Editor's note: This excerpt taken from chapter 4 of Christ Among Dragons: Finding Our Way Through Cultural Challenges by James Emery White
As a culture, we are rediscovering the validity of spirituality, once again making room for insight, intuition and even revelation. Articles on angels, near-death experiences, prayer and healing have become cover stories. Spiritual themes run throughout contemporary music. Films and television increasingly explore religious ideas and settings. People are interested in spiritual things, they're asking spiritual questions and are beginning to see that many of their deepest needs are spiritual in nature.
But in the new search for the spiritual, Christianity may lose while others gain. Or there may be such an eclectic gathering of spiritual commitments that Christianity will, at best, be only sampled. You may have heard of the term metrosexual. A metrosexual is a man found deep in the hair-care aisle or in the salon having his nails buffed to the perfect shine, while he's checking out the latest fashion magazines. He's a sensitive, well-educated urban dweller in touch with his feminine side. He loves to shop, wear jewelry and fill his bathroom counter with moisturizers — and maybe even makeup. In other words, he embodies a new definition of what it means to be a man. One that borrows heavily from what it means to be a woman, and combines it into a new identity.
Think of people becoming metrospirituals. There is a keenly felt emptiness resulting from a secularized, materialistic world that has led to a hunger for something more, but many go no further than the search for an experience. We have come to the point where the soul cannot be denied, but all we know to do is search for something "soulish." So an extraterrestrial will serve as well as an angel; a spiritualist as well as a minister. Borrowing a phrase from historian Christopher Dawson, we have a new form of secularism that embraces "religious emotion divorced from religious belief." In our current climate, people might be as likely to explore Wicca as the Word, Scientology as the Spirit. Or they may, in the end, explore nothing at all.
A Land of Swedes
When the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) was released, much was to be expected: mainlines are losing ground, the Bible belt is less Baptist, Catholics have infiltrated the South, denominationalism is on the wane. What was most alarming was the increase in "nones" — nearly doubling from 8 percent to 15 percent, making those who claim no religion at all the third largest defined constituency in the United States, eclipsed only by Catholics and Baptists. Further, "nones" were the only religious bloc to rise in percentage in every single state, thus constituting the only true national trend. As the ARIS report concludes, "the challenge to Christianity ... does not come from other religions but from a rejection of all forms of organized religion." Barry Kosmin, co-researcher for the survey, warns against blaming secularism for driving up the percentage of Americans who say they have no religion. "These people aren't secularized. They're not thinking about religion and rejecting it; they're not thinking about it at all." It is not that unbelief is driving out belief, James Turner suggests, but that unbelief has become more readily available as an answer to the question "What about God?" Unbelief is becoming mainstreamed, as evidenced by Barack Obama's recognition of people without faith, the first president to do so, in his inaugural address.
Thus, we must see America as a mission field. As an Episcopalian priest from South Carolina recently offered, "A couple came in to my office once with a yellow pad of their teenage son's questions. One of them was: ‘What is that guy doing hanging up there on the plus sign?' " But America is not just any mission field — but a very specific one. As in "think Sweden." In his book Society Without God, sociologist Phil Zuckerman chronicled his fourteen months investigating Danes' and Swedes' religion. His conclusion? Religion "wasn't really so much a private, personal issue, but rather, a non-issue." His interviewees just didn't care about it. As one replied, "I really have never thought about that. ... It's been fun to get these kinds of questions that I never, never think about."
Sociologist Peter Berger once quipped, "If India is the most religious country on our planet, and Sweden is the least religious, America is a land of Indians ruled by Swedes." What we must now realize is that we are increasingly becoming a land of Swedes.
I would think such a climate would provide the perfect motivational setting for evangelism: spiritual openness, coupled with spiritual desire and hunger for spiritual experience, yet divorced from Christian belief. Yet this is not what is happening; the largest evangelical denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, are not exhibiting a rise in baptisms but a steady, multiyear decline. Muslims are likely to outnumber Christians in Britain in just a few decades, and the Mormon Church now claims twelve million members, including six million in the United States. Why is it that this generation of Christians is losing such dramatic spiritual ground?
Most of us are familiar with the concept of urgency. It has to do with something that needs immediate attention because of its gravity. One of the challenges facing evangelical Christianity is that we do not seem to feel it is urgent to reach people for Christ. This despite an explicit effort from Jesus to generate such urgency:
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, "Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire."
But Abraham replied, "Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us." He answered, "Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father's house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment" (Luke 16:19-28).
When we die, we face either heaven or hell. While the great and final judgment was yet to come for both of these men, it's clear from this story that immediately upon our death, the fate of our lives is not only sealed but the verdict of that inevitable judgment is set in motion. The beggar Lazarus was by Abraham's side, which along with the concept of paradise, is mentioned in the Talmud as the home of the righteous — the place where the righteous dead go to await their future redemption and vindication. The rich man was in hell (Greek, "hades") the place where the wicked dead go to await their final judgment. And the chasm between the two cannot be crossed.
We do not often let our thoughts travel to such realities. It is uncomfortable. Even chilling. But one person in Jesus' story had it envelop every fiber of his being: the man in hell. To such a degree that he experienced a remarkable change in priorities. As I once heard someone observe, five minutes in hell made the rich man a flaming evangelist. Why? Because suddenly he knew it was all for real. And once he knew this, nothing mattered more than warning those he cared about. He knew that hell was not a figment of someone's imagination. It was real, and real people go there for eternity. And the man in hell knew that it would take someone going to them, talking to them, making it clear to them. Hell has a way of making that evident. We must realize that our friends, our family members, that person in our neighborhood, the person we work with who does not know Christ is in real trouble.
We must not see the needs of the world solely in terms of food and clothing, justice and mercy, shelter and companionship. We must see those needs, to be sure, and meet them — but we must see beyond them to the fallen nature of a world and humanity that produced those needs. We must see eternity waiting to be written in their hearts. I know of a ministry to young male prostitutes working the streets of Chicago that offers food, shelter, counseling and an array of other social services to help men move out of that degrading lifestyle. Most of us would think that is more than enough, that the greatest issue had been addressed. But not John Green, the leader of Emmaus Ministries, who has said, "We do violence to the poor if we don't share Christ with them." And he's right. It is difficult to imagine passivity in regard to those who have yet to embrace the Christian faith. The Scriptures do not simply speak, they thunder:
We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us (2 Corinthians 5:20).
Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation (Mark 16:15).
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20).
I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some (1 Corinthians 9:22).
One Saturday night, just as we were beginning the first of our weekend services, a tragic car accident happened in front of our church's main entrance. A 35-year-old man accidentally crossed the median line and ran into a car coming in the opposite direction. He wasn't wearing a seatbelt and was thrown from his car. He died on the scene. The "scene" being the side of the road by our front sign. Members and staff from our church were the first by his side. No one knew who he was.
It goes without saying that a death of any kind is unsettling. But a death in front of a church brings everything about our lives and mission into unique focus. That night, as I drove from our campus, I could only think: Was he a Christ follower? Did anyone ever reach out to him? What comfort is there in his family right now? I was told there was a child's safety seat in the back of his truck. Was he a father? I could not shake the depth of that human tragedy — and the consequences. Not just in regard to the immediate throes of grief that would descend upon all who knew him, but the consequences of his death for eternity. I took it upon myself to find out who he was. His name was John. He was 35 years old. He had a young wife and a 22-month-old daughter. I called the pastor of the church who was doing the funeral. It was a little Baptist church not far from our own. I learned that the entire church was in a state of shock, and that they took the following Sunday to try to process his death together, as a family of faith. Their one consolation? They knew he was a Christian. John was a Sunday school teacher and deeply committed to his faith. And while I was still aware of the enormous pain that surrounded his death, inside, I whispered a prayer of gratitude.
There were heroes around John's death that Saturday. Some of them were members of my church, along with medics, firefighters, police officers — all doing all that they could to save a life. And it was so clear what needed to be done. It was so obviously urgent. But in truth, the real saving had already been done, because another group of people saw the urgency surrounding his life in another way. The real heroes were the people who saved John before he died. And the best response of our church was not to run up the hill to serve at the scene of an accident, but to reach out to the thousands who drive by our campus in their cars every day. For each one will, in their own way and time, meet an equally fateful end. Yet it is precisely this challenge that seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
According to the International Programs Center, U.S. Bureau of the Census, at the time of this writing, the total population of the world is 6,793,790,293. Over two billion of them are Christians. That's one out of every three persons on the planet. But according to the latest research from Todd M. Johnson, research fellow and director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, most non-Christians have never met a follower of Christ. Over 86 percent of all Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims do not even know a Christian. Globally, over 80 percent of all non-Christians do not personally know a Christian. It would seem that we have confused the command to not be of the world with not being in it — particularly in terms of relationships with those who do not share our faith. We are isolated from the very people we say we long to reach, having seemingly retreated into a subculture of our own making.
This was not the model of Jesus. He went into the world; he spent time with those who were far apart from God. He reached out relationally, built friendships, went into their homes, attended their parties, broke bread at their tables. It was profoundly intentional and openly risqué, to such a degree that he was derisively called a friend of sinners. The scandal of Jesus' interaction with the unchurched is often lost on modern readers of the Gospels. So he went to a party of Matthew's? So he ate with Zacchaeus? So he spoke to a woman at a well? He was just being courteous, akin to someone who would open the door for a young mother or help an elderly person across the street. Such matters are passed over quickly to get to the heart of the story. But attending Matthew's party, eating with Zacchaeus and speaking to the woman is the story. In the ancient world "table fellowship" was considered an act of intimacy — arguably among the closest of intimacies. This helps explain the depth of betrayal David felt when he spoke of those with whom he had shared bread but who then turned against him (Psalm 41), as well as the pain Jesus felt when Judas — immediately after taking the bread from his hand — went out into the night for his thirty pieces of silver. To eat with someone, particularly a "sinner," was far more than a meal. It signified welcome, recognition and acceptance. Eating with sinners simply was not to be done — not even in the name of redemption: "Let not a man associate with the wicked, even to bring him near to the law," went the later rabbinic saying. This is why we read of the shock and dismay that Jesus was virtually indiscriminate with whom he ate (Luke 14-15). But he was more than just willing to meet and speak with those far from God. He was passionately intentional, proclaiming that such interactions rested at the heart of his mission: Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? I'm here inviting outsiders, not insiders — an invitation to a changed life, changed inside and out (Luke 5:31-32, The Message).
[I] came to seek and to save what was lost (Luke 19:10).
Go out to the roads and country lanes, and urge the people there to come so my house will be full (Luke 14:23 ncv).
At the time of this writing, Mecklenburg Community Church has just over 79 percent of its total growth coming from the unchurched. Leaders from other churches often ask what we do to reach such large numbers of non-Christians. They want a program, a style, a series, anything that might translate to their context and work. The reality is that our strategy is constantly changing; our "secret," however, has remained the same for nearly two decades: we are committed to reaching out in the most effective way possible. It's that simple. We do not believe we exist for ourselves but for those who have yet to come. We do not build the church to meet our needs but the needs of others. Our "front door" has been intentionally, passionately, thrown open, and we do not simply invite others in but actively seek them out and bring them. In explaining this to others, I often tell of an event that happened in the early days of Meck. We spent four years meeting in an elementary school, which meant we had to set up every Saturday and break down every Sunday. One weekend we were breaking down after the service, putting things back in trucks and sheds and cars, and Susan and I looked around and realized that our daughter, Rebecca, wasn't there. I thought she was with Susan, and Susan thought she was with me. She was only about 7 years old at the time. At first, we only panicked a little, because we assumed she'd be found right around the corner. But she wasn't right around the corner. She wasn't out on the playground, she wasn't in any of the rooms, she wasn't in the hallway, she wasn't in the cafeteria, and she wasn't in the gym. We couldn't find her anywhere. I have seldom experienced such sheer panic and fear. My little girl, gone.
I started racing through the building, going into rooms we didn't even use, hallways that were darkened, I ran outside and yelled her name until I thought I was going to lose my voice. Nothing mattered more to me than finding my daughter. It occupied every thought, every ounce of energy. Everything else paled in comparison. Just as we were getting ready to call the police, going back over every inch of the school again, I saw, down a long, dark hallway that we didn't use, outside of the doors we always blocked off because it was so cut off and led directly to the fields, a little head with brown hair barely above the glass. She had gone out the door, it had locked behind her, so she had sat down where she couldn't be seen and was just waiting for someone to find her. She had been crying and was scared, and she didn't know what to do but wait. I ran down that hallway, threw open those doors and grabbed that little girl and held her like you would not believe. You could not have pried her from my arms. That is the heart of God. The heart of the Father is one in absolute, ongoing, permanent frenzy to find the lost. And that is to be our frenzy as well.
But there is more than just passivity that we must address. Many Christians view those outside of the faith as needing to go to hell. They are the bad guys, the enemy; we refer to them as "pagans," "secular humanists," "liberals" and worse. Our relationship seems intensely adversarial in nature. It's the pro-family, Christian-radio listening, fish-sticker wearing, big-Bible carrying types versus the left-leaning, evolution-believing, gay marriage-supporting, Harry Potter-reading pagans.
And those outside of the faith have little doubt about our sentiments. In their book unChristian, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons detail research on how those between the ages of sixteen and twenty-nine who are outside of the church view the church and people in it. They offered a set of words or phrases as possible descriptors of Christianity, and then cataloged the number who affirmed their accuracy. Leading the way was "anti-homosexual" (91 percent) and "judgmental" (87 percent). "Outsiders believe Christians do not like them because of what they do, how they look, or what they believe," write Kinnaman and Lyons. "They feel minimized — or worse, demonized — by those who love Jesus."
Consider what has been our political voice — or at least, what has been perceived to be our voice. An editorial in Christianity Today titled "Hating Hillary" chronicled the depth of rancor and animosity among Christians toward Hillary Clinton, particularly during her run for the presidency. While her political stances have been polarizing, instead of civil discourse there was an avalanche of animosity expressed in everything from T-shirts, bumper stickers, voodoo dolls and "No Way In Hellary" barbecue aprons. At the 2004 Republican convention, a spokesman for the Family Research Council passed out fortune cookies with the message: "#1 reason to ban human cloning: Hillary Clinton."
In anticipation of her historic run, which would have made her the first female president in U.S. history, the late Jerry Falwell announced at a 2006 Values Voter Summit, "I certainly hope that Hillary is the candidate. Because nothing would energize my [constituency] like Hillary Clinton. If Lucifer ran, he wouldn't." So much for the "aroma of Christ" (2 Corinthians 2:15). And it is easy to smell. It reminds me of a story told by Martin Niemoller, a German Lutheran bishop who was called on to negotiate with Adolf Hitler during World War II in the attempt to save the church of Germany from being closed down by the Nazi dictator. Toward the end of his life Niemoller had a recurring dream in which he saw Hitler standing before Jesus on Judgment Day. Jesus got off his throne, put his arm around Hitler and asked, "Adolf! Why did you do the ugly, evil things you did? Why were you so cruel?" Hitler, with his head bent low, simply answered, "Because nobody ever told me how much You loved me." At this point, Niemoller would wake up from his dream in a cold sweat, remembering the countless meetings he had with Hitler — face to face — and he never once said, "By the way, Führer, Jesus loves you! He loves you more than you'll ever know. He loved you so much that He died for you. Do you know that?" For Niemoller, this was a nightmare. For us, it is the heart of our challenge.
The End for the Means
But even among those who are neither passive nor hostile, the evangelistic mandate can still be muted if not silenced — largely through such an emphasis on connecting with the non-Christian that there is little vision for the relationship beyond the connection. It is as if the emphasis is on the temporal, not the eternal, in terms of focus and intent.
I spoke at the inaugural gathering of an annual event, simply titled "Q," that brings together the leading figures among emerging generations, all considered on the cutting edge of infiltrating and shaping culture for Christ. I have great respect for this event, its intent and its founders, and what follows is not meant to disparage "Q" in any way. But it was an interesting visit. I had arrived early enough to listen to preceding addresses and to capture some of the hallway conversations. There was much talk of reaching culture, impacting culture, shaping culture — and then it hit me. No one was talking about reaching the people who were making that culture. There was talk of justice and art, but not redemption.
In some quarters it is as if we are focusing on the means to the end, only to forget the end. I have noticed this with many new churches planted to "reach the world" and "connect with culture." After sitting through countless such services, the pattern seems the same: enormous effort to connect culturally, great explanations of the practical wisdom and ethic of the Bible, but seldom is given the invitation to actually cross the line of faith in Christ.
When my turn came to speak, I went off script. I didn't plan on it — it was just one of those moments where as I was speaking the Holy Spirit planted a thought in my mind that I followed. I made a passing comment that we must not forget the most critical cultural engagement of all remains personal evangelism. In fact, I quipped that in many of the more advanced and "hip" conversations about cultural engagement, evangelism was conspicuous by its absence. I wasn't sure it was what I needed to say, but then I was besieged by large numbers afterward who seemed to be quite taken — if not shaken — by my offhand remark.
It seemed to be an important reminder. I sense among some that the primary goal is to "get" culture and participate with it to be seen as current. But once we find ourselves in positions of cultural influence, or having created needed cultural bridges, then what? Historically, the most transformational of cultural revolutionaries did not merely understand or penetrate culture — they sought to redeem those in it. And wisely so. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed, "The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart. ... It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person."
The irony of our day is that never before has a generation of Christians — particularly young Christian leaders — cared more about connecting with their culture for the sake of Christ. The dilemma is that many are connecting, but once the connection is made, the gospel itself seems lost in translation. Or perhaps more accurately, lost in transmission. We must never forget that we relate to culture for a reason — its redemption. Many of us have lamented the loss of a whole gospel — meaning its reduction to nothing more than salvation for the world to come, overlooking the need to reach out to the poor and homeless, the AIDS infected and the victim of injustice. How tragic if we went from one half of the gospel to another half and never seized its whole transforming, revolutionary intent for the whole world.
The Gift of a Bible
Now some might think, But what if I turn them off? What if they react negatively? This seems to be the arresting fear of our day. Those actually engaged in the effort are among the first to witness to its spurious assumptions. Most people — even the most hardened of skeptics — respond positively to a winsome and compelling witness. Penn Jillette is the talkative half of Penn and Teller, the Las Vegas comedy-illusion team, now with their own program on cable TV. Penn is an outspoken atheist. But he posted a video blog on his personal website about a man who gave him a Bible, which has much to teach Christians:
At the end of the show ... we go out and we talk to folks, ... sign an occasional autograph and shake hands. ... [T]here was one guy waiting over to the side ... [a]nd he walked over to me and he said, "I was here last night at the show, and I saw the show and I liked the show. ..."
He was very complimentary. ... And then he said, "I brought this for you," and he handed me a Gideon pocket edition. I thought it said from the New Testament. ... And he said, "I wrote in the front of it, and I wanted you to have this. I'm kind of proselytizing."
And then he said, "I'm a businessman. I'm sane. I'm not crazy." And he looked me right in the eye and did all of this. And it was really wonderful. I believe he knew that I was an atheist. But he was not defensive. ... He was really kind and nice and sane and looked me in the eyes and talked to me, and then gave me this Bible.
And I've always said that I don't respect people who don't proselytize. I don't respect that at all. If you believe that there is a heaven and hell and that people could be going to hell ... How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize?
How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? And that's all I want to say.
Perhaps, that's all we need to hear.
Dr. James Emery White, a frequent contributor at Christianity.com, is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. He also serves as professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Read more at his blog here.