Since the Industrial revolution, Western culture has taken on the characteristic of rapid change. Methods of survival, jobs, wardrobes and hobbies changed very slowly throughout much of history, but the birth of modern technology has thrust us into urbanization, common education, and an innate desire for change and growth. Someone who lived throughout most of the 20th century saw the evolution from horse-drawn buggies for transportation, outhouses, and limited electricity to landing on the moon, centralized heat and air conditioning, to the love revolution of the 60’s and the computer/information age.
The Church has slowly adapted to culture, by in large, as Scripture gives us little instruction as to the format of a worship service. A worship service should be focused on God, His glory and His honor, but it must also be the outpouring of the hearts of the worshipers. Missiologists use terms like “indigenous” to represent the goal of a planted church, and “heart language” to identify the language that is first and natural for a person – into which we need to get the Bible translated, so that people can worship God from their hearts. For centuries the Catholic Church conducted mass (and some still do) in Latin – while none of the congregants spoke Latin. This, of course, is the extreme example, but it reveals the truth that God has given tribes and nations unique languages and cultures through which we can and should worship Him. God redeems cultures. There are attributes of every culture that are wicked that need to be done away with, and there are attributes of every culture that are beautiful and can be presented to God as worship. We need to broaden our minds when working cross culturally, and when experiencing the rapid change of our own culture.
This must be carefully held in a balance. Worship must be the outpouring of our hearts in praise and love for God. That worship will be representative of our culture – specifically in our language, in our habits, in the things that we honor and love. But we must beware to not glorify ourselves or the culture in the process of doing so. A.W. Tozer wisely observed,
“Worship is no longer worship when it reflects the culture around us more than the Christ within us.”
Over the last century there have been many churches that went down the path of cultural relativism and abandon the core of Biblical beliefs. God beautifully protects His Church from many of these heresies by making such churches irrelevant over a number of years. Ten years ago, almost all Christians were abuzz with the Emergent Church and its teachings. Now, less than ten years later, the conversation is moot. Yes, some of the questions raised through and because of their theology still linger in Christian circles, but by in large, people have either remained in a Bible-teaching Church or have stopped going altogether.
Churches that throw away Jesus and/or the Bible become social gatherings to which few people truly commit. They ultimately suffocate and they die.
But there is a troubling trend that is characteristic of our culture which is marking countless Gen X churches across the nation. My generation believes that in order to be “real” we have to be damaged. We are hurt, we are suffering we are victims, we are sinful. And we consider people who do not express their hurt, their depression, their sin to be fake. When we share our conversion testimonies, we go into exhaustive detail about the sin of our past and conclude with Jesus. There is little or no transformation story to be found after our salvation. Because we are real. We are authentic. We do not put on guises. Not only that, we want to proudly display this fact because a visitor coming in will only stay if they feel comfortable – like one of the crowd.
Here’s the deal. Authentic, real Christianity is a transformed life. God has unashamedly called us to holiness.
“You shall consecrate yourselves therefore and be holy, for I am the Lord your God.”
– Lev 20.7
As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
– 1 Peter 1.14-16
“…for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
– Rom 8.13
The admonitions and exhortations are countless. When we come to God for salvation through faith, God gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit who indwells us in order to convict us of sin (John 16.8). He, by that power, then enables us to die to our sin – to quit sinning – and to live unto righteousness (Gal 2.20). The mark of a believer is one who is keeping Jesus’ commandments out of love for Him (1 John 5.3).
Yes, we will all continue to stumble and make mistakes. James tells us that no one can bridle his tongue and we will falter in what we say (James 3.8). John teaches us that when we do fall, we should immediately confess our sins and turn back to Jesus (1 John 2.1, 1.9). And we should openly share our struggles and rely on the help of our community through accountability (Heb 10.23-25). People more mature in the faith should mentor and teach those younger in the faith, and utilize their life stories as examples (Titus 2.4, 2 Tim 2.2).
But it is extremely dangerous to find our relatability to the culture in the authenticity of our sin. It is our sin that separates us from God, and the very salvation and Gospel that we proclaim not only forgives us of our sin, but enables us to die to it. A person who does not yet know God and is not yet forgiven should not be able to walk into a Church and feel like one of the crowd. He certainly should not feel judged for how he looks, or smells, or the things that he does, but he should be able to see the difference that having Jesus in our lives makes. He should feel welcome, but he should feel convicted. If he can fit in and be “one of us” then we quite possibly might not know Jesus ourselves.
What does that mean? What does that look like? It means that we should be open and real about our struggle with sin, but we should be seeking to put it to death, rely on one another for accountability, and proclaim the victories that Jesus gives us over the sin. We are not perfect, and we will not be. If we choose to not be transparent about our personal sanctification process, then we run the risk of being “white washed tombs” – people who look good on the outside, and are keeping the moral law apart from the strength of God (Matt 23.27-28). But if we humbly remember our state when Jesus saved us, and if we humbly pursue righteousness, then we will graciously offer the hope that we have found to those who need it, and we will be an example of what Jesus can do with sinners: turn them into saints (Rom 1.7, 1 Cor 1.2).
The beauty of such a “real” culture is that many people are honest and transparent about their struggles. Some people even make up struggles in order to be relevant. Issues like depression are no longer taboo, and people will openly tell you their habits and background. The challenge for the Church is to remember that until someone knows Jesus, everything else does not matter. But in order to know Jesus, we must understand and repent of our sins. And once we know Jesus, we allow Him to live through us and begin the work of sanctification: killing our sin. So let’s be real about the painful sanctification process. Let’s be real about our testimony. But let’s not make sin trivial or acceptable in our relatability, because otherwise we make irrelevant the Gospel.