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An Acts To Grind

Every poll tells the same story: Traditional Christian culture (A.K.A., Western Civilization and Judeo-Christian culture) is in steep decline. Here in America, where it has held on perhaps the longest, in the last 20 years has dropped off precipitously. Church attendance, which held steady at about 70% since 1937 (when it first started being polled), started dropping in 2000 and continued to plummet until today when it is under 50% for the first time ever. With that decline, or some would argue because of that decline, everything Christian is under fierce attack. And by “everything Christian” I am not referring to things overtly Chrisitan like the Bible, or preaching, or liturgy; I am referring to Chrisitan values, what, in polite society, would be called ethics and morals. To the degree that we are not arguing over gender roles, but over the definition of gender itself. In light (probably an oxymoronic term) of this catastrophic system-wide failure, Christians are finding it easy to be very pessimillennialists, and our natural spiritual defenses mechanism wants to engage and drive us into the Rapture bunker to escape the swirling toilet water and wait for the catching up and getting the heck out of Dodge. 

For many evangelicals, it is getting increasingly difficult to evangelize the current culture or even understand a syllable that they utter. In great part, this discordance is a function of the Gospel’s smashing success. Throughout the Western world, since the 4th or 5th century, preaching the Gospel has been relatively easy.  Practically everyone could be counted on to agree on the same basic presuppositions: God, righteousness, sin, guilt, redemption, forgiveness, Heaven, and Hell, among many others. Therefore, making a case for the Gospel was like cutting to the front of the line. It was more a matter of igniting a person’s concern with their own sense of right and wrong and the eternal fate of their soul. But today it is often explaining what those concepts even are, and then why they matter. And exacerbating the difficulty is that this all must be accomplished all the while the whole world is immersed in an endless hum of ‘information’ white noise. This is enough to make many resign in despair. How can people possibly be persuaded when they don’t even seem to be from the same planet anymore? We don’t have anything in common from where to start. It seems hopeless. Surely this is the sign of the end times! Time to brace for sudden acceleration. Or is it?

We often forget, or never really considered, that the world wasn’t always Judeo-Christian. That the basic cornerstones that we have taken for granted for centuries are not sempiternal. The world and culture that the Apostles first sunk the Gospel plowshare into was far more like what the Western world is becoming today than what it was in 1950. Not just in doctrinal ignorance — which was so rife and stifling in many places that those people were called Barbarians and Unlearned — but the moral and ethical culture was putrid and sickening. I can’t say that it was worse or better, but either way we are only talking about a matter of degrees not of kind. And yet the Apostles not only threw themselves into that environment, they did so with complete faith and hope and optimism, and with obvious aplomb. The Christian culture that we are witnessing die a violent, bloody, horrible death was birthed and nurtured knee deep in the same vile stench that is overwhelming the world today. While you and I may not have ever seen anything like what we are seeing now, the Gospel has been there, done that, and has the roadmap to prove it… and to navigate back through it again. If you are reading this, and have slogged through this far hoping that I will have some brilliant insights on how we succeed in the coming New Dark Ages, I regret to tell you that you are going to be disappointed. I don’t know. But I do have some suggestions of where we might start looking for insight.  

There are a number of Churches that are succeeding in the midst of this mess. Timothy Keller’s ministry in Manhattan is a prominent example. You don’t have to agree with everything he believes, but he went into the womb of nascent wokeness and unbelief and persuaded thousands of the least churched in America to follow Christ. There are others that have similar success, even if with different approaches. We should analyze what they are doing and try to learn something from them. I want to be clear that I am only referring to those who are not compromising the Church or the Gospel to accomplish this. While I am not disparaging the seeker-sensitive and the emerging church movements, I am not too interested in their perspective. I am much more fascinated with those that still preach a straightforward gospel, have a traditional liturgy, and are not wooing people with Christianity-lite. 

But more valuable, or, more fundamental, perhaps might be the right word, is the example we find in the Scriptures, that of the Apostles and disciples themselves. As I pointed out, they faced down a world that in many ways was far worse than what is on our immediate horizon. We need to look at their approach, but with a raw perspective; not through the rose colored lenses of Western culture. This is especially true of Paul’s ministry. He ministered to a world that was quite diverse from city to city. They not only worshiped different deities but that reality also implied correspondingly different cultures. This was a very different environment than that which might be commonly imagined today where the Western world is mostly homogenous in its Judeo-Christian monotheism and accompanying system of values. Perhaps it would be helpful to consider this contrast between our world and Paul’s world: In our world, we think about how much people know or don’t know. In Paul’s world it was a matter of what they knew. The issue wasn’t that some people were more ignorant of the common consensus of knowledge, be it physical or spiritual. Rather the issue was that they had a fully developed set of ideas and related cultural values that looked nothing like those of the people just a short distance down the road. The consequence of this reality meant that evangelism was much more a matter of teaching minds and not simply convicting souls. It has been a long time since evangelists in the Western world have had to root up much of anything. 

For a long time, evangelism has followed the “Sinners In The Hands of An Angry God” paradigm: Awaken the dormant guilt that everyone has deep inside due to their unacknowledged disregard for the values they were inculcated. Even committed atheists like Tom Holland acknowledge, painfully, that they are steeped in a Christian value system that they cannot escape. And in such an environment, the prototypical evangelical approach is warranted and successful. But as the world spins back to pantheism and paganism and absolute subjectivity (as oxymoronic as that position is), this approach is proportionally less effective. Many old-school evangelicals operate on the presupposition that the writ of eternal truth is engraved on every person’s heart, regardless of the subjective, pagan environment they were born in. They point to Romans 1 as evidence of that. Because of this, the typical gospel presentation is designed to take advantage of the presumed misery that sinners live in; hence presentations like, “God Has A Wonderful Plan For Your Life”. Gospel sermons often are heavy on confirming the sinner’s worst fears of deserved condemnation and light on proving that sin is even a real thing. The unintended consequence is that evangelicals are increasingly preaching to the saved and not the lost. They unwittingly have stumbled into the unspoken reality that it is simply easier to make Christians feel lost than it is to make the lost care about Christ. 

This is very apparent in the aging “Revival” paradigm. The ostensible purpose of a Revival is to convert the lost, which is why the speaker is called “the evangelist”. The idea has always been for the church members to invite their lost friends and neighbours to hear sermons that are tailored to converting them. But the shifting cultural winds have pushed that ship far off course. Revivals have drifted from the conversion of the lost to the scolding of the saved. No doubt the saved need the occasional scolding, but how much and how often, and how truly effective it is, is very difficult to ascertain. The more saved a person is, the more likely they are to be convicted and feel guilty at the slightest rebuke, even in instances where they should bear no guilt. And given that the typical audience of a multi-day revival is overwhelmingly the “Over Saved” not the “Under Saved”, we should wonder how valuable this approach actually is. It seems that what is really happening is that the ship has been blown far off course and the captain and officers are oblivious to the waters they now find themselves in. That is to say, that evangelical preaching is still ranting on the principles of the doctrine of Christ, constantly and incessantly laying again the foundation of repentance, to the same audience that is ever repenting and recommitting its faith. It is too easy to assume that the lost are no longer darkening the doorway of the church because they are convicted by the “hard preaching” of the gospel. And while that is arguably untrue, it is a patent deflection of the real problem. It lays the blame of the ineffectiveness of our preaching on the lost, rather than acknowledging that, at least in part, we have a responsibility to go, not so much for them to come.

“Go” does not mean physically, just as “into all the world” does not not mean geographically. “Into all the world” means demographically, and “go” means culturally. This understanding was the justification for the immediate translation of the Scripture into every language possible. But it also was the impetus that compelled the first evangelists to communicate the Gospel into each culture also. This is one of the most obvious facts we encounter in the Acts of the Apostles. There was never a one-size-fits-all approach to the Gospel. Stephen’s final sermon was astonishingly different from Paul’s sermon on Mars’ Hill; and not just in the details, it was different in practically every conceivable way. And no wonder, they were speaking to people who had nothing in common. Of the 1265 words (in the KJV translation) that Stephen preached, only the first 5 words and the last 71 words were not essentially straight quoting of Scripture. In Paul’s sermon there is no quoting of Scripture at all. He uses cultural appreciation, logical argumentation, and cites their own pagan philosophers. Stephen’s sermon culminates in a brutal indictment of murder and treason, Paul’s in a philosophical conclusion of the resurrection. The point is not to judge which sermon was better, or a better pattern to follow. The point is that there is no such pattern, particularly in a world that resembles that of Acts: A culturally, ethnically, religiously, politically, factually, theistically diverse world — radically so. 

That the Gospel can be enormously effective in the world we now inhabit should be an indisputable fact. That the Gospel is not enormously effective in the world that many of us now inhabit is equally indisputable. But it really isn’t the Gospel that is proving to be ineffectual; it is our dogged adherence to a narrow, beaten path that traverses only an isolated corner of the broad expanse of the Gospel range. In some sense, evangelicals have become like the singer who only performs their one hit song, regardless of the dwindling audiences’ interest. This is strongly appealing because that is the song that grabbed our own attention and was effective in our conversion, and so we naturally assume it will be the case with everyone else. So much so, that when we hear the Gospel sung in a different key, or to a different beat, or in an entirely different genre we recoil against it, often pettily and with vitriol. 

The approach of some wings of the Church has been to repackage the Gospel. That is to put the traditional Gospel lyrics into a new melody. They take the well-known, Western approach of the Gospel and weave it into a modern presentation: Modern music, contemporary production values, stage props, hipster costumes, modern lingo, and edgy pop culture references. All this makes the Gospel more tolerable to the pantheistic, pagan palette but it doesn’t make the Gospel truth more relevant nor more convicting. The reason that the Gospel doesn’t convict the postmodernist, neo-pagan isn’t because he hasn’t heard it; it doesn’t convict because it doesn’t connect. It would be like Paul preaching Stephen’s sermon on Mars Hill. They both were addressing the same fundamental error: Idolatry. The Jews’ worship of symbolic religion and the Athenians worship of open-minded, non-committal pantheism. The differences in their sermons was far more significant than simply one quoting Hebrew Scriptures and the other quoting pagan philosophy. They both had reached a deeply insightful understanding of what exactly was the locus of the audience’s idolatry and tailored a Gospel message to it. This was not an intuitive deduction, but it certainly was not a lazy intransigence. Before Paul addresses them, he explores the culture and its literature, its philosophy, its history, its aspirations, its presuppositions, and its logical touchstones. None of this was intuitive to Paul, it wasn’t in his “wheel-house”, and, as we can see from his earlier efforts, it wasn’t in his repertoire. But his method was to become them, to “Go” to them. A Jew to the Jews, a Greek to the Greek, a Law keeper to the Law keepers, a Lawless to the Lawless, a Weak to the Weak. 

This “becoming” is often misconstrued as adopting the behavior and culture of his target audience. In other words, the seeker-sensitive approach. Paul’s approach is much more complex and meaningful than that. Paul is saying that he took the time and invested the effort to deeply comprehend each group’s ideological and cultural perspective; so much so that he could see the world as they did and hence understand where they were coming from and consequently how they could get to Christ from that starting position. (Contrast that with the staid and stale evangelical recipe of getting people saved from our own starting position.) He makes this subtle yet important distinction clear with the caveat, “…to them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,)…” Its the difference between a doctor infecting himself with your disease so you can identify with him, as opposed to studying your disease so he can cure you. Paul’s was an empathetic identification not a chameleonic cultural appropriation. It was not deconstructing the Gospel and reimagining it to the tastes of the audience. It was curating the Gospel to their spiritual nutritional needs and capabilities. He references this deliberate Gospel tailoring saying, “I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for until now you were not able to digest it, and you still are not able to.” 

While its true that every individual has their own peculiar presuppositions, and the better we know that person and understand those presuppositions, the more effective we are likely to be in bringing them to Christ; it is also true that individuals within a culture by definition do not diverge that radically from each other. It is reasonable and efficient to broadcast the Gospel across members of a culture with the same basic approach. But that is predicated upon a deliberate, accurate, and up-to-date comprehension of that cultural identity. Otherwise, what we are requiring is that the lost first convert to us so that they can then convert to Christ. It is predictable that such an approach will be less effective the further the lost drift from our position, and they are not just drifting away, they are paddling as quickly as their wicked arms will propel them. The real work of the Chrisitan who will obey Christ’s command to “Go” is not physical. It isn’t the getting up, the moving about, the talking to. The real work is transporting oneself from his ideological axis to the epicenter of another’s cultural identity. It is not enough to survey it from afar, to wander through it with a tourist’s interest. The evangelists of Acts were the true first anthropologists and psychologists and sociologists. It was from their careful, disciplined commitment to the essence of these principles that these sciences were born. Reclaiming them is not secularizing the Gospel. We need to return to our intellectual roots and bring into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.

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