Rev. Brian M. Abshire
Change, is something in the province of God’s sovereign decree. Genuine reformation, or a real change in the church and culture, can occur, only when God brings it about. However, are there not different means that God uses, to bring about change in different people? Think for a moment; are there not four different gospels, written in four different styles because they were intended for four different audiences? The gospel of Mark was written to a Roman audience, and emphasizes the actions of Christ. The gospel of Luke (a Greek physician) was written to Greeks, and is stylistically different. John’s gospel is more, “theological” and Matthew is clearly written to Jewish readers. When Paul spoke to Greeks, he spoke differently than when he spoke to Jews (“I become all things to all men that I might win some…” 1 Cor 9:20-23). Therefore, we have a Biblical warrant for learning a person’s, “hot buttons” and then appealing to them in terms they understand and empathize with. This is not manipulative, but simply being as “wise as serpents and as gentle as doves.”
“The times, they are a changing” and a wise man will understand those times, and without sacrificing truth, will learn how to present that truth in effective ways. And that is perhaps the real underlying challenge for the church, to learn how to say things to people in ways that will help them accept the message, without compromising the truth. Sadly, Christians have not done well in this area. Too often, in order to be “relevant” we end up either abandoning the truth, or so reducing it that we offer little more than a panacea for personal stress.
The Reformed Faith has excellent historical, theological and exegetical support for its position, written in massive, hardbound tomes that provided the intellectual foundation for the ongoing reformation of the church and the transformation of the world. The only problem is, nobody ever reads it but the ones already convinced! Academics and intellectuals have their own presuppositions that determine whether they accept, or reject a particular message. A comprehensive Biblical faith is largely dismissed by academics for the same reason Creation Science is rejected by the scientific community: they are rival religions. Even Christian academics are tempted to sell out a comprehensive Christian worldview for the dubious benefits of academic credibility. Take a young Christian, train him in secular institutions for over twenty years, make him write his Ph.D. dissertation under the supervision of someone who hates God, and what can we expect except compromise?
Perhaps it is time to take a page from the Creation Science folks; while they continue to do the hard, rigorous work of scientific investigation from a Biblical perspective, they also produce easy to read, colorfully illustrated books for children. For years, I’ve been undermining theistic evolutionary presuppositions held by various Christians by giving their kids Creation Science books as Christmas and birthday presents. As the parents read the books to their children, their own presuppositions are challenged. More than a few people have called me to ask for more “grown up” books on the same subject. If I had just given them, “The Genesis Flood” the book would have remained unread and they would have remained unconvinced. But by looking for another approach, a “hot button” (in this case, their kids), very gently and very subtly people were nudged into looking at things from a whole, new perspective.
OK, granted, selling dinosaur books to kids is a little bit easier then “selling” Van Tillian presuppositional apologetics. But the task is really the same; to influence an entire culture will take more than writing esoteric essays read only by a dedicated elite. Christians have to understand where the “average” person lives and communicate to him in terms he understands. And most people today, are simply not changed by intellectual arguments. To assume so, is the fallacy of rationalism. To quote from that now deceased reprobate, R. A. Heinlein, “man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal.” And though of course we might rightly object to him classifying man as an animal, there is still truth in his observation; men reason, not so much as to arrive at a legitimate conclusion, but rather to justify the prejudices they already have.
Hence, well reasoned, clearly written, academic works as important and crucial though they may be, are insufficient, for there are “reasons,” other than intellectual, which influence whether men accept or reject a particular thesis. Francis Schaeffer said almost twenty-five years ago that the dominant values in Western culture were personal peace and prosperity. The Rapture craze of the seventies was so successful largely due to its appeal to personal peace. “Afraid of society crashing down around your ears? Are you worried or hesitant about the future? Are you distressed by the decline of Christian morality and influence around you? Well don’t worry, the Rapture’s coming and all your problems will soon be over.”
Sociologically speaking, the appeal of the Rapture was not in the academic credibility of it’s theology, but in it’s ability to bolster core values. And let us be honest, are there not more than a few people who are attracted to a comprehensive Christian worldview simply because it’s applications lead to small Federal government and free market capitalism that are a theological alternative to tax and spend Democrats and Republicans? In the same way, many, many pro-lifers were already committed to activism before they encountered the theological reasons for doing so. They were already motivated to do something, even before someone came along and told them why they ought to do it.
A consistent and comprehensive Christian worldview today is a counter cultural movement. Though there are lingering effects of our Christian heritage, most Americans and Europeans, even those within the church, now have more in common with Imperial pagan Rome than 18th century Christian America. And to reach those people, influence them, and by God’s grace change them, will require understanding their values, and demonstrating how the gospel meets their fundamental human needs, desires, and expectations.
Some will object that this was not the strategy of the Apostle Paul. “Paul just preached the truth and those appointed to eternal life, believed, and that’s all there is to it. So why should we engage in this kind of ‘socio-babble’ about ‘core values’.’ Can’t we just speak the truth and leave the results up to God?”
However, does the above really fit the Biblical evidence? Did Paul just speak the truth and move on? Or was there a little more to it? In 1 Thessalonians 2:1ff, Paul recounts his initial ministry among them. Verses 8-9 are especially enlightening. He says, “Having thus a fond affection for you, we were well pleased to impart to you, not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.” (NASB) Paul, Silvanus and Timothy did not just drop their spiritual bombshells, engage in esoteric discussions and leave. To the contrary, they got right down their in the mud and the blood, working with their own hands, getting involved in the nitty-gritty of people’s lives. They were as “gentle as a nursing mother” (verse 8) even as they exhorted, encouraged and implored them as a loving father (verse 11). And just because they met the Thessalonians where they were, and ministered to them as people, they demonstrated the power of the gospel that changed their lives, and the ancient pagan world.
Usually, my friends and colleagues who are the most adamant about the purity of their doctrine, and the necessity of preaching it in rationalistic, theoretical terms, are also the same ones pastoring the smallest churches. It is not their doctrine that is at fault, but rather, the ability of the pastor, and that congregation, to relate that doctrine to real life, human situations.
Understanding “core values” does not require a degree in what is known as the Social Sciences. It simply requires spending time with real people and learning how to demonstrate that we actually have meaningful, real-life solutions to their problems, trials, expectations and aspirations. Even the God-haters, by nature, know the Living God exists and there can be no joy, no hope, no future apart from Him (cf. Rms 1:18ff). The more consistent they become in suppressing the knowledge of God, the more miserable and depraved they and their cultures become (Rms 1:21ff). Hence, what is needed is more than just intellectual answers to questions nobody is asking. Instead, we must be willing to actually get involved in someone’s life. The truth of the Bible is unalterable and unassailable, because it is the word of God. But that truth can be hidden, or distorted, if those entrusted with its message do not take the time to invest their lives in other people and find what makes them tick.
Life in post-Christian America is characterized by increasing autonomy, dependence upon a complex technological infrastructure and a dearth of meaningful relationships. Our culture has fractured the family and destroyed the ability of people to be committed to anything except their own personal peace and prosperity. The historic Reformed faith, rightly understood and applied offers, not just another item on the intellectual and theological smorgasbord, but a life and worldview that meets the deepest human needs. But nobody is ever going to believe it, or accept it, unless we actually live it by getting involved with real human beings, caring for them, admonishing them, exhorting them, loving them. Autonomy inevitably leads to isolation. Man was not created to live alone, but needs meaningful relationships. With the destruction of the family in the past 50 years, most people, including Christians, do not have in place the social infrastructure God provided to live meaningful, productive and rewarding lives. People are lonely, people are hurting, and we are the only ones with something more than a sugar pill.
There are two practical solutions, both interlocking and supporting each other. The first is the creation of a distinctly Reformed literature that is aimed, not at the intellectual elite, but the average man, in the average Church. This needs to be “popular” in that such works are written in simple, easy to read formats, dealing with the life issues that people face. They need to be grounded firmly in Scripture, but do not have to be fully blown theological treatises.
But secondly, we also need those who call themselves “Reformed” to open their homes and lives, getting involved with real people, and helping them solve real problems, with the theological tools we have been so gifted with. Sound too simplistic? Well, many reformed people do not seem to understand the most basic Christian principles of life. For example, you would be amazed at how many people complain to me about how cold and unfriendly their churches are, how nobody wants to know them, nobody ever invites them over, etc. Yet, my question to them (almost now a cliché) is “Well how many people have you invited over?” And almost to a person, the answer is “none.” You see, everyone wants to be served, but no one wants to serve. Yet Jesus said serving others is the key to power and dominion (Mark 10:45). If you want to have a life-changing ministry and fuel the next stage of the Reformation, don’t stop reading good books, but do start reaching out and inviting people into your life.
In conclusion, if a counter culture, does not want to become a corner culture, it will have to do more than just proclaim the truth, it must also demonstrate the truth, in acts of personal love and charity as self-governed men take personal responsibility for meeting real human needs. This is how the ancient church conquered the Roman Empire. We rescued exposed babies, we fed the poor, we educated the ignorant, made the slave a part of our covenant community. We won the war by personal, individual acts of love and charity. Do you remember that old advertisement for the Peace Corps in the early 1960’s that said, “How do you change the world? One life at a time…” It is time for Reformed Christians to reclaim their duty, and privilege and starting changing lives, and cultures by applying their faith.