This past Labor Day was an epic celebration. My wife and I—eager to get away for a few hours with the kiddos—ran smack into the middle of a parade. Apparently, this was the city’s annual parade, in which they campaign for upcoming elections, promote local high school sports teams, and invite other local businesses and rotary clubs to participate in the festivities. What was disconcerting to me was not the fact that the whole thing seemed artificial and cheesy (indeed, it did), but the fact that the more I looked at what was happening around me, the more I realized that something was missing. People. There was hardly anyone outside to celebrate this time of community. Where were all of the people? Sure, there was a great deal of white-folks. But where were all of our Hispanic and African-American neighbors, whom make-up the majority of this particular section of our community? It seemed to promote a community that lacked, well, community.
A great many of our churches today, do not look much different than this parade. As cities and urban areas begin to grow in ethnic diversity, and the socio-economic climate begins to shift, people—seemingly in fear of change—begin to move out and into their own little comfort-zones. Now, churches, rather than being made up of the community dynamic that surrounds them, start to look like a commuter-church rather than a community-church. The church does not represent the diversity that surrounds them. Churches begin to glory in their former years. “Remember when we did this,” and “remember when we did that?” Rather than engaging the culture with the Gospel, they twist the Gospel to justify their rejection of the culture, and, in doing so, push the very people away that God has called them to reach. You’ve probably heard the complaints: “The way they dress, the way they talk, the music they listen to.” The secular/sacred divide impairs their ability to reach up and coming generations with the Gospel.
There are many examples, throughout scripture, which promote cultural engagement for the advancement of the Kingdom of God. One of the most noted examples includes Paul’s dealing with the Athenians, in Acts 17:
Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. (v. 16-17)
Paul was provoked, by the spirit within him to reason (which my be thought of as engaging with the intent to persuade) with not only those within religious circles (synagogue), but also with those without (marketplace). Paul was engaging others in the marketplace, where people from all over the city came to buy and sell goods, and to eat and mingle with one another. Paul was right in the midst of paganism, reasoning with the unbelievers, proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In our day and age, you and I would be called foolish for such a thing. But that is precisely what we have been called to do: proclaim a foolish message, through a foolish means, to a foolish people.
Of course it is true, as scholars would note, that we must understand that the Book of Acts is both descriptive and prescriptive. Yet this does not negate the significance of Paul’s encounter with the Athenians. Indeed, it describes the lengths that Paul, a Christian, was willing to go in order to honor the call of Christ. In fact, Christ Himself set for us an example to follow in the way in which He engaged the culturally ostracized of His day. While Jesus passed through Samaria, He came across a Samaritan woman; a woman He engaged in a dialogue with that, in so doing, led to violating all sorts of social taboos. The sheer fact that He was speaking with a woman, a Samaritan woman at that, was unfathomable. Let alone, asking her for a drink. Yet, Jesus, God incarnate, has sovereignly chosen to love the “unlovable”, and build His church out of an unlikely people.
The centrality of the Gospel is not wrought through doctrinal solidarity and rightful preaching and teaching alone, but coupled with a community that lives out the implications of the Gospel by loving God and loving our neighbors through every fiber of our being. Tim Keller, author of Center Church, notes:
The city will challenge us to discover the power of the gospel in new ways. We will find people who seem spiritually and morally hopeless to us. We will think, “Those people will never believe in Christ.” But a comment such as this is revealing in itself. If salvation is truly by grace, not by virtue and merit, why should we think that anyone is less likely than ourselves to be a Christian? Why would anyone’s conversion be any greater miracle than our own? The city may force us to discover that we don’t really believe in sheer grace, that we really believe God mainly saves nice people — people like us.
The Gospel itself, if it has so captured your heart, ought to motivate you to get up from your lazy-boy chair and do something. “We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Or do we? We must examine ourselves, and our churches, and ask the question as to whether or not we are turning our noses up, and towards the Heavens, thanking God that we are “not like other men” (read Luke 18:9-14). If so, you may find yourself sitting alone and outside of Heaven’s gates, crying out, “but Lord, Lord!”