I almost missed seeing it as I set the newspaper aside. But something about the picture caught my eye. I picked the paper up and looked at the picture again of the couple that was embracing and realized it was a same sex couple. The article was about love and family and I realized that the editor has chosen a picture of a same sex couple to illustrate the article. It was not an article about same sex marriage, the article did not address that issue at all. It was just a stock picture that was chosen to go with the story.
Twenty years ago, such a picture would have never have been published. Ten years ago, depending on the newspaper, it might have been published in an article about same sex marriage. Even two years ago such a picture would have produced a flurry of letters to the editor, both pro and con. But now, in our rapidly changing culture, it was just a stock picture in a mundane article that did not appear to stir up controversy at all.
Regardless of where a person stands on that particular issue, we can all agree that our culture is changing. Pick about any topic or issue and it seems that the public opinion is becoming more liberal. Things that only twenty years ago would have been unthinkable have now become so common that we almost miss noticing them when they show up in daily life.
These rapid cultural changes are impacting the church significantly. Churches are an important part of the fabric of our culture. Churches provide services to the poor and needy. Churches offer comfort to the distressed and dying. Churches provide education and health care services to not only their own followers but the community at large. Churches care for the elderly and for orphans. Our culture needs strong and healthy churches. But how should churches engage such a rapidly changing culture?
Some churches choose to adopt the culture and change with it. Such churches jump in with both feet and happily accept the culture's view on all the hot topics. The leaders of these churches assumed it would swell their ranks with open minded parishioners who would flock to their enlightening worship services and volunteer to lead their many community programs. Statistics show quite clearly that did not happen. The majority of liberal churches remain in steep decline. Tony Robinson, president of Congregational Leadership Northwest, speaks and writes, nationally and internationally, on religious life and leadership, concluded: It may be that relatively comfortable liberals … simply feel little need for religion.
Other churches adopt more of a fortress mentality. They withdraw from public life and huddle in their basement hoping the world will just leave them alone. Recently I had a conversation with the leader of a major fundamentalist religious organization that has taken this approach. He lamented, "We once had 50,000 people at our events over the course of a year, now we consider 20,000 to be a good year." The fortress mentality is clearly not working either.
Churches that want to remain vibrant must look for ways to engage the culture, without actually adopting it. Learning how to speak to cultural issues and work through complicated subjects while remaining true to scripture is important. We can neither adopt the culture, nor ignore it. We must engage it. Though there may be many ways to do that, one of the best is to focus on the life changing power of the Gospel. The Gospel changes lives, but we often focus on other things. When we focus on passing legislation for the community as a whole, or internal regulations for the organizations we serve, we miss the point. The human heart is sinful. It will remain sinful regardless of what the law or the rule book says. The only thing that can change the human heart is the Gospel. As we lift up Jesus and expose men and women, boys and girls, to the Gospel of Christ, they are drawn to Him. As His Spirit enters them, they are transformed. That transformation is far more powerful than all the rules and laws we could ever draft. Therefore, let's engage the Culture by lifting up Jesus.
It is time to emerge from our holy huddles in the church basement and start engaging our friends and family with the Gospel. Let's talk about Jesus. Let's sing about Jesus. Let's replace those political bumper stickers with ones about Jesus. Let's pack up our t-shirts promoting sports teams and musical groups and start wearing ones that talk about Jesus. Let's be willing to have the difficult conversations about cultural issues and then steer the conversation to Jesus. Let's reach out to people who hold different view points and talk about Jesus. Such an approach may be considered counter-cultural, but let's do it anyway. Let's make faith once more about Jesus and just see what happens.
To learn more about how churches can engage the culture, read Mission Possible: Reaching the Next Generation through the Small Church.