engage the modern community. This alone will not solve the problem, however. Should that church survive another 50 years, they could find themselves in the very same position as the dying churches around them. Solely pursuing cultural relevance is not the answer. Relevance is a tool; gospel proclamation is the goal. When we pursue relevance as the goal, it leads to an unhelpful pendulum swing in church culture.

Don’t Get on the Pendulum

At one end of the spectrum, we have “pop psychology” preaching that is intended to appeal to the culture at large, but it’s devoid of the Gospel. From this perspective, you get sermon titles like “Three Ways to a Good Marriage,” “Five Steps to a Stress-Free Life” or “Four Keys to Obedient Pets.” The next generation realizes that this preaching isn’t working so well. They swing to the other end and reject cultural relevance entirely to get back to a “pure preaching” of the Gospel. In their quest, however, they can fail to engage the culture around them. I could name names and organizations, but that swing is evident in our culture today — both extremes are taking place before our eyes. It’s not helpful, and the pendulum swings are not reaching others with the Gospel. I 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, with the example of Paul.

Biblical Models of Contextualization

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. 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. To reach our contemporary counterparts, we need to follow Paul’s example and build bridges so that we can 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. Therefore, culture is the ever-changing context in which we proclaim a biblically faithful, never-changing Gospel.

Biblically Faithful, Contextually Appropriate

Consequently, a biblically faithful church in Singapore should look different than one in Saskatchewan, which should look different from one in Senegal. The bottom line is that where we are should influence the way we have conversations about Jesus — but the conversations should be about Jesus. This isn’t always going to feel very comfortable. Here in North America, our culture is becoming more resistant and less overtly Judeo-Christian. Recent surveys show that a little more than 70 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians. However, if we define a Christian 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. The downside to this is there can be downright hostility to the Gospel. The upside is that, as “cultural Christianity” is no longer popular, it is encouraging a more robust desire within Christians to get serious about their faith. But if we’re going to proclaim the Gospel in an increasingly antagonistic culture, we’re going to have to leave where we are comfortable. We can’t engage evangelistically by going with the culture, and we can’t engage effectively without living in the culture. So how do we preach Christ in the culture without being captured by it?

Engaging Culture

I think a big part of this answer is seen in Acts 1:8, just before Jesus ascends to heaven. Jesus’ disciples were looking to Him for an overt coming of His Kingdom, one demonstrated through political and military power over the Romans. 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 the world would expect. It’s subversive and underground, yet very real and present. Just like the disciples, we can look around and see certain cultural indicators that are going the wrong direction. We can subvert this broken world order, however, by serving those who are hurting and by 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. Thus, we need to know our culture and context, engage it well, live for Christ and subvert the brokenness around us, and do it in culturally relevant ways. Paul was unashamed to say, “What you have worshiped in ignorance, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23). I am struck both by his boldness and savvy. May we all be bold and wise as we engage an increasingly hostile and confused culture around us with the greatest news the world has ever known — Jesus Christ, the way, the truth and the life. CGM

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