Many of us involved in local churches have heard this question before. In most cases, we take the question at face value and we respond with a physical location like “2434 Somewhere Street” or we say, “on Main street between Fifth and Sixth avenues across from the courthouse.” While we know that a church is something completely different from the physical location where it meets, we accept the geographical identity so that people asking can locate us if they desire. We are, however, living in a time when this simple question is taking on a larger, more significant meaning. Rather than referring to a physical address, many of us are asking this question of ourselves as members of the Body of Christ. As we seek to remain true to the Gospel and to the practices we have known and loved, we also see the growing gulf between who we are as the Body of Christ and the culture that surrounds us. Where are we in trying to navigate these different realities.
Every congregation, no matter its size or its resources, faces the same call to reach out to the world around it and show God’s love forgiveness and call people to a living relationship with Jesus Christ. Fulfilling this call, however, is becoming ever more challenging. There is a great and growing difference between what the church and the surrounding culture says is true, important, relevant and of worth. How did we get here? And, more importantly, what do we, as the church, need to do? Too many times we are tempted to ignore this reality, close our eyes to the challenges and just keep on doing what we have always done – trusting that in time, the society around us will return. The larger we are as a congregation, the easier it is to maintain and continue as we always have. It is sad to say, but the growing evidence seems to indicate that the culture is not returning.
The evangelical church in the USA is part of a long tradition of Western Christianity that is unique in the world. For many years, Western Culture reflected clear Judeo-Christian values and norms. Christianity was for many centuries the dominant religious expression. The observations I make regarding our Western culture do not hold true for those regions or cultures where Christianity did not become prominent or influential. I have come to believe that we are now living in a period of history that is as close to the First Century as we have every experienced. Just as in our day now, the first Christians lived lives that were radically different from the cultures around them. Followers of Christ, because of their attitudes, actions and lifestyle, stood out. Those mired in hopelessness, evil, and selfishness were drawn to the love, forgiveness and new life offered in the Gospel. Very quickly, these new Christ-centered values, attitudes and lifestyle began to draw the surrounding cultures closer and closer. For many centuries, Western culture became almost synonymous with Christianity. Churches developed practices, patterns and expectations that proved effective in reaching people who shared similar cultural values, paradigms, and expectations– even though they may not have been active followers of Christ. We have now entered an era when the surrounding culture is leaving us again and is rejecting the values, priorities, attitudes and lifestyle that have characterized Evangelical Christianity for many generations. There is a growing rejection of our faith that is fed by many sources. As the culture becomes increasingly hostile and intolerant of our faith, what are our options as the church?
One option is to follow the culture. This is almost an “if you can’t beat it, join it” philosophy. This option reflects the desire to retain the close relationship that existed between Christianity and the culture around it. Many congregations have chosen to let the culture guide their hermeneutic, their values and their practices. Often, these congregations are large, popular and, on the surface, effective. Yet, churches who choose this path lose their distinctiveness and their ability to produce true spiritual change in the society. As my pastor often says, to make a difference you must be different. A second option for is to hold on to long-standing paradigms and practices in the sincere belief that if we just “keep the faith”, the world around us will eventually get fed up with the emptiness of life and return. The problem here is that many of these traditional practices, strategies and approaches were only effective in a world of similar, shared mindsets and values. They are now being applied to realities and challenges they were never designed to meet. The very people we are seeking to reach are now marching to a different drummer and have a very different view of life and truth. If we continue to reach out as we have always done, we will find ourselves like a group of tourists I saw who were asking loudly and continually in English for service in a restaurant where everyone else spoke only Spanish. The Spanish speakers wanted to serve, but they could not understand. Churches choosing this option can feel content because they are remaining faithful to what they know is true, yet they often find themselves declining. The high number of plateaued and dying churches among Evangelicals today indicate where this path or option can lead. Why are churches closing their doors in the middle of some of the greatest lostness we have seen in generations? The surest way to irrelevance and decline is to continue approaches designed for a different reality. How effective would massive newspaper ads be in a world of ipads, smart phones, and declining readership?
Where is my church in this new reality? We at Glocal Focus Associates believe the key is to look back at how our brothers and sisters in the First Century began to change their world in a generation. What were they doing that we, the fruit and legacy of their faithfulness, are not doing? They faced evil just as we face evil. They faced persecution just as we face growing rejection and persecution. These early believers grasped a truth that we need to rediscover. We do not need to let ourselves be deceived or diverted by our technology or our development. Our faith, at its core, is relational. Discipleship, at its core, is relational. Many congregations are discovering and practicing this truth and they are having a tremendous impact in their communities. In areas of the world where open persecution draw clear lines between followers of Christ and the society around them, growing churches in these contexts reflect the relational core of what it means to love as Jesus loved, forgive as Jesus forgave, care as he cared, heal as he healed. Again, I raise the question, where is your church? Is it on a path that reflects our changing culture rather than changing it? Is it on a path leading it to yell louder and louder to people who can no longer speak its language? Or are you considering what it will mean to look behind the structures, the events, the plans and find what it means to engage people at the level where they hurt and where they need and learn their “language” so that they can clearly see Christ and his Gospel. Our unchanging God has demonstrated his power and desire to change the world in the First century. He calls on us – His church – to allow ourselves to be used to do the same in the 21st Century.