The key to gaining a hearing in our culture
It’s time we face the music. That day we’ve heard about … it’s here.
Our culture doesn’t care about Jesus.
I know, it sounds irreverent—but it’s true. The prevailing posture of our nation is rapidly equalizing on this issue, especially in a post-COVID world. As we all know, the coronavirus has only accelerated changes that were already in motion. Even in places formerly known as “religious,” mindsets about Christianity and Christ are shifting at an unprecedented rate. Sure, the Wild West and the Chilly Northeast have an edge. Still, we all need to understand how to navigate the new normal.
2 BIG QUESTIONS EVERY PASTOR NEEDS TO WRESTLE WITH:
Question No. 1: How will the changing landscape impact my ministry?
The short answer is, they’re no longer coming to us. Those days are gone. Have you noticed? I sure have. I lead a church in the Portland, Oregon, area—a city widely regarded as one of the most irreligious cities in America. I can assure you, the vast majority of people in my neighborhood are not looking for an online or in-person church service to attend this Sunday. Far from it. In fact, one of the troubling realities is that most people seem quite happy without Jesus. I’ll bet it’s not so different where you live.
The bottom line is that “the church” no longer has leverage. We don’t have any cultural currency. Contextually speaking, we are weak; we are the underdog. We can’t flex our influence or use our moral stance to shame anyone into doing anything. Nobody cares.
Add to that the massive disruption for all of us who weren’t prepared for the challenges of 2020—COVID lockdown, racial tension, political madness and economic uncertainty—and it can sometimes feel like we’re starting all over with a huge disadvantage.
Ok—now that you’ve slumped down in your seat and started looking for a new calling on Craigslist, let’s talk about the good news in all of this.
Question No. 2: What Can I Do About It?
If we don’t have leverage, if we don’t have power, if we don’t have know-how or money or momentum, then what do we have? Well as it turns out, we have something far better than all of that. We have love. And the love we have is not merely human love that rises and falls with the issues of the day.
The love we have been given is God’s love—unfailing and unconditional. And guess what … everybody wants that. The truth is, in some ways I’m glad our weapons of the past have been taken away. The misuse of influence created by an overconfident church has created more resistance than repentance. This is a new day, and we’re accountable for ushering in a new way.
Serve from a Heart of Love
There’s a reason why Jesus talked about giving someone a cup of cold water in his name (Matt. 10:42). He taught his disciples that acts of service motivated by loving obedience create spiritual breakthrough (Matt. 5:16).
In a world where Christians have been stripped of their elevated status, service has become the currency of influence. It’s not surprising that Jesus saw this coming. In fact, he lived and ministered in a time much more like our own that we may realize. So did the apostle Paul, and so has almost every other Christian in history with the exception of those inside our tiny modern American bubble.
I wonder if that’s why Jesus’ weapons of love were a towel for washing our feet and a cross for giving his life? If we’re looking for a way to regain influence in our communities—whether digital or physical—the place to begin is to add value to the people in our circles by serving their needs and pointing to Jesus as our reason for doing so.
Speak Truth in Love
There is no glory in removing truth from the message of Jesus. It’s not ours to remove.
We have in Jesus the ultimate model of reaching the resistant, and as John said, He was “full of truth and grace.” He said (and did) hard things, and he raised the bar for how to do that with love.
When it comes to the current hotbed of issues and ideologies, it’s tempting to say too little in an attempt to stay likable. Or it’s tempting to say too much in an attempt to manipulate people toward the gospel. I believe the answer is to keep it elemental.
We need to practice what C.S. Lewis referred to as mere Christianity—let’s commit to moving our messages toward the essentials, and away from the peripherals. In a noisy and fragmented culture like ours, Jesus must be elevated above everything and everyone else. And he promised that if we will do that, he will do the rest (John 12:32). Our only life-giving message is and always will be that Jesus saves (Acts 4:12). So as we’re crafting our message to the world, let’s boldly invite everyone to come to Jesus with everything they are and everything they’re not, and join us in receiving life from the only One who can deliver.
Stay With the People You’re Called to Love
I am not a fan of moving around. I get it, God clearly calls and moves leaders according to his will. But more often than not, I think he intends for us to stay. Stay in a community. Stay in a friendship. Stay in a church. Stay with a vision.
When you think about it, all churches really have is the proposition of ongoing relationships. And if that relationship adds value, it’s considered worth it. But when that relationship brings a deficit, everyone suffers. The same goes with our relationships with those outside the faith. If we are called ambassadors of Jesus, we need to stay until the relationship is restored or until God himself moves us on to a new assignment. This means we need to exercise the same grace and forgiveness that Jesus extended to us “while we were still sinners” (Rom. 5:8). We can do that simply by staying in a life-giving relationship with people regardless of their response to Jesus. Let’s be honest, some of us wouldn’t be connected with Jesus even now if it weren’t for the patient and persistent love of someone who could have easily moved on. But they didn’t.
To say that our world is changing is an understatement.
The fact is, our world has changed, and it will continue to change. Thankfully one thing never changes, never gets old, and always works: love.
Last fall I had the privilege of performing the wedding ceremony for our local public high school principal and his fiancée. It was a beautiful wedding at a beautiful venue full of staff, students, alumni and families all connected to the high school. This is one of the schools where our church has been invited to serve.
Over the past decade or so, we’ve gradually increased our involvement in this particular school—looking for ways to hold up the arms of the leadership there and make the lives of students better in any way we can. One of the most exciting changes we’ve been a part of is the drastic improvement in completed AP tests for students, earning them college credit and helping them succeed.
At this point I am no longer aware of all the serving opportunities our church members are getting invited into—it’s gotten a little out of control. But I hear the stories. Stories of open doors and open hearts and changed lives. I have the privilege of meeting regularly with our principal and his team, being present in the community and pointing to Jesus as my reason. Our family of churches has now been invited into our seventh public school partnership in our local area because of the openness of our community to work together for the common good.
And so many of those opportunities are producing the kind of spiritual fruit that power never could.