Within the last decade, we’ve seen significant cultural shifts in America. These shifts have revealed themselves in a variety of ways—from changing views on morality to a general apprehension to religion and matters of faith. These changes affect how EFCA pastors and the people of God are perceived in their local context. Yet, regardless of perception, our call to make disciples remains. While our foundations in the good news of Jesus and the authority of the Scriptures will never change, it’s important that we discern the times and discover how we might adapt our methods to reach lost people in a broken world.
As I’ve written previously, God has a compassionate heart for lost people. We see His compassionate heart throughout the Scriptures but especially in a passage that many of us know well: John 3:16.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
God desires for all people to be in right relationship with Him and He gave His Son to accomplish this great purpose. God’s love and compassion motivate the EFCA to multiply transformational churches among all people.
Yet, as we move on mission together for His glory, how can local church leaders work to equip the people of God to engage a drastically changing culture with the gospel?
To help me process this question, I’ve invited Katie Dudgeon to share her thoughts in an article and a video interview. For years, Katie served as a ReachGlobal missionary in Berlin, where she faced many of the same challenges the church in America faces today. I invite you to take the time to read Katie’s insightful article and watch our video where we talk about practical ways the Church can champion a bold, gospel witness in a changing culture.
Owen grew up leading worship for his suburban youth group, going on mission trips to Guatemala and pursued a ministry degree at a local Christian college. While there, he learned how to study and teach Scripture, took classes in apologetics and was mentored by a beloved professor. Upon graduating, he planned to get married and try his hand at youth ministry.
Olivia’s family volunteered their time in local shelters and she grew up advocating for the rights of the homeless, the treatment of animals and the LGBTQ+ community. She changed her major at Princeton to Social Justice after studying abroad in India and plans to teach English in Nepal with a friend when she graduates.
Fast forward 10 years. Owen and Olivia are now neighbors in a suburban community where they are both raising their families. On the outside, their lives might look relatively similar, but they have been shaped by very different life experiences, value constructs and goals. How does Owen’s church connect Olivia with the life-transforming power of the gospel when she is seemingly content with her life and is not interested in attending a local church? How does Owen relate to Olivia, who is not searching for a new belief system and has not had particularly positive experiences with evangelicals?
After working in Berlin, Germany for many years, I asked questions like these often as I partnered alongside local churches. In a secularized city where more than 60% considers themselves non-religious and estimates of evangelical Christians are in the single digits, the local church’s best option is to find common ground with nonbelievers outside the church. Increasing secularization means that broader culture does not reflect the same values of the church and has little familiarity with the teachings of the church.
These shifts happened hundreds of years ago in Europe, but studies indicate that the U.S. is beginning to experience similar shifts. These shifts create a widening gap in the beliefs, lifestyles and goals of those who would consider themselves followers of Christ and those who do not.
In a changing culture, Christian engagement at the workplace, in neighborhoods and in organizations and entities becomes even more vital. Co-workers, neighbors, fellow volunteers and peers may resist a relationship with your church and your ministries, but they might embrace a relationship with you.
I have several friends who have deep, negative feelings towards religious institutions and members of the clergy, yet they openly share their heartfelt questions about God with me—and want to hear what I think. If people won’t go to the church, then the people of the church must go to them.
Supporting ministry outside the church
Think back to Owen and Olivia.
How can we help the “Owens” as they interact with the “Olivias”? What can we as churches do to introduce people to the gospel when they are not interested in the gospel or our church? How do believers be the proverbial salt and light when our approaches to life separate us?
One way the local church can help Christians to interact well with those outside the church is by supporting them as they encounter professional, ethical and moral challenges. Whether it’s forming a Christian peer group for those working in the financial world, mentoring between experienced professionals and those entering the workforce, prayer support for teachers or those in the medical field or Zooming in a Christian professor of ethics to speak on a difficult issue, there are many ways to help resource those who are navigating life outside church walls. Right now, we might empathize with their challenges, but rather than helping them find ways to live out their faith and be people of character, we encourage them to leave.
We tend to applaud people who remove themselves from tricky situations and look down on, or even shame, Christians we perceive to have gone too far to reach people outside of the church. The “safer” option is to avoid the challenges to our integrity and purity altogether; yet this means missed opportunities to engage the communities around us, only widening the gap that separates us.
We don’t see the same “safe” posture in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus was accused of hanging around sinners and people with bad reputations by the religious elite in Matthew 9.
From Jesus’ example and other places in both the Old and New Testament (Daniel 1; Jeremiah 29; Matthew 9; Luke 2:52), we learn that it is possible to live among those who have different approaches to life than we do while also being full of faith, integrity and character. Daniel is a striking example of this, and the book of 1 Peter has so much insight into living when the world does not reflect our values or beliefs. Those in our churches need to be reassured that we have biblical precedent to live in challenging environments and they need our support to navigate the tensions they experience.
Of course, compromising our character or failing to reflect the heart of Christ is also not a good option because it undermines the message of the gospel that bears fruit in transformation that we are trying to share. Neither extreme will help us effectively witness, and neither extreme is something to be encouraged.
Instead, it is helpful to normalize the challenges of living out our faith in difficult environments and provide space for people to talk about the tensions they feel and be open about their personal challenges. As culture changes away from Christian truth and values, it will be even more important to support Christians as they try to live out their faith, with a firm commitment to the gospel, in difficult contexts.
A discipleship of hope
As the culture shifts, people often become fearful, but it is important to anchor our teaching and discipleship with hope. People hear negative messages and reports regularly. Remind them that no matter how much society changes, God is not held back and is still at work in people’s lives.
In secular societies, politics and political activism often replace religious belief and activity. Too often the church can follow suit and place its hope in local or national politics as well. We need to be aware of our own fears and how that might be impacting our teaching. Our words and attitudes should reflect the hope that comes from the limitless grace of God, the God of hope (Romans 15:13), not our human limits and fears. Holy Spirit can guide us through any challenge we face regardless of what is to come. Here are a few questions to consider as you reflect on equipping your church to impact a changing culture:
- How could we as a church better support those who are on the frontlines representing Christ to those who would never come to church?
- How am I normalizing the challenges we face as we live out our faith by pointing to biblical examples?
- How are we encouraging character and integrity as key aspects of representing Christ to those around us?
- How might fear or my political hopes be unintentionally leaking into my teaching, rather than dependence on God and His Spirit to guide us?
Your church will not regret the efforts made to affirm, equip and support those in your church to be salt and light in all sorts of places with all sorts of people. Jesus desires to see a church full of people taking risks to live out their faith in hospitals, businesses, schools and neighborhoods for the sake of others.
For resources to equip and support your church, visit helps.efca.org.
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