It happened to me again recently. I respectfully questioned the validity of what I thought was a dubious ministry approach and was immediately and firmly reprimanded by my friends.
They buttressed their rebuke with several well-worn statements from Scripture. Passionately they reminded me that we are to “become all things to all men” and that “Jesus was a friend of sinners” and that Paul quoted heathen poets on Mars Hill and that we are to do whatever it takes to engage the culture and reach the world for Jesus. It was quickly evident my friends were completely opposed to any critical examination of unorthodox ministry approaches.
Funny thing is—I don’t disagree with most of what they said. I understand. I’m on board. I get it. Those scriptural concepts are completely legitimate considerations in formulating and evaluating our interactions with a world that does not know Christ.
The quest for relevance can be a healthy thing when we are attempting to impact people for Jesus. After all, who wants to be irrelevant? I don’t want anybody rolling their eyes at me. Even a hint of being out of step, out of touch, oblivious to reality, or clueless fills us with angst. We do not like to be numbered with those who just don’t “get it.”
While this is psychologically and socially true, it also has ramifications for the church and the gospel and for our interaction with the culture. Followers of Jesus sincerely desire to earn a hearing for truth. We want to be heard in the world. We long to introduce Jesus to those who are yet to encounter him, and we want them to take us seriously. For the sake of the Name and the kingdom, we can’t stand the thought of being written off as insignificant or inconsequential.
So we do what we can. We posture ourselves in ways that will provide opportunities and increase the potential for success in proclaiming truth and sharing our faith. We make every effort to be relevant and to engage our culture so we can effectively influence people and make disciples.
Engaging or Embracing?
But some dangers lurk in those well-intentioned mind-sets and efforts. Instead of engaging the culture we can end up embracing the culture. Rather than snatching sinners out of the world we get sucked in by the world. No longer are we influencing; instead we are being influenced.
Such tragedy is commonly accompanied by a misunderstanding, or misuse, or even hyperapplication of those wonderful and recognizable statements from Scripture such as Paul’s reference to pagan poets on Mars Hill, his famous “all things to all men” statement to the Corinthians, and the “friend of sinners” label given to Jesus.
It is true Paul drew on the current thinking of the poets of his day, but only in the arena where they had stumbled into truth. He never walked away from his real field of knowledge. He kept his focus and purity of mind. He didn’t lose sight of the meaning or intention of Scripture. He subjugated the poets’ philosophies to hard, objective truth about God. He was immersed in Scripture over culture.
Sometimes I fear we resemble the philosophers Paul corrected rather than being followers of Paul’s lead. We end up spending our time doing nothing more than talking about what is new, and waiting around for pop culture to throw us a bone and frame the discussion for us. In Will Willimon’s words, “In leaning over to the culture I fear we may have fallen in.”
When in Rome?
And then there is that wonderful statement about becoming “all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). Hopefully we would agree this phrase means more than, “when in Rome do as the Romans.” Paul was not a chameleon Christian. Contextually, Paul is speaking more about giving up rights to make inroads for the gospel, not about exercising those rights. He also qualifies his behavior, making sure his readers know he is not bound by the legalism of the law to reach those under the law, nor is he above the law of God to reach those not under the law. Don’t lose personal or spiritual authenticity or purpose by worshipping at the shrine of “relevance.”
When the criteria for ministerial competence have come to be more about cultural savvy and the cool factor than about how we know and handle Scripture, or our level of integrity, or our spiritual maturity, then something is dreadfully wrong. You can’t win some if you lost before you started.
Finally there is that accurate designation given to Jesus, “friend of sinners.” What a beautiful criticism. To be fair, they also called him a drunkard and a glutton, but he was neither (Luke 7:34).
But Jesus was a friend of sinners. Part of the wonder of the incarnation in this regard is he became sin, but he knew no sin. When we seek to follow Christ in this aspect of his ministry, we must guard against compromising our holiness and example.
Is there no limit to valid ministry activity? Do we infiltrate every subculture? When does the misapplication of these verses simply become a justification to continue in the activities and environments and mind-sets that are not of God but of the world? In your wildest imagination can you picture Paul or Jesus justifying some of the activities and methods we espouse today?
There is a premium brand of lawn tractor that I had always wanted, but I could never justify the price. Several years ago I finally broke down and visited the franchised dealership and shelled out the hard earned cash and proudly hauled my purchase home.
Imagine my dismay when a few months later I walked into a big home improvement store and saw dozens of those tractors priced at thousands of dollars less.
But closer inspection showed that these lower-priced tractors, although wearing the same brand and painted in the same trademark colors, are not the same as the tractor I had bought. The gauge of metal is thinner, the specs are different, and the quality is lessened. It’s a completely different tractor.
Oh I understand the strategy. I know it’s a tough market with fierce competition and it appears to be a matter of survival, but in my opinion the brand hasn’t survived. They sold themselves for the sake of volume and profit. They gave up who and what they really were to attract the masses.
Unfortunately, and far more seriously, tractor marketers aren’t the only ones to make this mistake. But their error offers a warning to every Christian who is influenced more than he influences his culture.
Jeff Faull is senior minister at Mount Gilead Christian Church in Mooresville, Indiana, and a contributing editor for CHRISTIAN STANDARD.