When I began interacting with non-believers in the Bay Area, I discovered how “Christian” I was. It wasn’t that I was a super-Christian or that everyone else was a pagan. Rather, I learned how much Christian culture had influenced me and how much it affected my ability to be a witness.
Let’s back up a little. I have lived in the comforts of a Christian community for most of my adult life, and it was great. I loved that I could refer to churches by their acronyms. I loved that the people I surrounded myself with and ministered to all spoke the same lingo, knew the same inside jokes, and had college and church experiences very similar to mine.
But was this Christian culture too closed to outsiders? As Christians we are called to live in community to encourage and edify one another. Unfortunately, what I fear has happened is that in our search for Christian community, we’ve created and enabled a culture that creates a barrier to those outside of the church, ironically preventing us from being effective witnesses for the gospel to those who have never heard it.
Barriers to Community
When I was growing up, the #1 rated TV sitcom was a show called “Cheers.” For you young people, this show is to me what “Friends” or “How I Met Your Mother” is to you. The intro song was very catchy — “sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name… and they’re always glad you came…”
Because people want to feel like they belong, one of the great tools for evangelism is community. But when the church becomes inward focused, it creates a great barrier to evangelism and outreach.
For many of us, we’re fine with that. We prefer to be like the sitcom “Cheers” or “Friends” in which all the characters stay the same. There might be some guest appearances, but in the end it’s the same core group of people who speak the same language, know all the religious and cultural innuendos, and make each other feel safe and comfortable.
Since we are so immersed in this Christian culture we don’t even realize how alienating we can actually be.
Here’s an example. If you’ve ever visited a church on a Sunday, you know that when upbeat praise music starts, you are supposed to clap along.
For someone unfamiliar with this culture, this is very weird. How many times have you been to a party or a gathering or even a concert and everyone was clapping in unison to a song?
I have also noticed non-believers who visited small groups become uncomfortable as churchgoers shared prayer requests filled with Christian verbiage that we never use in everyday talk.
These religious terms and phrases create a chasm, and they communicate to the unbeliever that they are outsiders. It makes it seem like the only way to be fully accepted is to fall in line by learning and assimilating into our Christian culture. But is this what Jesus wants?
Live aligned to the Gospel, not culture
When I examined my life and the type of culture that I was living in, I realized that it looked drastically different from the lives of the first-century believers. My Christian life was more about my own comfort and my agenda, while the first-century church was passionate about knowing Jesus and having others know Jesus as the Messiah. In order for us to have a deep intimate relationship with Christ and to be a people who are living out the mission of God we must strive to live aligned to the Bible instead of living aligned to the Christian culture.
To live biblically is to know that being accepted into the family of God through Jesus Christ is more important than being accepted into the Christian culture. When we truly know and embrace this concept, it will lead us to let go of our comforts in order to reach out to those who don’t know Jesus.
1 Corinthians 9:19-23 says:
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
To live biblically doesn’t mean that we try to convert non-Christians to behave and talk like us. Instead it is a call for us to let go of our comforts, speak their language, understand their culture, and share with them the blessings of the gospel.
Pastor Jay Song is the lead pastor of True North Church in the Bay Area.