Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Breaking the Seal: Creating openings in your life to engage the unchurched

A significant problem facing the American evangelical church culture is the fact that the lives of solid Christians in our churches are, in large part, sealed off from the lives of unchurched people around us. (This problem seems to be even more pronounced in churches with a fundamentalist background) Thankfully, most members of our churches are blessed to have an entire immediate family who are Christians. It’s a beautiful thing to share faith and values with your family. This usually means that the family has spent their lives attending church together, thus developing a strong network of friendships that grow and deepen over years – another wonderful thing. The challenge that comes with these blessings is that they create the first two layers that have the potential to seal off the Christian community from the members of the community around them. Add 1 or 2 more of the potential layers – a Christian workplace, a Christian school, an additional parachurch bible study or other activity – and the Christian community successfully creates a virtually hermetic seal, closing itself off from the world with multiple layers of protection.

While this is a satisfactory arrangement if the main goals are fact-centered Christian education or producing conformity to certain behaviors, it misses an important part of Christian identity. The God who rules the Christian community is a triune God who exemplifies the sending and going identity of the church: the Father sent his Son; the Son went into the world, setting aside his glory and humbly taking on the form of those to whom he was sent; the Spirit is sent to empower Christ’s follower to go, proclaim the gospel and make disciples. For Christians to sit comfortably inside the seal of multiple layers of Christian subculture and familiar relationships, they must ignore this part of their identity in Christ. This type of separation narrows the focus of our obedience to the command to “Love your neighbor” from a sensitivity to the many lost, needy and hurting people around us to an awareness primarily of those who have been in our lives for a long time, share our beliefs, and have given or will later give something to us – i.e., a kind of love that many lost people exercise toward their families and life-long friends.

We deeply need a network of people around us who offer stability in faith, depth of relationship and encouragement to continue living the Christian life daily. And we need to encourage one another to reflect the sending and going character of the Christian life by peeling away a layer or two to make an opening in the seal. By intentionally seeking common space and shared activities with people around us who desperately need to be reconciled to God, we make ourselves available to build relationships, express love, proclaim the gospel, and reflect the attitude Christ showed in the incarnation.

Peeling away a layer can be tough: it often comes with a sense of separation and a bit of guilt over a relationship or activity that had to be phased out of life. Contact with non-believers who don’t play by the rules of Christian behavior frequently produces a painful, raw rub. But these pains rarely match up to the magnitude of change Christ experienced in taking on human form - nor the pain he experienced in being rejected, flogged and crucified by the people he was offering his love.

Living a sealed-off life calls to mind the question of Soren Kierkegaard: “How can one be Christian when he lives in Christendom?” That is, if there is no challenge in living Christian morals because your morals are constantly reaffirmed by everyone you interact with, are you exercising faith, or simply conforming socially? While Kierkegaard arrives at conclusions I disagree with, he raises poignant questions about the motivations for our actions. If we believe the gospel, we believe it has a transformative effect on people, and can give power to shine as light in the midst of darkness, to stand upright when those around bow to the threats and seductions of the world’s influence. A faith that yields transformation and that stands steadfast in the face of opposition shines brightly to the glory of God. The perpetuation of a subculture produces an interesting sociological phenomenon. Which of these results are we looking to produce?


Chris said...

I enjoyed this post very much thank you for the time you took to write it. You now have 14 followers.

Austin said...

YAY! Thanks for the refreshing and gentle challenge, a push in the right direction. Today Heather and I are travelling to Tel Aviv for a Hebrew Class end-of-semester party. We are excited for the opportunities.
On this theme, check out this verse that often kicks my butt. It is part of Jesus' prayer for us:

"My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by[d] the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world." (John 17:15-18)

May God give us the power to go!


Nathan said...

Thanks for the apropos verse, Austin - and the additional follower, Chris.