5 Cultural Shifts We Must Understand to Reach Our Neighbors

“The world is changing. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the air.”

So begins Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. There may be no better words to capture what a follower of Jesus faces in the Western world today.

At least a follower of Jesus who wants to do more than just exist in their world faces—someone who wants to actually reach people in that culture rather than just exist within it.

People like that have to understand the world they live in so they can impact it with the gospel. Understanding it means understanding how it has changed over the years and where it presently finds itself.

There are a number of ways to talk about that, but let me hone in on five simple shifts that have taken place that impact how people think and thus live (or live and thus think), that I think the church could benefit from if we grasp.

These are an adaptation of a number of shifts Mark Sayers lays out in his book Disappearing Church.

1. The Highest Good Is Now Individual Freedom and Happiness.

We’ve moved away from the class struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. In some ways even the political struggles of the 1960s and 1970s as the main cultural centerpiece (though of course, we see this peeking through in every generation, even our own). Above that however is the journey into self.

The highest priority for us as a culture and a generation is the individual and their autonomous identity and fulfillment. Over a few hundred years Western civilization has moved away from theology and philosophy as the main filter through which to explore one’s identity to psychology.

These days, it’s all about us as individuals. How I feel, and what I think as the deciding factor of my reality and thus the reality around me.

Back in the day, the Bible, or other sacred/religious texts (depending on which culture) set the standard on ethics, how people behaved, and what they valued. That’s been replaced by experiences, desires, preferences and feelings. Take marriage, for example. A married person may say, “I am what I feel. And my feelings have changed for this person I’ve been married to for 10 years. That must mean that we should separate.” Logic like this is why we’ve seen the divorce rate grow to five times what it was 50 years ago.

When it comes to religion, people will say, “I believe in God, but I won’t go to church. I’m not going to let the church and an old-fashioned Bible tell me what to believe.” Self has been elevated over God. Western culture tries to keep the good aspects of Christianity—things like morality, equality and justice—while taking away its costs, commitments and restraints.

I have a friend who fights for animals and the environment. He’s also a sexually liberated atheist. He says “You can’t tell me what to do with my body, but I can tell you what to do with the environment. You can’t tell me not to sleep around, but I can tell you not to go to Sea World.”

The contradiction is fascinating. No one wants morality thrown on them. But on social media, everyone is a moralist. As church leaders, we have to be able to push against this trend and actually speak into it.

2. Traditions, Regulations and Social Ties That Restrict Freedom, Happiness and Self-Expression Are Being Deconstructed or Destroyed.

To the general western person, religion is old-fashioned and useless.

Many people basically believe that they can create their own religion. They’re moving away from institutions like church because they believe that all authority structures are bad. People just want to be themselves.

That’s one of the main things that we’re trying to speak into as a church in the present new reality.

The gospel is not only that Jesus is your Savior, it’s also that He’s your Lord. Meaning, this is about obedience. He not only gets to shape what you believe, He also gets to shape the way you live—your money, your sex life, how you treat your neighbors, etc.

Jesus is saying, “I have a holistic call on your life.” You can’t simply say, “I believe certain doctrines” and then handle money, your sex life, and your family life the same way as your neighbor. That’s never how Christianity was pitched in the New Testament.

The word disciple is used 269 times, while the word Christian is used three times. Disciple is the paradigm of Christianity, and we have to get back to that. Our culture wants to move away from it.

We want to be able to do whatever we want. But we must understand that Christianity isn’t just about victory, it’s about obedience. This is where our self-fulfillment gets challenged.

In order to speak into this as a church, we need to embrace our own brokenness as leaders. We don’t need to hide the mistakes we make. I can’t be the hero of every sermon.

And if I’m going to reach a culture that has shifted, I have to be able to walk with a limp.

Humility will actually draw people to Jesus in the post-Christian West. Because their big thing is hypocrisy in the church.

They say, “The church acts like it’s perfect and talks about all kinds of rules. But it’s full of hypocrisy.” You have to lead the church to have a posture of humility that says, “We are all beggars looking for bread, and we’re going to help each other get it. We are so dependent on the grace of God that he’s the only way we can wake up in the morning.”

This will help draw a world that is weary of authority and power structures that have been corrupted. Instead, we don’t get people to worship leaders (they fall and they are bad at being idolized), we instead push the world to look at Jesus himself.

3. The World Will Get Better With Progress, Technology and Education.

The philosophy of our time is that we’re going to move on from the dumb idea of God and religion, and we’re going to get smarter. We’re going to solve our own problems as a culture, so all we need is education, technology, scientific discovery, progress, etc.,

Here’s what we have to understand as we speak into this. In the 20th century, we saw 100 million people dead because of wars. Think of the catastrophic damage of World War I and World War II combined. And then we got to the end of the 20th century and came up with a terrifying philosophical conclusion that there’s no such thing as evil.

We progressed massively in technology and education. Yet even after a hundred million are dead, the conclusion of the century was that there’s no such thing as evil. How dangerous is that?

The ideology that says secular progress is the way toward enlightenment, and that we are all just going to solve our own problems etc., is a worldview challenged even by atheists today, who point out a connection between many of our social ills and atheism, especially in the realm of the question of meaning and suffering and evil.

In the Western world, we’ve become so good at individualism. We’re so smart and wealthy, it has actually had a negative, adverse effect wherein we don’t abandon worldviews void of answers we just embrace them because our personal experience may not be being negatively affected … yet. This is the culture we’re attempting to reach.

4. Ethics Have Become Prioritized Around The Quest for Individual Freedom and Self-Expression.

For example, one of the most important shifts that have taken place as a culture the church must understand is in regard to the question of gender.

Obviously, this a very complex issue but one way of explaining it is that the basic view now is that “sex” and “gender” are different things. As one writer said, “Sex is a bodily biological reality, and gender is how we give social expression to that reality.” In our culture, we have separated those two things. In order to reach the post-Christian West, we have to be able to enter graciously but knowledgeably into that conversation.

Nancy Pearcey points out that one way of understanding this conversation is that there is a two-level way of thinking of things:

Level No. 1 is made up of science, facts, objective conclusions, public, valid truth for everyone. And then there is Level No. 2 which are how we think morally about things – the world of subjective conclusions, the private; the world not of fact as much as values, and feelings about a particular thing.

As a culture, we’ve basically said that what used to matter as a priority when facing questions of immense importance culturally, politically, economically, etc., is Level No. 1, but over the last number of years we have shifted to say that it is now Level No. 2 that is the deciding factor of identity, truth, etc.,

We’ve made that level more important than the other. What matters is your truth.

The cultural discourse has separated sex and gender, and also separated the concept of body from person. People are asking, “What exactly is a person?” For example, when you enter into the abortion debate, there’s an idea that you can have a human, which many agree to, but that it is not a person. It’s called Personhood Theory.

When do we become not a human being, that seems pretty clear, but when do we become a person—like one with dignity worth defending, etc., That’s the duality. You have a body, and then you have personhood, but those two will never touch or interact with each other. They are different realms.

Of course, sex, gender, abortion, etc., are just very popular examples of how this basic principle plays out. The bigger point is more about the larger principle of ethics have become prioritized around the quest for individual freedom and self-expression.

We must work hard at understanding these dualities in order to reach a culture that thinks and lives in light of them day in and day out. “How do we speak a biblical worldview into that culture in a persuasive and winsome way?”

5. There Are Forms of External Authority That Need to Be Rejected, and Personal Authenticity Is Celebrated as the Ultimate Thing.

What we have now is the gospel of life advancement and life enhancement. It’s about how you get a better you.

For the first time in history, the church—even among Christians—is used as a tool of personal fulfillment. Rather than saying, “I’m part of a church for the good of society or for the good of others,” people select churches based on their own personal fulfillment.

Lesslie Newbigin made this very important point years ago, “I want to reject the idea that the west is becoming a secular society without God.

Here’s what it’s becoming. Rather, a pagan society filled with idols and false gods.” Those are different things, and you have to realize that you’re not necessarily speaking into a secularized culture that doesn’t believe in God. Instead, you’re speaking into a pagan society filled with all kinds of idols and false gods. Things like money, sex, power, family, comfort and beauty have captured the hearts and minds of any Western audience.

Those are the things that people are trusting to feel like they have their salvation. They’re asking, “What’s the thing that’s going to get me up in the morning? What’s the thing that’s going to give me joy? It’s my beauty, my family, it’s my reputation, it’s my work, it’s a relationship.”

What we’re doing as the church is trying to deconstruct those idols from their hearts and replace them with Jesus. We’re saying, “Some of you may have those classically liberal idols like money, sex, and power. You need to be careful. But there are also conservative idols like family and comfort.” All of them are enemies of your soul.

People ask me all the time, “How could family possibly be an idol in someone’s life?” Well, think about it this way. I had a guy in my church. God woke him up at 2:00 in the morning and said, “I know you have a perfect house, perfect family and perfect job. I want you to sell your house, pull your girls out of school and I want you to go to the airport. Then I’ll tell you where you need to go.” So he sells his house in Vancouver, which was very expensive at the time, pulls his girls out of school, goes to the airport and works out with the Lord where he’s supposed to go. He goes and serves in one of the poorer third-world countries on a work visa. After six months, his work visa ran out, so he came back home.

Who do you think are the people who told him that it was a dumb idea? Who do you think are the people who told him that he shouldn’t go? His family. The people closest to him.

Sometimes the people who are closest to us are the people who make us unable to hear the voice of Jesus.

In those moments, comfort and family become idols. This is why, when Jesus asked a man to follow him, and the man asked if he could first go and bury his father, Jesus responded:

“Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” —Luke 9:60

Jesus is like, “You don’t get this. You have to hate your mother and father. You have to love them less and actually follow me.” That’s what it means to challenge an idol. People have filled their lives with idols and false gods, and our job is to deconstruct those gods and reconstruct a better way.

Another Thing …

Another thing that this fifth point is about is, we have to recognize that attitudes toward the church have changed. These days, the church is viewed as anti-gay, judgmental, too political, racist and hypocritical.

Those are probably the top things that the outside, post-Christian world says about the church (and many within the church too who are choosing to leave). The church has to be able to speak into these things.

How people engage in church is another thing that has changed in the post-Christian West. A recent study reported that 20% of people who actually go to church, go alone. Think about that. How does that affect the way you do ministry?

There’s been a digital revolution. There’s been a porn revolution. A study showed that people are on their phones or devices 40 hours a week. There’s a device addiction.

What are you doing as the church to meet people where they are and bring them the message of the gospel?

See, attitudes toward God have even changed in our culture. A few years ago, there was an article in The Atlantic magazine. The writer talked about how someone asked him about his religion.

He was about to respond and say that he was an atheist, but he stopped himself. He said, “I used to call myself an atheist. And I still don’t believe in God, but the larger truth is that it’s been years since I really cared one way or the other.”

In that moment, something struck him, “I was an apatheist. Meaning, I was apathetic toward the question. I don’t really care about the question of God.”

See, for the first time in history, our culture has the luxury to not care about this question and get away with it. It’s called the “Gravedigger Effect.”

We have done so well in the West we can just sit at Starbucks, sip our latte as an educated person, and just philosophize about ideas. You don’t have to deal with questions about things like God, meaning, origins, morality and destiny.

Here’s the point. As church leaders, we have to think like missionaries into this different world.

We are literally dealing with cross-cultural missionary thinking.

Another thing about our culture is that our private worlds are in crisis. Things like anxiety, loneliness, bullying, addictions and obesity are on the rise. Life expectancy is declining.

What does the church do about this state of the soul in the western world? We have to really believe, and then properly communicate, that the answer is Jesus. The answer is life in the Spirit. The answer is the gospel.

See, this is the posture the church needs to take: a Spirit-led mission that’s not just trying to save people from bad doctrine, but also trying to save them from the problem of their souls.

We’re trying to help people with the things that make them not want to wake up in the morning. People have no idea how to face the day. This is what the gospel actually answers, and the church has to be able to live it out so the world can see it.

Years ago, Jonathan Sacks said that when it comes to the shifts that have taken place in our culture, the results lie all around us …

• The collapse of marriage
• Fracturing of the family
• Fraying of social bonds
• Partisanship in politics
• Loss of public trust in institutions
• Debt
• Consumerism
• No shared morality
• Relativism
• Hedonism

He said that we know about these things, but we’re powerless to move beyond them—we don’t know what the solution is. And then there’s the church, able to offer the ultimate solution to not only societal issues, but individual issues as well.

As You Go …

Looking at these five shifts may feel overwhelming. But we bring them to you because we want you to know that they represent an opportunity.

We are the ones who can offer hope. We are the ones who can provide answers to the crisis of individual identity.

The challenge of Christianity is to give us an identity that transcends every circumstance that we face in life. That’s the beautiful thing about Jesus—if the things that you trust in get taken away or destroyed, you can still wake up in the morning. This is what we have to offer.

Apatheism is a cop-out. Whether you’re a Christian or not, the most fundamental question of your life is your existence. You have to pick a side. We’ve been afraid to pick a side. We’ve sat around the Thanksgiving table and decided not to challenge our uncle and his ideas about the Earth being flat or that we’ve never been to the moon. Why? Because we wanted to get through dinner. And that’s a bad trade. We’ve traded seeking truth for getting along, and our challenge is to show the world that a better decision is picking a side.

In light of these five shifts, the church shows up in both word and deed and offers something important.

You know what the prophets did in the Old Testament? They offered two things: prophetic critique and prophetic hope. We in the church most often only offer the first. Let’s offer both.