Friday, September 4, 2009

In the world, yet not of the world...

World: from the Greek, kosmos; "adornment"

The New Testament is filled with directives and admonitions about the "world." In general, the concept refers to the ever-changing, sin-stained, yet unavoidable human culture. As human beings, we live on the earth, but in a particular culture. "Culture" is the sum total of the relationships, the signs, symbols and the practices that define our existence and enable us to give some sort of meaning to our lives. To live in a culture is part of living; it is unavoidable.

Nevertheless, Jesus, Paul, Peter, James and John all assert that there is a tension present in culture. As followers of Christ, we dwell in a particular culture, but are not of that culture. In other words, although I reside in a culture that could be described as "Western", quasi-rural, religious and technologically-influenced, that culture is not my primary identifier. As a follower of Christ, the culture that defines me is the "Body of Christ" - or the culture that is marked by the symbols, story and practice of the people filled by the Holy Spirit and gathered as the "church". John 17:11-21 is the defining scriptural passage for this understanding:

I am no longer in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are.

But now I come to You; and these things I speak in the world so that they may have My joy made full in themselves. I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.

I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. That they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.

From this passage, it is clear that Jesus sees a two-culture citizenship: a culture that defines us (God's Culture) and the culture to which we are sent as transforming agents ("the world"). But as the rest of the New Testament writers firmly assert, we cannot be defined by "the world" nor can we allow its value system to become our own.


So what does this mean for the future of the church? Well, several things:

The church, as the Body of Christ is always in, but not of, a particular culture.

The church will always be located in a particular culture, always. The particular culture may be rural, urban, suburban, country, white collar, blue collar, Western, hip-hop, jazz, Bible-belt, Deep South, Southwest, West Coast, East Coast, New England, Midwest or any other number of geographic, musical, economic or political identifiers. Nevertheless, we can't escape our context as the church.

The church is not to adopt the values of a particular culture.

Nevertheless, as Christians, the culture that identifies us, that gives our lives meaning is God's culture with its signs, symbols, practices norms and values. Christians love God and affirm that our economic means originates and returns to God. Christians love one another. We abhor killing and war, attempting to avoid it if at all possible. We cultivate the fruits of the Spirit as personal character (Gal. 5:23) and pursue God's mission of reconciliation as our vocation (Matt. 28:19-20). Do these cultural signs, symbols and practices identify you?

On the other hand, every world culture has different value systems that determine the priorities of the culture. For example, in the United States, our economic and political systems tend to be the value defining systems. Are you a democrat or a republican? Are you wealthy, middle income or impoverished? Do you work at a skilled trade? Are you a 'professional'? Are you a 'scholar' or are you an unskilled laborer? These are labels and to some degree even Christians are identified by them at some superficial level.

Yet in a culture that exalts work, 'play' is exalted as well. All cultures have some concept of leisure, but in a capitalist economy, leisure and its pursuits are exalted as the "end of work." So we spend the money we earn on vacations, extreme adventures, retirement, and other ultimately 'self-gratifying' activities. Leisure is not a "sin", but an exaltation of leisure as the goal of our humanness is. On a micro level, this exaltation of leisure can become absolute self-gratification, which can be manifest in unlimited sexual pursuit, substance abuse and economic greed with its exploitation. These "world" values are precisely the values and excesses that Christians avoid.

The church must always seek to communicate to the culture in which it is embedded.

Jesus stated that we (the church) are in the world so that they (the world) may believe that Jesus is Savior. It is important then that we reject the values of the world and its focus on the unregenerate self. That rejection in and of itself is a witness to a dying world system and points to where human beings can find life eternal. Yet although we reject the values of the world, there are certain methods and instruments in the world which the church must adopt if it is to communicate to that world.

I am drawing a distinction then between world values and world methods/instruments. Values are laden with meaning. Indeed, a value is a definer of meaning. Methods/instruments derive their meaning from that which you invest in them. For example, a hammer has a positive meaning when it is used to construct or dismantle a house or other construction project. A hammer however has a negative meaning when it is used to break into a house or facilitate some other act deemed harmful to life and person.

The church throughout its history has adopted different methods in order to fulfill its divine commission. Over two millennia, the music used to enhance worship, the architecture of its facilities and the form of its proclamation (not content!) have changed with culture. This is not because the values of the world have taken priority over the values of the church, but because the church has adapted the methods available in the world and infused them with God's values. The prime scriptural example of this sort of usage is Paul's sermon on Mars Hill in Acts 17:22ff. At no time did Paul desire or attempt to adopt the world's values, he did not hesitate however to take the tools available to him in the world and use them for God's purposes.

The future of the church will be determined - at least partially - by its ability to be in, but not of, the world. The old, modernistic methods are quickly becoming irrelevant in a world that is changing exponentially. Just as the polyester leisure suit of the 1970s has found its way to the back rack of the second hand clothing store and is no longer worn, so are different aspects of the church's methods of being God's messenger in culture. The days of programmatic evangelism, the exclusivity of the pipe organ in worship and formal wear on Sundays are in serious decline if not practically gone. Relational evangelism, the guitar and casual wear are quickly becoming staples of the church today. This is neither good or bad. It is simply the body of Christ trying to find its way in an ever changing world.

I appreciate your comments, concerns and corrections as I continue to define my thought.


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