What does it mean that Jesus wants his disciples to be “in the world . . . not of the world” (John 17:13-19)? “In the world” involves more than merely being involved with the world or being aware of the culture. I believe it means being able to connect with people who have not committed to God’s kingdom. “Not of the world” means living out kingdom values and commitments that differ from those of worldly people.
Unfortunately, as many Christians become more and more “not of the world,” they have less involvement and connection with people “in the world.” After a few years in the church, one may wind up with only Christian friends, Christian magazines and books, Christian radio stations, and Christian TV shows and movies.
How can a Christian maintain genuine connection with non-Christian people of the world?
On a practical level, connecting with the world means ministering to hurting people in their real needs. This is by far the best way to connect with people outside the church because it authenticates your talk by your walk. But not all Christians are comfortable being extroverts and/or activists in the community. My own life, for instance, has been intensely theoretical, intellectual, and academic.
So on this more intellectual level, I propose that another path to persuasive witness and effective apologetics involves an excavation of your innermost self. To connect with all kinds of people you must dig down to your rock-bottom humanity through layers of your own most basic questions and answers.
To visualize these layers of your identity, imagine a Christmas tree consisting of an upward sequence of increasingly smaller branches (i.e., narrower choices), or a ladder with progressively shorter rungs. The broad bottom branches, or rungs, represent our deepest, most common, and broadest shared humanity, while the short, or narrow branches or rungs at the top describe your personal and unique identity (within your closest community).
The Narrowest Identity
Let’s start at the top of the chart with your most unique identity and community. What is your narrowest identity and closest community? More than likely you are a member of the Christian churches/churches of Christ, part of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, possibly a reader of the Christian Standard and Lookout, and associated with the North American Christian Convention. This is a great identity and a family of which to be proud, and you might share this community with about 2 million members worldwide!
However, almost immediately we must examine how we connect to noninstrumental churches of Christ people (a cappella Christians), Disciples of Christ, Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, Lutherans, Calvinists, dispensationalists, charismatics, and Anabaptists—all Protestants (400 million worldwide), and not one of our immediate religious family! Sometimes the easiest position to take with regard to these 400 million folks is exclusivism: we simply do not connect with these people because they do not immerse, or do not observe weekly Communion, or because they do speak in tongues, embrace creeds, deny free will, oppose wars, and expect a secret rapture and Jewish millennium, etc.
Though differences in practices and doctrines must not be denied or ignored, I recommend you dig into your historical identity and communities and find common ground. Here is how it works for me.
Without ceasing to be Restorationist, I find that in many significant ways I too am a Protestant (contrary to my childhood upbringing). As Protestant, I believe, with many other groups, that the Bible is our sole normative authority (tradition can amplify it but never rival it). I believe we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice for our sins and no work we do can earn our salvation. I believe in Jesus as the sole mediator between God and humans, and I believe in the priesthood of all believers.
But can one possibly connect to Roman Catholics? For many Restorationists this is a very far stretch! Here again, one can take an exclusivist stance or dig deeper down into one’s identity and heritage for common ground (a more inclusivist stance).
I do understand myself as being catholic though not Roman Catholic (more than 1 billion worldwide). The lowercase catholic means “universal,” and I see myself as a member of Christ’s universal body, the worldwide church of all places and times. Can you dig down to your catholic heritage and identity?
I find my catholic self in many beliefs not given to me in the Bible: I believe in the one canonical Bible (including Old Testament and New Testament) whose boundaries were stated by the universal catholic church of the first four centuries, in Sunday worship, in Christmas celebrations, and in the symbol of the cross.
Similarly, can you embrace the orthodox part of your heritage and identity (orthodox means having the right belief and right doctrine)? This deeper level is not Russian Orthodoxy, Greek Orthodoxy, or Eastern Orthodoxy (more than 200 million adherents). I find my orthodox self in the affirmation of the Trinity (not spelled out in the Bible), the doctrine that in the one person of Jesus Christ reside a fully developed human nature and a fully developed divine nature (hammered out during the first four ecumenical councils).
Significantly, on this level, I do not find common ground with Arians, Unitarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others who deny the Trinity. Where I can connect with these people will be on deeper levels of shared convictions, because on this level we truly disagree.
Next down the decision ladder is the level of monotheism where Christians can find common ground with other world religions like Judaism and Islam (this is very much needed in our world today!). Even though historically these three world religions have at times taken bitter exclusivist stances toward each other (in jihads, Crusades, forced conversions, ghettos, and pogroms), all three religions agree there are not many gods (like the polytheists) nor is nature itself God (like the pantheists). They agree there is only one personal Creator God (Allah, El, or Elohim). All three religions trace their origins to Father Abraham. Can you descend to your monotheist foundation?
We can possibly find points of contact with the non-monotheist world religions in the shared conviction of spirituality: that materialism and naturalism cannot fully account for the whole of human experience. Can you find common ground with Hindus (nearly 1 billion worldwide), Buddhists (400 million), and Sikhists (23 million) in embracing a supernatural, ethical level that transcends mere animal and chemical existence?
Spiritual Hunger, Basic Questions
In American culture, of course, religious images, beliefs, and heroes are seldom portrayed explicitly, but the paranormal/supernatural still shows up in many TV shows and movies. If you are looking for Christianity to be preached, you will find little to appreciate except in Billy Graham movies and the Left Behind series. But if you recognize today’s postmodern spiritual hunger, you will be able to connect by means of many popular movies and TV shows. People are seeking spiritual points of contact.
Some of the most broadly held human convictions occur at the level of life’s basic questions. One question we all face is this: Does human life have an inherent purpose and meaning, or is every human completely free to choose his or her own course and follow his or her own desires? On this deepest level we share comedies that celebrate or mock human frailties and aspirations, tragedies and dramas that explore the consequences of following one’s desires and dreams, and romances that explore the meaning of love and lust.
Perhaps the most basic question of all human existence is simply this: Will we live on the animal level of senseless pursuit of pleasure, power, and possessions, or will we ascend to a higher level that examines the consequences of beliefs and actions? Many people today, especially the young, simply drift into living “the unexamined life” (that Socrates cautioned against).
Can you in any way connect with juveniles (of all ages!) operating on that level? I hope you can!
John Castelein is seminary professor of contemporary theology at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University.