Ever feel like the culture is changing so much you really don’t like it?
You’re not alone.
The culture around us is changing.
You can debate when the collapse of Christendom in the West began, but there is little doubt we are witnessing a massive shift away from the cultural consensus that existed even a few generations ago.
So as a church leader – as views on sexuality, family, parenting, drugs, finance and other values change – how do you respond? What do you do when the world for which you trained—maybe even the world where your approach was once effective—is disappearing before your eyes?
What’s the key to responding when the world around you no longer
shares your value system
pays much attention to you
thinks you add anything to the cultural mix?
I see at least five approaches emerging, some that are helpful and some that aren’t.
1. Be Oblivious To Culture
Some churches appear to be oblivious to culture.
Walk into a church like this, and you won’t be able to tell whether it’s 2016, 1996 or 1966 for that matter.
The sermons are theoretical and not at all practical, nor do they engage the realities of the world people inevitably will walk back into Monday morning.
The music is remarkably stale and sounds like nothing you’d hear anywhere else. No one looks like they would be comfortable visiting a trendy local restaurant. It’s the same old, same old, and this church seems old.
What happens if you’re oblivious to the culture around you? If you’re indifferent to the culture, it should be no surprise that the culture is indifferent to you.
This approach produces irrelevance.
2. Hide From Culture
Unlike churches that are indifferent to the culture, churches that hide from the culture are aware of what’s going on around them. But they’re scared. Really scared.
So they hide.
You’ll hear Christians in this camp vow to never do anything ‘secular.’ Sometimes Christians set up their own networks as a safe cocoon from others.
They live on GodTube and Faithbook. They have ‘Christian’ alternatives to everything you can think of.
This approach stifles the mission of the church.
Effectively it’s a retreat and runs counter from the church’s mission to advance.
As a result, many in this camp don’t actually know any non-Christians.
You can’t reach the world you don’t know, understand or love.
3. Slam The Culture
This has become a very popular approach over the last few decades, perhaps peaking when the United States Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in the U.S. last year.
I continue to be baffled as to why Christians insist non-Christians adopt our moral views. Why on earth would Christians expect non-Christians to act like Christians when…they’re not Christians?
If you want to be ineffective at reaching unchurched people, keep judging them.
For those intent on slamming the culture and the governments for their views, I’ll reiterate what I said in my post on same-sex marriage.
Having a government that doesn’t embrace the church’s values line for line puts Christians in some great company—the company of the earliest followers of Jesus.
Jesus spent zero time asking the government to change during his ministry. In fact, people asked him to become the government, and he replied that his Kingdom is not of this world.
The Apostle Paul appeared before government officials regularly. Not once did he ask them to change the laws of the land.
He did, however, invite government officials to have Jesus personally change them.
Paul constantly suffered at the hands of the authorities, ultimately dying under their power, but like Jesus, he didn’t look to them for change.
Rather than asking the government to release him from prison, Paul wrote letters from prison talking about the love of Jesus Christ.
Instead of looking to the government for help, Paul and Jesus looked to God.
None of us in the West are suffering nearly as radically as Jesus and Paul suffered at the hands of a government. In fact, in Canada and the U.S., our government protects our freedom to assemble and even disagree with others. Plus, it gives us tax breaks for donations.
We honestly don’t have it that hard.
Maybe the future North American church will be more like the early church, rising early, before dawn, to pray, to encourage, to break bread.
Maybe we will pool our possessions and see the image of God in women. And love our wives radically and deeply with a protective love that will shock the culture. Maybe we will treat others with self-giving love, and even offer our lives in place of theirs.
Maybe we’ll be willing to lose our jobs, our homes, our families and even our lives because we follow Jesus.
That might just touch off a revolution like it did two millennia ago.
Perhaps the government might even take notice, amazed by the love that radical Jesus followers display.
I hope so.
4. Embrace People And Offer An Alternative
Of all the approaches I’ve noticed, this is the most encouraging in my view. And it’s the one I also try to embrace.
There’s much about today’s culture we may not like, but that’s no excuse to stop loving people within the culture.
In an age when so many churches push away people they don’t agree with, the field is ripe for Christians willing to embrace their neighbours.
To actually love them. Kind of like Jesus told us to.
Does that mean we have to agree with everything they do? Of course not.
But (…think about this…) the church is uniquely positioned to offer a radically beautiful alternative to the culture in so many key issues, like our sexuality, how we handle our money, what we do with our bodies, and in basic disciplines like confession and self-control.
When culture truly becomes post-Christian (as it has in Canada, where I live), it’s often not that people are rejecting Christian teachings, it’s that they don’t even know what those teachings are. And they’re surprisingly open to Christianity if the Christians they meet are loving and generous people.
Many are open to a new way to live. Here are just a few alternatives core to Christianity providing an intriguing counter-cultural viewpoint:
In an age where sex is anything you want it to be, Christianity teaches that sex is sacred and that we value the who far more than the what, which changes the what and the how.
In a culture where greed and debt have become the norm, Christ-followers can model and teach generosity and life that isn’t measured by what we accumulate. Teaching young families to save and give is truly countercultural these days, and deeply biblical.
In an era when the family is morphing and even fragmenting before our eyes, Christians can offer support and mentor kids and teens and extend friendship and tangible support to parents and adults who are alone. (Orange is fantastic at helping churches do this.)
Do you see the pattern? There are so many other areas where we can embrace people who are different than we are and humbly come alongside to help.
5. Use The Culture To Reach The Culture
The culture around us isn’t the only culture around. Your church has a culture too. And it can be a bridge or a barrier to reaching people.
From the outset, I’ve believed the most effective strategy we can follow is to adapt our culture within the church so it becomes a bridge to the culture around us and not a barrier.
It’s time for churches to cut the weird, the irrelevant and the ineffective. Our mission is too important.
When you adapt your music and your communication style to make your church accessible to the unchurched, you don’t necessarily water down a thing (at least you don’t have to…we don’t). You simply make what you’re sharing accessible and understandable.
If you want to make your church more effective, use the culture to reach the culture.
So what does that mean?
Whether you use mainstream music in your service or not, having music that sounds like music people today listen to helps people today feel comfortable and engaged.
Communicating in clear and accessible language is just good hospitality – it works the same way in creating more effective preaching. Leaving people confused and bewildered after 45 minutes of “deep” teaching might not be the best strategy if you want to see lives changed.
The point is not to change what we say, but how we say it. Not to change what we believe (at all), but to express it in a way that helps people understand it.
And above all, this means genuinely loving people outside our community and sharing the teachings and hope of Christ in a clear and compelling way.
Churches who have adapted their style of ministry to be more reflective of the culture around us almost always get critiqued for it. I’ve been criticized for years for leading a church intentional on adapting ministry style to connect with people outside our comfortable community. But you know who levies the criticism? Christians. But they’re already reached.
So go reach some people who haven’t heard about how deeply Jesus loves them. And use the culture to reach the culture.
If you want more, Caleb Kaltenbach has written a two part article on how the Apostle Paul engaged culture (Caleb’s piece spurred me to write this one).
If you’d like to drill down even deeper, I have more on how your church can engage the culture in my latest book, Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Can Help Your Church Grow.
In addition, I’ve created a Lasting Impact Team Edition video series designed to walk your staff, board or leadership team through all 7 conversations in the book. You can get immediate access to the video series here.
Thoughts? Scroll down and leave a comment.