Cross Cultural, Part 4: Living Redemptively
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
“Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.” With these words from St. Francis of Assisi, we concluded yesterday’s discussion of communicating culturally. We discussed the many features of both Colossian and contemporary culture, concluding that ministry within that culture must remain faithful to the cross (crux sola) and its message.
But we also encountered the reality that Christianity suffers from a significant image problem. It was Gandhi who famously said, “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians.” Contemporary culture expresses similar attitudes by viewing Jesus (or at least their perception(s) of Him) positively, and Christianity negatively.
Rather than defend ourselves and our faith, the best testimony to the completed work of Christ is the transformation that takes place in the life of the believer and its impact on the world around him. In the final chapters of Colossians, Paul describes the impact of the gospel on Christian morality. It is through this lens that we encounter the third and final component of a cross cultural lifestyle: Living Redemptively.
Paul’s theology in this chapter starts with the self and radiates outward to the household and surrounding culture. I will adapt his text to fit the various levels of influence of our contemporary culture.
(1) Self (3:6-17): Change begins with self. The person we have the most direct influence over is ourselves. Paul speaks of “putting off the old self” and its attitude of idolatry, and “putting on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after its Creator (Col 3:9-10).” The primary testimony for the power of the gospel is a changed life. Though God’s image has been marred by sin and idolatry, God’s transformative power molds us into conformity with His character.
(2) Family (3:18-19): Later in the chapter Paul speaks of how this manifests itself in terms of humble service within one’s family. In today’s culture (particularly among the social circles of youth culture), I would extend this category to our close friends. The way we treat and serve one another speaks volumes about our commitment to Christlike humility. This is especially a powerful witness to outsiders, who according to research from Thom Rainer’s book, Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, are turned off by disunity among Christians. “I thought Christians were supposed to love one another,” Sandy from Pennsylvania told [Thom Rainer’s research group] “But the more I observed Christians, the more I thought they really didn’t like each other.”
(3) Work (3:22-4:1): Slaves had a special duty to serve not merely their earthly masters, but to pursue excellence as an act of Christian service. Mind you, slavery in the ancient world was not based on hatred the way it has been in recent history. While there were abuses of the system, slavery was primarily a contractual arrangement. A slave was only subordinate to his master for a certain period of time. Often, slavery allowed free men to find consistent employment, and, over time, climb the “corporate ladder;” slaves could often be promoted following their contract to higher positions in the household where they once served as slaves. In our own workplace, our job performance can bear testimony to our commitment to Christ. This is why Jesus himself recommends “going the extra mile (Mt 5:41).” Working hard to exceed our employer’s expectations can be an excellent way to build bridges for the gospel. I would add that if you are a student, this applies quite equally to your academic career.
(4) Culture (4:2-6): Finally, Paul speaks in a broader way of Christian interaction with culture. This is the group of miscellaneous strangers you encounter on a daily basis: the barista at Starbucks, the people you meet on the bus or plane, maybe even your neighbors. This group demands prayerful attention to secure “open doors” for the gospel.
The unfortunate way this has worked itself out in church life is through what many call a “vendor” model of the church. It is no exaggeration when I say that in the brief course of my ministry I’ve heard people extol the value of church as a place where “when you go, you get stuff.” Indeed, the vendor model sees church as a place to obtain spiritual “goods,” whether those goods be an impassioned worship experience, a good message or the many avenues of fellowship. Ministry in this context takes the form of “attractional” ministry – designed so that outsiders can be drawn to the service and hear the gospel from a pastor or teacher.
This ministry model tends to take this shape:
Note the four categories above form expanding “spheres” of influence. The problem with this model is it allows us to compartmentalize our lives, becoming comfortable in the insular environment vendor Christianity offers. At best, our evangelism becomes focused on trying to draw people from each “sphere” of these circles closer to center. That is, reaching our unchurched friends or coworkers means inviting them to religious services or related events in hopes they learn the gospel from a pastor or teacher. Attractional ministry is a centripetal model, in the sense that it constantly is drawing outsiders toward the center.
Mind you, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this model. Bible studies and church services often prove invaluable tools in the task of discipleship. But in the New Testament, we find a radically different ministry model.
To the Colossians, Paul writes:
“Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Colossians 4:2-6)
There is a strong focus in the New Testament on ministry that is outwardly focused, what is today being called “missional” ministry. The model of missional ministry looks like this:
While attractional ministry and vendor Christianity were centripetal models, missional ministry is a centrifugal model – leaving the center to take the gospel to those around us. While the previous model was an insular, compartmentalized way of living the Christian life, a missional lifestyle crosses these artificial barriers to take the gospel to the farthest corners of the culture.
This is a ministry model that comes directly from Christ Himself. Appearing to His disciples in the upper room, He commissions them saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you (Jn 20:21, KJV).” Author N. T. Wright suggests that we can make much of our spiritual lives through daily contemplation of just the words “as” and “so.”
How did the Father send Jesus? In Philippians 2 Paul emphasizes that though Christ was fully God, he willingly humbled Himself to our level by taking on the form of a man – even to the point of “death on a cross (Phil 2:5-12).” This is the doctrine we examined earlier known as the incarnation – God taking on human flesh. So too must we practice an incarnational lifestyle – putting flesh to the words of Christ by taking the gospel to our communities.
To the Corinthian church Paul speaks of God’s gift of the “ministry of reconciliation” (1 Cor 5:18). Just as God reconciled us to Himself through Christ, so too are we to carry out this task as “Christ’s ambassadors” (1 Cor 5:2). To be an ambassador, in the ancient world as well as today, means to represent that person in another cultural setting. Incarnational ministry means to be Christ’s ambassador in our cultural contexts, whether that be our family, our workplace or our neighborhood.
In the 1998 film The Horse Whisperer, the main character Tom Booker says “Knowing is the easy part; saying it out loud is the hard part.” This is especially true for those involved in missional ministry. Where do we begin? Stemming from Colossians 4, I offer 4 simple suggestions for how to find “open doors” for the gospel:
(1) Pray: Paul encouraged his readers to “pray for open doors” (Col 4:2). Often we fail to do this vital first step of praying for our friends and neighbors. Or, we often pray in some generic way for “their salvation,” rather than pray specifically for opportunities for us to share the gospel with them. My encouragement is for you to have 3-5 friends that you are actively praying for opportunities to share your faith.
(2) Get out there: “Walking with wisdom toward outsiders” first demands that we (ahem) walk with outsiders. It’s really easy to become comfortable in the walls of the church or in the presence of your Christian friends – having spent the past four years in seminary I can relate. But we must earnestly look for opportunities to interact with non-Christians. College/high school reunion coming up? Open door. Need to do some writing? Now every coffee shop or bookstore has free wi-fi. Getting out there puts you in closer proximity to others and provides at least the potential of sharing your faith. If you are a student considering college, don’t limit your choices to just the private, Christian schools. Similarly, if you have children, don’t assume private schools or homeschooling are your only options for your children’s education. Why? Because public school can become a fertile mission field for you or your children to get to know non-Christians and, Lord willing, have a redemptive influence on them and their culture. And this is to say absolutely nothing of the need for strong Christian contributions in the secular academy and in the arts, areas that have been found wanting for lack of creative, redemptive influence.
(3) Listen more than talk: “Walking with wisdom” also means not making assumptions. Research has shown that non-Christians hate talking to Christians who make assumptions about their beliefs. In my experience, it’s always the 20-something-year-old white guy who’s read one too many Norm Geisler books and just wants to start an apologetics war over philosophy. Instead, listen to your friends. Ask them what they believe. Often their belief systems are far more complex than our apologetics books lead us to believe. Instead of applying labels, learn their names. Learn something about their lives and passions. By doing this you will be better equipped to build bridges for the gospel.
(4) Build bridges: Nearly 80% of non-Christians claim to be willing to hold a discussion with their Christian friends about their beliefs, a number that jumps to nearly 90% when just examining younger believers. Our friends are more open than ever before to the gospel. Take the time to build bridges with them. Letting “your speech be seasoned with salt” means being able to communicate your faith in an attractive way to outsiders. When Paul was in Athens (Acts 17), he quoted the poets of their day to engage his audience for the gospel. The arts are an invaluable resource and a tool for reaching the lost for Christ’s sake. Pope Benedict describes “the via pulchritudinis (‘path of beauty’) as the best way for the Christian faith and the culture of our time to meet, besides being a valuable instrument for the formation of younger generation.” Film, music and television can become common ground for conversations that move toward the gospel.
Cross cultural living is as much about ministry as it is about lifestyle. Our ministries will often look different because our lifestyles and surrounding cultures are different. However the common factor is a share commitment to the message of the cross. Tomorrow we shall put these pieces together and give some concluding thoughts regarding cross cultural ministry.
G. K. Chesterton famously observed that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Where have you experienced outsiders (or even yourself) finding Christianity “difficult?” Why does this lead them to leave Christianity “untried?”
This post contrasted attractional and missional ministry. Consider the ministries you attend/lead. Are they more attractional or missional in character? Explain. In what specific ways could you become more missional?
In what ways can the arts assist in finding common ground with outsiders? What are some specific ways you can “build bridges” in your culture?
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Chris is a writer and speaker. He currently serves as teaching pastor at Tri-State Fellowship and as a research writer for Docent Research Group.