19 Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)
To say that you are interested in winning souls for Christ is one thing. To be about it is different. Every other aspect of the Christian faith works pretty much the same way: To say I love Jesus on Sunday morning is one thing. To make decisions that show he’s a top priority in my day-to-day life is another. To say I appreciate God’s Word is one thing. To study it with fellow believers, proclaim it in worship, and meditate upon it at home is another. To say that I appreciate God’s generous blessings is one thing. To use those blessings to glorify him by faithfully managing them and supporting the spread of his kingdom is another. You get the point. The Apostle Paul, as highlighted in his letter here to the Corinthians (and clearly seen in his mission work around the Mediterranean Sea in the book of Acts), put his outreach money (and life) where his mouth was.
I think almost every pastor (at least those who are “better” at evangelism work) has a sense of this in his heart – that we’d bend over backwards for the possibility of a single soul coming to faith in Jesus. For most of us, that’s why we got into this work in the first place. The hope of being used as an instrument of God to touch hearts with the good news of Jesus and redirect souls from death to life, darkness to light, hell to heaven, this is the thing that drives us. While pastors have this as a built-in portion of their job description, every Christian, albeit to varying degrees, plays a big part in the journey an unbeliever embarks on to become a Christian.
One massive way in which every Christian factors in to the entrance of an unbeliever into the church, is by being a part of “church culture.”
Since the Christian Church was a design of God, church culture, in a sense, was a design of God as well. The general nature of church culture was to be inclusive in Christ. What does that mean? It means that if Jesus Christ is your Lord and if his teaching guides your beliefs and life, you are a part of his Holy Church and should be welcomed into local churches, regardless of other intangibles. If you confess Jesus as your Lord and Savior and his Inspired Word as your source of faith, then it shouldn’t matter if your skin color is red or yellow or black or white, it shouldn’t matter if you’ve got classical or rock or rap or country or pop or jazz streaming through your iPod, it shouldn’t matter if you’re 5 years old or 50 years old or 105 years old, and it shouldn’t matter if you are unemployed or a farmer or a doctor, you can always feel welcome in your Christian church. In other words, it’s as the Apostle Paul also described in his letter to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) That should be church culture, inclusion in Christ.
Christianity is vastly different from other religions in that it inherently does not have its own worldly culture. It has no centralized location or home base of operations, no common language, and no common race or ethnic heritage. Aside from it being non man-centered, this “culture apart from worldly considerations” probably sets Christianity apart from other world religions as much as anything. The only true element that holds all of Christianity together is the risen Lord Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, without most Christians realizing it, many churches have a culture within themselves that is diametrically opposed to the culture described above. It’s a culture of exclusion that’s based on the personal comfort levels of members. What’s the reason? By nature we just don’t want to “be all things to all people.” By nature we want everything to be about us.
Practically, what this means is that (while we’d never say this) we’d much rather a newcomer be uncomfortable at our church than to make ourselves uncomfortable. So ingrained is our old nature that we still assume that to some degree the point of this life is to make ourselves as comfortable as possible and our lives as close to a utopian kingdom as can be, failing to hear Christ’s exhortation to a kingdom not “of this world” (John 18:36). And along with this mentality is an unwillingness to embrace the culture of our day (which carries the people of our day) in order to reach the lost.
But isn’t worldly culture evil?! Yes and no. Because it contains humans, it is tainted by sin. So are local churches though. You can’t get away from sinful humans if you’re going to try to minister to sinful humans. Of course Christians should not embrace the sinful elements they see in culture, but an unwillingness to embrace societal culture in general is, plain and simple, an unwillingness to “be all things to all people.”
Interestingly, a failure to embrace 1) God, 2) the biblical concept of church, or 3) the reality of society, will leave you falling short in some way in your faith. If you emphasize church and society apart from the authority of God, you end up with liberal, gospel-less pseudo-Christianity, a mere social gospel. If you emphasize God and culture apart from the church, you end up with parachurch organizations that try to convert people but don’t get them rooted in Christian growth or community. And, like many highly traditional churches, if you emphasize God and church apart from culture, you end up with a group so inwardly focused that it functionally ignores outreach to lost souls, regardless of whether or not people say they want to do outreach. Saying it is one thing. Being about it, as Paul was, is another.
What does the false “culture of the church” look like? Let me explain by way of anecdote: As I write this, I’m sitting in a coffee shop, listening to 2 ministers (one male, one female, both about 60 years old) hotly debating the possible redundancy of the Kyrie in the Gathering Rite of a specific historical order of worship. And before you point your“Pastor, you shouldn’t be eavesdropping” finger at me, understand that I’m fairly certain the barista brewing up a fresh roast in the back room probably heard every word of this liturgical troubleshooting too. The squawking was that loud and that passionate.
The point is this: I listened for over an hour to the ministerial elite sipping lattes and debating issues that the average Christian, let alone the average non-churchgoing person, don’t understand, don’t care about, and frankly probably shouldn’t care about that much because it’s merely entrenching even further the issue of a false church culture that distances people from the Great High Priest who fulfilled and therefore negated for us the Jewish ceremonial laws that pointed ahead to him. Not surprisingly, this same set of ministers was lamenting the lack of passionate and faithful young people found in their church body. I’ve got an idea where some of these young people might be….someplace where they’re not asked to enter a foreign culture to connect to Jesus….a place where the church culture merely is Jesus, period. That was part of the beauty of the early church. I’ve heard many talk about how church should be counter-cultural, which is a true statement, but shouldn’t be misunderstood. Church should be counter-cultural in that it is completely all-inclusive in Jesus. It should NOT be counter-cultural in that it asks people to stop being who they culturally are (moral problems notwithstanding). Rather, Paul’s writing (without compromising the gospel) seems to be compelling Christians to bend over backwards and be willing to adapt who we are for the sake of others. That is VERY different and VERY difficult.
So what are some ways in which we might be unwittingly creating a culture that was never designed for church? Here are just a few…
Insinuating (verbally or through practice) that there’s only one appropriate way, form, or style to corporately worship God.
People have very passionate feelings about this, and I admittedly don’t always know exactly how to balance being respectful about such feelings and yet be firm here, but this is manmade church culture, plain and simple. (If you say there is only one way to worship, then your functional god is your religion, not Jesus.) Here’s one example of church culture in worship: there is no place in society where we antiphonally sing responses back and forth to one another. That is a unique culture. As far as I’m personally concerned, there’s also sort of a unique beauty to it, but there’s no denying that it’s counter-cultural. And so the question needs to be answered as to whether the potential benefit gained from it outweighs the cultural obstacle that it presents. (SIDE NOTE: for more on the topic of worship and outreach, here’s a link to three essays from our seminary’s website that pursue the issue.
Not having intentional ways of showing genuine interest in newcomers.
Every Christian should embrace one another with open arms, particularly those new to the faith, right? Therefore, integrating new Christians and new church members into the body should just naturally happen, right? Well, it doesn’t. There’s probably lots of reasons for that, but finally, it takes hard work to make it happen, and that starts from church leadership down, having a system in place to assimilate people (i.e. make them feel “at home” in their Christian community).
Not understanding the mentality and lifestyle of newcomers.
People new to church are going to use rougher language, have rougher lifestyles, and in general, have more rough edges in their lives to smooth out than me, since I’ve had the privilege and advantage of many years of spiritual growth. Christianity is much less about where I’ve been as much as it is about the direction I’m moving in. While we obviously don’t just tolerate sin, welcoming newcomers means that we understand that spiritual maturation is a process and is therefore no occasion to insert our own self-righteous judgments when someone is moving in the right direction.
Answering questions to newcomers with that old, pompous“I can’t believe you didn’t know that, you must have been raised by heathen wolves” attitude.
While we’re not Jesus and we’re not Saviors, part of the DNA of being in the body of Christ is a humble willingness to descend to save people rather than making spiritually condescending comments to people. In other words, we sympathize with where people are in their spiritual progression in order to help coach them along. We don’t patronize, but we also don’t assume anything.
Not being sympathetic to the fact that it takes time for people to build trust and commitment to a church family.
If the church family isn’t the one that goes out of the way to consistently embrace the newcomer, the newcomer will be lost. Although a newcomer can’t delineate every doctrinal point, they’re human, so they can feel love, generosity, and acceptance as well as any long-time member. If they don’t perceive that, but rather perceive a bunch of ritualistic hoops that they have to jump through and a bunch of non-biblical rules they have to follow, they’ll bolt. I probably would too.
Using religious language and phrases that humans who aren’t in worship every Sunday morning wouldn’t understand.
Justification, sanctification, discipleship, salvation, conversion, sacrament, covenant, bought with blood, being in the Word, Spirit-filled, dying to self, old and new natures, old and new man, etc. are probably all phrases that have no business being used on Sunday mornings since newbies (and for that matter regular Christians) aren’t familiar with most of them. For many, they cloud instead of clarify biblical truth. I became painfully aware of how unbeneficial this kind of “church language” was when conducting a Bible study a number of years ago with a friendly group of seniors to whom I embarrassingly encouraged to “daily kill the old man.”
Practically, I think there are all sorts of big and obvious issues that are affected by church culture. But again, by way of illustration, and to help us think through the issue of church culture, let’s take one more tangible example. Look at the name of our national church body – Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. As far as I can tell those 4 words present 4 possible cultural obstacles to joining our church body, a group I belong to because I believe it very faithfully teaches the truth of God’s Word. I want others to see that truth too, so I’d love to remove any possible obstacles. “Wisconsin” seems to alienate people geographically. “Evangelical” is a word that in 2011 is more associated with a Christian movement than it is with its original meaning of being gospel-centered. “Lutheran” is a word that, due to some recent and public anti-Scriptural leanings of the largest Lutheran church body in America, has become somewhat of a dirty word in American Christendom. And “Synod” is a word that I’d guess less than 1% of the population can come very close to defining. Does the culture of our name prevent us from “being all things to all people”? I’ve heard some argue that it doesn’t. I have trouble believing that. If it doesn’t, then somebody should let the marketing departments at KFC and IHOP know that their research was invalid and their changes were pointless.
There should not be one single thing that we’re not willing to let go of, including our lives, if it means more opportunity for the gospel.
So how important is it to strip away our “church culture” (i.e. who we culturally are and what we’re culturally comfortable with as a church) in order to bring salvation to lost souls? In Jesus we find the answer. Not only is he the one who forgives us for our unwillingness to stray outside our comfort zones to win the lost and welcome the new, but he’s the one who also teaches us the humility and pattern of how to do so. In Jesus, God himself became man, sacrificing the comfort of heaven to subject himself to the torture of hell, all to welcome sinners into his Church. That’s outreach. “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8)