How to Engage the Culture Without Losing the Gospel

Q1. What are the biggest challenges facing the church today?

The greatest challenge always facing the church is whether it will preach the gospel.  Not whether the world will let us preach it—although religious liberty is always a question, and there’s a lot of hostility out there in post-Christian as well as Islamic societies—but whether we think the gospel is still the power of God unto salvation.  I’m not talking merely about what the liberals do to the gospel: essentially reinventing it as the affirmation of basically decent people.  It happens in evangelical circles—including churches linked to the Reformation. We get bored.  And let’s face it, a lot of preaching and teaching today is boring and that’s a shame.  But then we begin to take it for granted.  It becomes an “of course”—the ABC’s of the faith that we needed to become Christians, but now we need to focus on life.  As if the gospel got us started and now it’s all about us again (see Galatians 3:3).  So we subordinate the gospel to supposedly more relevant and interesting agendas. 

Or, in the name of “translation” and “mission” (or just by not thinking about it), we slowly assimilate the gospel to cultural habits of thought.  It's the frog in the kettle.  For example, in a highly therapeutic society, we say the words “sin” and “salvation,” but we mean (or people hear us saying) “dysfunction” and “recovery.”  It’s very hard in this culture to get people to take seriously the fact that a God outside of us is going to judge us one day and there is no hope unless we are dressed in the “wedding garment” of Christ’s righteousness. 

People think religion is about inner empowerment for their own life projects.  This is all law, not gospel; it’s not even God’s law, but what I call “Easy Listening Law.”  What they need is God’s law—his interpretation of the situation and of us—to tell us the truth.  Many people today have a supporting role for God maybe in their life movie, but they get mad if we tell them, “Well, actually, you die in this scene and God raises you up in Christ as a new character in his greatest story ever told.  But those who are saved by it know how powerful it is to do that very thing to us: to insert us into Christ in whom we find our election, redemption, justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification.  Since the gospel creates the church, to whatever extent it is faithfully preached the kingdom of Christ expands and deepens.  And people discover that this death of the “curved-in” self (to quote Augustine) really is their life.

Q2. Many people are leaving the church today. Why should we care about their concerns?

It’s all related to what I just said.  Many people are leaving the church today because the alternative dramas of this fading age have captured their desires.  I’m thinking especially here of my own western context, but modernity is a global phenomenon.  There are some good exceptions, but a genuine understanding of our culture at this particular time in its history, and the role of the church within that context is rare.  By and large, you either join the “Red Team” of culture-despisers (at least despisers of high culture, while wallowing in pop culture) or the “Blue Team,” selling their soul for acceptance on terms tantamount to surrender.  

I don’t think that everyone has to be a cultural analyst.  A pastor has more important things to do, like caring for Christ’s sheep, but part of that care is to recognize some of the reasons why many people find the Christian story non-compelling and why they find certain other big stories meaningful. Increasingly, many churches themselves don’t see the gospel as the way you not only get people in but keep them in the faith.

I don’t think that if we just preach the gospel, folks will flock in droves.  That doesn’t always happen.  But if we don’t treat the gospel as the message that creates and grows the church, we can be sure that such a church—big or small—isn’t part of Christ’s kingdom but someone else’s.

Q3. What is the gospel?

Great question.  The gospel is that Jesus, God incarnate, was crucified, buried and rose again, appearing to Peter and the other disciples and then to a great number (1 Cor 15:1-5).  “He was crucified for our sins and was raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25).  When I say “everything has to be oriented by the gospel,” I don’t mean repeating John 3:16 over and over.  I mean tracing the great redemptive themes from Genesis to Revelation: Christ as the true temple, the Lamb of God, the high priest, prophet, and king; the greater son of Abraham and David. 

Throughout Scripture, the Triune God is the real hero of the story.  What does it mean to be swept into the new creation that dawned with Christ’s resurrection from the dead?   Gospel means “good news” and in the ancient world, it referred to the announcement of victory on the battlefield that a runner would bring back to the capitol.  So the gospel is everything in Scripture that is in the category of God’s promise, clustering around the coming Messiah.  The law is everything in Scripture that reveals God’s righteous commands.  The law reveals our sin and helplessness to attain God’s favor by our own merits.  It also guides all who are in Christ by the Spirit.  But only in the gospel is it announced that the Father gave his Son for us.  Show people that in episode after episode and they’ll find themselves being cast by the Spirit as characters themselves in that unfolding drama.  Also show them the law, how God’s goodness, truth, and beauty is manifested in his righteousness, holiness, and justice   You put that together with the gospel of God’s love and mercy in Jesus Christ and it’s really amazing. 

Q4. How does the gospel call us to engage our neighbors, without being hostile or apathetic?

I’m fascinated by how both Martin Luther and John Calvin found in Scripture not only the truth about salvation but about creation as well.  I wouldn’t say that the gospel calls us to engage our neighbors.  The core of the moral law is love, but this is impossible when we are “under the law” in the sense of being obligated to keep it perfectly or else.  Paradoxically, it’s only when Christ fulfills it, bears our curse for breaking it, and sends his Holy Spirit to renew us by that good news that we find ourselves liberated for the first time to actually love our neighbors from the right motives.  They aren’t opportunities for us getting points with God.  Since God doesn’t need our good works, where do they go?  Out to our neighbor who needs them, said the reformers on the basis of Scripture.  Calvin said that the sixth commandment (prohibiting murder) is based on the image of God, so that even if the person is unlovely or an enemy toward us, we love him for the sake of the fact that we share each other’s humanity as God’s noble viceroys. 

The gospel doesn’t really call us to do anything but trust in Christ who has done everything for us.  But those whom Christ justifies by his Spirit, through the gift of faith, he also sanctifies.  Sanctification has more to do with our neighbor than with our navel.  In other words, biblical piety is about loving others.  Sounds so simple, right?  But that’s it. The easiest thing to believe; the hardest thing to live.  But now that we’re freed from the law as a condition for righteousness before God, we can finally love and serve others out of gratitude for God’s grace and appreciation that he has placed this other sinner in my path to wash his or her feet today.

Medieval knights cried “Christ is Lord” while cleaving the skull of an infidel in the crusades.  It’s not enough for the church to get the message right.  It has to be the embassy of Christ’s kingdom where an unbeliever can actually say, “There’s a fit between what they say—for example, speaking of God’s grace, mercy and love in Christ—and the kind of community this is.”  If it’s a nest of backbiters and gossips, whatever they mean by “saved by grace” isn’t what the New Testament means.  If they’re arrogant toward other sinners (even fellow Christians) because, ironically, they know that they’re totally depraved and have no basis for spiritual pride, that’s just weird.  And it’s sin to be repented of.  Let’s come to unbelievers as forgiven sinners, the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable, not as the contemptuous elder brother.

Q5. How should Christians engage the culture without losing the gospel?

We don’t really engage cultures, but people: spouse, family, neighbors, co-workers, etc.  There are specific cultural contexts, as I acknowledged above.  But for the most part, we’re dealing with people who are dealing with pretty universal aspects of the human condition: the joy of childbirth, the sorrows of life, and the pain and fear of old age.  “Engaging the culture” can be an abstraction, an excuse for ignoring the neighbor right under my nose who needs me right now.  Maybe it’s my wife whom I haven’t cherished lately, or the guy whose car broke down on his way to work and you know how to fix it. 

Then, yes, there are some who are called to spend a lot of time studying the factors that drive us in a particular time and place.  They can provide immense insight into the way we travel through this present evil age that is still saturated with God’s common grace.  So even non-Christians can help us with that deeper understanding of what’s going on: socially, economically, politically, in education, the arts and entertainment, and other important aspects of culture.  But that’s just one calling among others and if more of us were just salt and light where God has placed us, there would be less talk about engaging the culture because we’re just maintaining a “faithful presence” (to quote James Hunter).

Q6. What can Christians do to pass on the faith to the next generation?

Again, it starts at the most local level: our own kids and grandchildren, then the wider family of God in our local church.  Most evangelical young people are unchurched by their sophomore year in college, we’re told.  That’s scandalous.  Why do they find these other stories compelling, worthy of ditching the “in Christ” story into which they’ve been baptized and nurtured through catechesis and preaching for another “in Adam” story of this passing age?  Are we really immersing them in it?  Is the ministry of Word and sacrament being executed faithfully?  And not just from the pulpit, font, and table, but in our youth groups, family camps and regular interactions throughout the week? 

We have to stop taking the young people in our church for granted.  They are not “The Church of Tomorrow,” but part of today’s church, the sheep Christ calls us to feed and care for.  They need more apologetics than pizza, more opportunities for genuine questioning and having their questions answered than rock concerts.  But they also need their church to be a “plausibility structure” that displays the truth of the gospel.  That doesn’t mean a community of the perfect or the know-it-alls (that will only lead to disappointment, despair, and cynicism), but of sinners who return each week together to repent and believe the gospel and be bound together in a fellowship of pilgrims. 

Q7. What is Core Christianity and how does it help churches fulfill their mission to make disciples?

Core Christianity is a major initiative to deliver high-quality and accessible instruction in the most central doctrines of the Christian faith.  It’s based on the “4 D’s”: the Unfolding Drama of redemption from which the Doctrines arise, shaping our Doxology (praise) and Discipleship in our everyday lives.

Why do we need something like this?  Everything I’ve said so far is about churches.  That’s where the battle is won or lost in every generation.  But we want to help Christians and churches to recover their focus in the mission. And churches that are already teaching the basics need tools that they can use for evangelism and especially for new Christians. What we do is provide resources for reformation in the lives of Christians and churches, so that they can bring this good news to the world more clearly and effectively.

Q8. How does Core Christianity fit into your vision to reach the world?

I’m an ordained minister and full-time seminary professor because I believe in the Great Commission entrusted to the church.  But all believers are called to be winsome and well-informed witnesses to Jesus Christ.  Just imagine millions more who know what they believe and why!  They do not need gimmicks or to pass out tracts on the airplane or street corner, as I used to do way back when.  They can share the faith in clear and persuasive ways with a sense of personal conviction based on fact, not just their own personal experience.  Our approach here is what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity”: the central truths that all orthodox Christians cherish.

Q9. Given all the challenges you mentioned above, what is your hope for the future of the church?

Jesus promised, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”  Having already been raised from the dead as the beginning of the new creation, his promise is better than gold.  So I have complete confidence that the future looks very bright.  That doesn’t mean that the way to that goal is going to be always cheerful and victorious.  It has never been.  But what especially assures me is that Jesus said: “the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”  The world has always been hostile, but Christ goes on conquering with success by his Word and Spirit.  The kingdom of Christ is not being driven back.  There is no sense of retreat, with Jesus promising that there will nevertheless be a tiny remnant.  No, hell’s empire will not be able to keep its gates from being demolished by the gospel. 

I also see tremendous encouragement on the ground, as Jesus fulfills his promise.  I’ve had the pleasure of speaking at conferences in many places—especially the Global South—where thousands of people come at great personal cost (sometimes even in danger to their life) because they are so hungry for the doctrines of grace.  Most of them are under 30 years old.  That’s true also in the US, as tens of thousands of younger pastors and laypeople discover a deeper and more biblical faith.  Seeing this always puts wind in my sails in spite of the challenges before us now and in every generation.

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