Staying Connected in a Changing Culture
By Jeffrey D. Burr. Republished with permission from Baptist Bulletin.
Last year Sears Holdings Corporation announced the closure of at least 226 stores. Sears had been a fixture in American culture throughout the 20th century. It was where my family went to buy nearly everything—including household supplies, toys, clothing, and appliances. My dad would often cite Craftsman tools’ lifetime guarantee as he would grab the socket set out of his toolbox. Yet despite this long-term stability and solid product line, Sears is now in steep decline and on the verge of bankruptcy.
A Cautionary Tale
Unpacking the demise of Sears is a complicated matter, but it is safe to say that the primary problem wasn’t the quality of its products. The shelves were filled with trusted brands like Craftsman, Kenmore, and Diehard. But over time, Sears lost touch with the American consumer. Richard W. Sears had been a leader in innovation when he and Alvah C. Roebuck launched the Sears catalog in 1888. It was a perfect fit for rural America during this time, before the advent of the automobile. Most consumers couldn’t travel to a big city, so the catalog allowed them to peruse and order a wide range of products from the comfort of their own homes. With the onset of a more mobile America, the Sears department store began replacing the catalog. The close of the 20th century would signal another major shift—the growth of the internet. But Sears was locked into the department store model and struggled to engage customers in the new online marketplace. A brick-and-mortar store could not compete with the endless virtual shelves of Amazon.
While it is not a favorable comparison, I can’t help but consider the similarities between Sears and our own historic fellowship of churches, the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches. Like Sears, our fellowship experienced rapid growth during the early part of the 20th century. Like Sears, our fellowship has a solid product line with a strong and unwavering commitment to Biblical teaching. But like Sears, our fellowship has struggled to stay culturally connected.
We are a mature fellowship, with most of the churches over 60 years of age. Many of those churches have run a life cycle of rapid growth, plateau, and some measure of decline. Many are culturally outdated. Many are inward focused. Most are notably white, even in communities that are diverse. We have not capitulated to the culture. But we run the risk of becoming irrelevant to the culture. We are Sears—solid, but a bit out of touch. That might not be a fair assessment of the church where you attend or serve (I hope it is not). But as it relates to our collective identity as a fellowship, this is the word on the street.
I realize that the church is not a business. The church is propelled by a divine mandate, not a profit margin. Yet our mission calls for cultural competency. It is true that we are called to guard the gospel. But we are also called to effectively communicate the gospel to every culture of the world. That means we must learn the language and the thought processes of the people we are seeking to reach. I am not calling for a trendy approach to ministry. I am calling us back to the missional work of the church.
Developing Our Cultural IQ
No one engaged the culture more effectively than Jesus. He never presented the message of the gospel in the same way twice. The message was timeless, but the approach was always tailored to the unique world of the hearer. Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well (John 4) challenges us with some basic principles that will help us stay engaged with our culture.
First, we must put ourselves in contact with hurting people. Jesus purposely and intentionally put Himself in this woman’s path, and He worked to span the cultural and emotional divide. This woman was wary and skeptical. She was on guard. Why was this Jewish man talking to her? But by acknowledging His thirst, Jesus entered into her plight. He was speaking to her not from a position of power but from a position of weakness. His humble posture broke down the initial barriers. And by asking her for a drink, He affirmed her personhood and disarmed her hostility.
I have six teenagers living in my home. Needless to say, I am aware of the latest social media trends and texting abbreviations simply because of my kids. If you want to understand youth culture, you need to spend time with young people. And if you want to understand unbelievers, you need to spend time with unbelievers. Unfortunately, many of us have become isolated from the surrounding culture. We expect our missionaries to learn a foreign language, but we have lost the ability to talk to our neighbors.
Second, we must present the gospel in a way that resonates with the longing of the soul. Jesus was going to bring this woman to an understanding of her sin. But He didn’t start there. He talked to her about the gift of God. As Jesus and the woman stood under the blistering heat of the noon sun, He offered her “living water.” His words were veiled and she didn’t fully understand. But she was intrigued. Jesus stirred her heart and captured her imagination. She didn’t grasp what this living water was. But at the end of this exchange, she wanted it. She was weary of coming to the well day after day.
Posture is crucial when it comes to effective gospel ministry. I cringe at many Facebook interactions. I am talking about harsh character assassinations and Republican rants and snarky comments about the latest transgender legislation. We might win the argument, but at what cost? How many people do we turn off to the gospel before they even hear it? We are called to live peaceful and quiet lives so there will be no unnecessary obstacles to the gospel (1 Tim. 2:1–4).
Have we forgotten that the gospel is good news? Jesus came offering living water. The insecure woman with tattoos from head to toe and a multitude of piercings needs to know of the greatest marking of all. The high school boy who loses himself every night in his video game world needs to know there is a greater alternative reality. Thirsty people will put down their water pitchers only when they find something more satisfying than water.
Third, we need to keep the focus on the gospel. The woman at the well recognized Jesus as a prophet. So she asked Him to weigh in on the major dispute between the Jews and the Samaritans: Where should we worship God? The Samaritans worshiped at Mount Gerizim, while the Jews worshiped at Jerusalem. What did this dispute have to do with the conversation at hand? Nothing. It was a diversion. This woman was under conviction and she tried to redirect the conversation. Jesus answered her question but remained focused on the real issue. The issue is not where you approach God but how you approach God.
The apostle Paul urged Timothy to “flee . . . youthful lusts” (2 Tim. 2:22). We assume this is a warning about sexual temptation. But if you read the context, Paul clearly has something else in mind. Immature people are argumentative and engage in foolish controversies. When mistreated, they try to get even. They are harsh and inflammatory in their interactions. These are the juvenile behaviors that get in the way of gospel communication.
Unbelievers will employ any number of red herrings. It might be scientific theories on the origin of the Earth. It might be the bloodshed of the Crusades. It might be the hypocrites in the church. It might be the church’s stereotypical stance toward individuals who identify as LGBT. These issues are generally smokescreens. When talking with unbelievers, we need to avoid the tendency to get sidetracked with secondary issues.
The Devil’s Bait
In his book Fool’s Talk, Os Guinness calls the church back to effective cultural engagement. He urges us to recover the art of winsome and skillful Christian persuasion. And he warns us regarding the modern lust for technique and efficiency. We tend to gravitate toward familiar and repeatable methods. But if we are not careful, that once-helpful technique can become a serious obstacle to effective gospel engagement. For this reason, Guinness calls technique “the Devil’s bait.” Sears fell in love with the department store model and lost sight of the consumer. And if we are not careful, we too can fall in love with our version of the department store model and lose touch with the people we are seeking to reach.
Jeffrey D. Burr is lead pastor of Forest Hills Baptist Church, Grand Rapids, Mich.