The church is both a home and a mission. It is a home to its people and a mission to its community. As a home, the church provides care for its people, nurtures them, and equips them to live out the Great Commandment and Great Commission in their daily lives. As a mission, the church is an embassy of the Kingdom of God, announcing the arrival of King Jesus, calling people to allegiance to Him, seeking to bring everything under His reign, and seeking to bring the blessings of His kingdom to a world in need.
In this role of the church as a mission, we are facing unprecedented challenges and opportunities in our day. If the church is going to overcome these challenges and seize the opportunities before it, then some of our models of ministry must change.
Much has been written over the past thirty years on the spiritual and social changes in American culture. While most Christian leaders are very familiar with these changes, I am not convinced we have taken them seriously enough. The church continues to minister as if it were the 1950’s, except in some cases we have replaced the organ with guitars and hymnals with PowerPoint. While there is nothing wrong with these changes, these changes are, for the most part, cosmetic and do not address the real challenges ahead.
In his book, Living Proof, Jim Peterson outlines the problem well. While churches and Christian ministries may say that they are trying to reach the whole population, they really are simply competing for an ever shrinking piece of the pie. Most churches are only capable of reaching people who have a particular background. Truly secular people have worldviews and assumptions that are so radically different from Christians that the average church member (and leader) is no more equipped to reach out to them than they are to the tribal people of New Guinea. They no longer speak the same language. The gap is widening.
In the 1950’s, most non-Christians in America at least had a Christian heritage. They were not truly secular. For the most part, they accepted the authority of the Bible, they believed in God. They believed in the concept of sin. Furthermore, the cultural gap between those inside the church and outside the church was not that great. Most Americans shared certain core values that were essentially Judeo-Christian.
That is not the case today. America has become increasingly secular. The church and most evangelism techniques still work well with the segment of the population that conforms to the old values. However, neither the church nor most evangelism programs have any idea of how to reach those who are further away. Yet, the church continues to minister as if we live in the world of Ozzie and Harriett. Ozzie and Harriett are still out there, but their numbers are shrinking greatly. We are ministering as if we are in a Christian society instead of ministering as if we are in a secular society. The result is, we are relevant to ever decreasing percentage of the population and are quickly moving (if we are not already there) to being a ghetto of mainstream society.
In The Celtic Way of Evangelism, George Hunter notes that “The Church, in the Western World, faces populations who are increasingly “secular”—people with no Christian memory, who don’t know what we Christians are talking about. These populations are increasingly “urban”—and out touch with God’s “natural revelation.” These populations are increasingly “postmodern”: they have graduated from Enlightenment ideology and are more peer driven, feeling driven, and “right-brained” than their forebearers. These populations are increasingly “neo-barbarian”; they lack “refinement” or “class,” and their lives are often out of control. These populations are increasingly receptive—exploring worldview options from Astrology to Zen—and are often looking “in all the wrong places” to make sense of their lives and find their soul’s true home. ”
Hunter goes on to tell the story of St. Patrick. Patrick was born in Britain in the year 387. When he was 16 years old, he was kidnapped by the wild people of Ireland and forced to live as a slave. However, six years later, he escaped and returned to Britain. Upon his return, he entered the priesthood. However, after a few years, he petitioned the church to be sent back to Ireland as a missionary. However, the church was reluctant to do so because the church at that time did not believe the Irish could ever become Christians. Why? Because the Irish were barbarians. The assumption was that a population had to be civilized in order to be Christianized. Secondly, if they ever were Christianized, they were expected to adopt the “Roman way” of doing things”. Since the Irish clearly were not civilized, they could not be Christianized.
That mentality (either intentionally or unintentionally) is pervasive in the church. For example, if you see one kid wearing all black, who has black eyeliner all around the eyes, and a series of tattoos, and you see another kid in khakis and wearing a polo type shirt, which one is most likely to become a Christian? Who is most likely to become a Christian, the president of the PTA or the president of Hell’s Angels?
In the way we talk, the way we do ministry, our churches are designed to minister to “civilized” people. If a person is conservative, moral, and preferably Republican, our church is a warm environment. However, one who does not fit our standards of civilization is often excluded based on his behavior and cultural values before we even have the opportunity to talk about Jesus.
We think you have to behave then believe, and once you do those two things, you belong. However, Jesus reverses all of this. By eating with sinners, Jesus does not condone sinful lifestyles but attests that these persons and their lifestyles can be transformed.
The problem is, as Christians, we see the moral failure of our culture and we want to address this. So, we take a strong stand for moral behavior. We accept those who behave properly and reject those who do not because we do not ever want to send the message that we condone immorality. However, in doing this, we reverse the biblical order.
The gap between the Church and the culture, though, extends far beyond behavior. Our worldviews are so different that we do not know how to talk to one another. Living in our own communities has become so cross-cultural that there is a natural tendency for Christians to gather together with people who think like we do. The problem is, we are gathering together, maintaining our culture, but becoming a ghetto of the dominant culture. We are quickly becoming the Amish, only we are more fashionably dressed.
A while back, I attended a wedding in a Greek Orthodox Church. It was beautiful. I had never been to anything like it. However, it was also completely foreign to me. I did not understand the rituals. It seemed to me to be extremely culturally bound. It was as if when I got out of my car and entered the church, I was transported to a different country. I was a foreigner there. That experience caused me to wonder if that is how secular people feel when they attend our church.
The answer is not to compromise. That is what the liberal church has done. We are not called to blend into the culture, but to transform it with the gospel. The answer then, is neither to compromise or retreat to our ghetto, but to be missionaries. We are to live and act as resident aliens in our culture. Instead of trying to maintain our culture and protect it, our calling is to engage the culture, incarnate the gospel in the culture, in order to transform the culture.
Even in seeking to be missionaries to our culture, we must be careful that we do not merely focus on doing that which is attractive to the culture rather than that which is transformational. For those of us who value cultural relevance, we have been driven by a desire to reach lost people. As a result, we have worked hard to grab their attention and speak with relevance. Much of the results of this have been good. We have seen many people come to church and eventually to Christ that never would have gone to church before. The truth of the Bible has not been veiled behind unintelligible liturgies. Lives truly have been changed by the gospel.
However, churches have not just grown by attracting non-Christians, but by attracting Christians. People now crave relevance more and more. In reality, they want a church that entertains them and puts on a good show. We have created a church that values entertainment over doctrine. I heard a pastor of one of the largest churches in my denomination say, "If we changed our theology, a few people might leave. If we changed our music, half the church would be gone by next Sunday".
I agree that church should not be boring. God isn’t boring. It is the equivalent of a modern miracle how we preachers can talk about our amazing God in such a way that puts people to sleep. However, the danger is, when you build your church on having a good “show”, you now have created an appetite for entertainment that constantly needs to be fed.
While the contemporary church has been far more successful in reaching lost people than the traditional church (look at the PCA’s statistics on those joining by profession of faith and this is obvious), it also has grown by attracting people who are bored with their old church. If people come to you because you are more exciting than their old church, then they will leave when they find another church that is more exciting than yours.
This has created a consumer mindset in church members. The members of the church no longer see themselves as owners/ministers, but as consumers. Just as they will leave their old grocery store to shop at Wal Mart, they will leave one church for another if it provides a better show or better services for their family.
We are seeing this all over the country. I can cite a number of examples in my own denomination where a church was once the hot church in its community, but now is experiencing decline because some other church has come that puts on a better production. The drive for cultural relevance has resulted in consumerism. Consumerism will eventually bite the church. It is a beast that cannot be contained.
So, the church must recognize that it is ministering in a secular society. It also must approach ministry with a missionary mindset—seeking to reach the people of its culture in a way that makes sense to them. At the same time, the church must guard against compromise and consumerism. Instead, it must function as a missionary society that loves the people of its community and desires to see them transformed by God’s grace.
 I “borrowed” this simple model from Randy Pope at Perimeter Church. I like its simplicity.