Reaching Out to All: Stripping Away the Culture of Church

Would the tax collectors and prostitutes of Jesus day be welcome at your church as they were at Jesus table?

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)

7 thoughts on “Reaching Out to All: Stripping Away the Culture of Church

  1. Michael says:

    Challenge delivered and understood in this deep, well written blog. How much does God-given gifts play into this? Might some churches be more “gifted” at inclusiveness than others? Your blogs always make me look in the mirror.

  2. Pastor Hein,

    A couple questions that may generate discussion:

    1. How does Romans 12:12 fit with your points above?

    2. On Sunday morning during a regular worship service, who is worshipping?

    3. As far as our national church body is concerned, would there be any name that we might call ourselves that in 100 years would not be misunderstood?

    4. I realize that every local church has different situations, but here in Hartford, we have a growing list of delinquents who do not come here anymore because we are no longer “the church they grew up in.” Does your definition of the “lost” that we should be bending over backwards for only include those who have never heard of Jesus?

    thanks for writing.



    • Thanks very much for some good thought points, Rev. Husby! I was going to wait and see if others wanted to jump into the discussion, but I can’t wait myself, so here goes 🙂

      To point 1) Actually, to this one, I was just curious if you were referring to Romans 12:2 – “conforming to the pattern of this world”. If not, I might need you to clarify a bit your question.

      To point 2) The only “true” worshippers (although we know hypocrites may be present) are those with faith in Christ in their hearts. This is obviously an important distinction when it comes to the design of the service. God’s children are primarily the ones we keep in mind. To that issue, however, I’d like to bring up a point from Christie’s WELS symposium paper (linked in the post), pgs. 18-19. He references the early church’s distinction between the synaxis and the Eucharist, and how the non-Christians, while allowed to be present during the synaxis, were dismissed before the Eucharist. This makes perfect sense to me….the portion of the service that was dominated by verbal gospel proclamation was open to all. The portion of the service that was an expression of Christian faith (i.e. more technically “worship”) was designed for only Christians. That portion included prayer, Lord’s Supper, offering, etc.

      We run into a real issue today in the fact that we present (in my opinion) a pretty inconsistent message in our worship services when we invite/encourage non-members to participate in some acts of worship (and therefore expressions of fellowship) in prayer and songs of praise and even offerings, but we draw a line (as should be drawn) with Communion. Why would the synaxis/Eucharist model for Sunday morning worship not be a viable option today? Invite all to come to the readings, perhaps a musical solo or choir song or two, and an exposition of Scripture, and then dismiss them while the “members” partake in the decidedly worship acts, perhaps with a “community” period in between. That was one issue that didn’t come out in the papers which disappointed me a little. The assumption seemed to be made that a worship service is the most common point of outreach for a church-shopping society and is a reality we need to deal with, without any possible alterations to the current format presented.

      To this discussion, sometimes people bring up the 1 Corinthians 14:23 point of Paul suggesting unbelievers were present at the Sunday Christian gathering. That’s my understanding too, only that they were there for the “proclamation” portion. The bigger issue for me in that section (as it pertains to our discussion here) is that Paul highlights the importance of intelligible (understandable) words when proclaiming the gospel (as opposed to the speaking in tongues, in the 1 Corinthians 14 context). The point seems to be that whatever clarifies the gospel is better than that which could potentially hide, confuse, or cloud the gospel. I do think that inflated rhetoric (e.g. some of the words I mentioned in the article) could cloud the gospel message to many people (even regular worshippers). Likewise, I get very concerned that wooden English translations of several hundred year-old hymns using several hundred year-old melodies could potentially complicate the gospel. The irony is that we use these older hymns specifically for the beauty of their orthodox doctrine, but the age & language & melody of the songs could actually work to cloud the orthodox doctrine. This certainly isn’t a universal statement about older hymns. Some I would never take out of a hymnbook because they’re just too good all-around. But, in general, I don’t think it’s any different from sermons. Some sermons from 500 years ago could be preached in churches today and would resonate loud and clear. Some, however, would be so culturally antiquated in language and illustration that they probably wouldn’t be be fitting. If most people were to listen and understand one from 500 years ago, it’d have to be dynamite and if everyone would grasp it, it’d probably be the exception to the rule.

      To point 3)I guess I wouldn’t look at it in terms of what name could we come up with that would last forever. The way I’d look at it is “Why was this name originally chosen?” and “Is this name still accomplishing the originally intended purpose?” While I wasn’t there (and truthfully haven’t heard the full explanation) of why the name “Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod” was chosen, what is very obvious is that it is a highly specific name. I’m guessing it designed to be highly specific so as to clarify what we do and do not represent as a church body. So, we ask the question, “Does the name still clarify that today?” As I was trying to point out in the article, I’m not convinced that today it does clarify who we are and what we’re all about. (I’m guessing most WELS pastors have had to have many conversations correcting someone’s misunderstanding of who/what we believe as a church body, that came from a misperception based on our name). Today, I think it might cloud who we are and what we’re about. And if that really is the case, it’s probably worth a reconsideration (and obviously I know that it has been brought up and discussed before, but perhaps as the climate of Christianity in America changes, e.g. recent publicity of homosexual clergy in the ELCA, maybe the need becomes greater).

      To point 4) I guess I’d try to clarify one point first here. I think stripping away some of the culture in the church, while it will benefit the lost, will also benefit the regulars. While I think some do understand (and greatly benefit from) a highly contextualized church experience and can do so without adopting the conclusion that it’s a morally superior way to worship, I think it’s probably a minority. So I think losing some “church culture” would benefit regular members as well. My opinion would be that the less that the Sunday morning routine seems disjointed from the rest of life (as its own highly cultured animal), the less easy it is to “departmentalize” my Christian life as something I do on Sunday mornings. Conversely, the more the Sunday morning occasion looks like life (but with a highly and intentionally Jesus-centered focus), the easier it is to then see Jesus as part of my everyday life (and my life every day as an act of worship to Christ).

      In all honesty, I think this is in part why God allowed the Jewish temple to be destroyed in 70 A.D. Not only did the Malachi 3:1 prophecy state that the coming Messiah would enter the temple, which then would mean for the Jews that a Messiah could not come after 70 A.D., but the temple (and all of the worship rituals that came along with it) continued to be a source of temptation for Jews who had converted to Christianity. In some respects, it was perhaps the biggest idol on the planet – a way people (specifically Jews) felt that they had to take part in to get close to God through ritual observance (in other words, a way to get close to God apart from Jesus). I do think it’s possible that those who insist on worshipping in certain ways or doing things in certain ways in church have made those church forms an idol. Without obviously knowing all of their complaints, it sounds like the delinquents you’re describing could certainly fall into that category.

      I think that many, many Christians need to repent of their “religion.” And I guess my point is that we probably need to strip away some culture in our churches for the benefit of 1) those who are coming regularly (so that they don’t begin to believe that the way we’re currently doing things is the only way), 2) for non-members (so that we’re not putting potential cultural obstacles in their way), and also 3) for the delinquents (so that they clearly understand that church is about Jesus, not about the way they like things or their own nostalgia).

      Whew! Fingers are cramped now 🙂 Big subjects.

      • Thats a fascinating take on the temple’s destruction, but I think you are right. Had it remained, it would have become a massive idol…. and instead of pointing people to God, it would have served as a distraction away from Him.

  3. S says:

    “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”

    These are words that are in the Bible, Catechism and The Confessions. Why do we think that people want to be treated as if they “can’t” understand? If we don’t use those words/phrases on Sunday morning, we would be limiting the passages of scripture that can be read in church. The Pastor can simply explain the meaning when the word or phrase is used on Sunday morning. Then it is a continuous process of learning and instruction. I don’t think we are giving newbies enough credit- even wiki-pedia knows the meaning of such words. It shouldn’t be just in Catechism or Bible class that the terms are taught, the majority of members only attend confirmation class once in their lifetime and just a small percent of membership attends Bible Class.

    • Take that, wikipedia! 🙂 J/K. I’m sorry, but I think I’m going to have to disagree here with your main point. You’re exactly right that the concept surrounding each word definitely needs to be explained. For example: Justification in the Bible is the concept of a courtroom setting in which someone on trial is declared “not guilty.” It is also used in our English Bibles. Great picture of what God does for us! The problem, however, is that the original Greek hearers of the New Testament languages would have immediately understood the picture. There wasn’t the same cultural barrier to communication in the language. Today, most people typically understand “justify” to carry the connotation of defending certain types of behavior. That certainly is not what we want to be communicated regarding people’s sinfulness, i.e. that it is defensible behavior. So……while the word “justification” has been used for a long time in the English language, it does not mean the same thing anymore in 2011 in common vernacular. Using it today clouds the truth of God’s Word for most people, rather than clarifies. It’d be kind of like saying, “I’m feeling so very gay today.” People in 2011 would raise their eyebrows. And I can argue till I’m blue in the face that “gay” originally meant “happy” in the English language, I could “educate” people on the etymology of “gay”, but I’m probably not going to cause the full societal paradigm shift necessary to redefine “gay” so that it makes it clear to people that I’m happy, not that I’m attracted to men.

      I think it’s important to keep in mind that our English Bibles (and English versions of the Catechism and Confessions for that matter) are translations from other languages. They were translated for the singular purpose of CLARIFYING God’s Word to people. Luther considered his translation of the Bible into the common language of his German people to be his greatest triumph – because people now had acccess to truth from God. They had that because he took obscure language and made it transparent to them.

      It’s also important to guard against specific Christian language “abracadbras”. The Holy Spirit works supernaturally through the message, not magically through the sounds. It’s the meaning of the words, not the letters, sounds, & syllables that touches hearts. It’d be like saying that I could use the terms genus idiomaticum, genus maiestaticum, and genus apotelesmaticum to teach the true nature of Christ as the God-man, or I could just explain how he is the God-man in terms that don’t require people to jump through linguistic hoops as an added obstacle. While technical terms might be accurate, they’re not always beneficial. I’m not saying that technical terminology in general is wrong. I’m saying that if it’s more technical than where I should reasonably suppose people are at (and “common vernacular” is where I should probably suppose most Christians or non-Christians are at), than I should probably explain the concepts of such words without using such words/phrases. Could the specific syllables be taught to people? Sure. People could also, in theory, be taught Greek & Hebrew. I don’t know that that’s a reasonable pursuit though. I don’t know if redefining the way people speak today is a reasonable pursuit. I’m much too interested in spending time making sure they hear the gospel than to help them build a technical vocabulary.

      The number of Christians who don’t think that Bible Study is for them is another issue, which I won’t address here. But, I would say that having Bible studies filled with teaching technical dogmatic terms (learning “Christian” language) probably ain’t going to get people there either. I don’t know that I’d attend myself.

      Finally, I’d ask you to take a look at Acts 8:26-40 (Philip and the Ethiopian). Philip is witnessing to a man who is reading the Bible (Isaiah 53). And yet, because the man was not Jewish, he did not at all grasp the prophecy about the coming Messiah. When Philip asked him if he understood what he was studying, the man said, “How can I, unless someone explains it to me?” Biblical concepts can be challenging. Biblical language can be challenging. Simple explanation and clear communication are therefore incredibly, incredibly important in gospel proclamation.

  4. Last week I found myself in a worhip service that made me uncomfotable in a number of ways. While I don’t think that the worship service was as beneficial for me as another might have been, I couldn’t help but find myself thinkig, “This is probably what the unchurched person feels like when we use page 15.” I think it’s good to take a step outside the box and realize that what makes us uncomfortable isn’t necessarily wrong.
    Terrific post.

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