Karl Barth once said—and this is relevant for every church-planting-pastor—“Preach with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.”
Of course, a 21st-century version of this quote would replace “newspaper” with “iPhone.” Today we have unchecked access to a constant stream of information. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, 24-hour news channels, talk radio, RSS feeds, blogs, and on and on. We’re more connected globally than ever before.
Where I live in Northern Ireland, the cultural tide seems to change every day. Historically, Ireland has been a fairly parochial place. For centuries the church exercised significant influence on societal norms.
Not so in recent decades.
There’s been a massive upheaval in the social fabric of the island. Irish people now tend to take an independent approach to the practice of religion, rendering individual conscience the main moral compass.
Note two examples. First, the Republic of Ireland voted to legalize same-sex marriage by changing the constitution in November 2015. Second, abortion was legalized last month in a vote to remove a constitutional amendment that protects the unborn.
For centuries the church exercised significant influence on societal norms. Not so in recent decades.
We’re in a cultural moment of constant identity (re)creation. This shouldn’t surprise us, and others have insightfully commented at length on this phenomenon.
Biblical ways of living are publicly cast as “backward,” out of step with the times. This isn’t unique to my context, of course, but it shows the importance of having a “newspaper” in one hand to understand the changing world we inhabit and are called to love.
But we need to beware a grave danger: In our desire to reach the world, we mustn’t become like the world. We should strive to be informed about it without being formed by it.
So rather than knowing a lot, here are four things (in no particular order) you should know well if you want to effectively minister the gospel in our secular age.
1. Know Your Culture
It’s important to know how people think, to understand their worldviews and values. Paul did this. He deliberately confronted the cultural idols in Athens with the gospel. While some mocked him for it, others wanted to hear him again (Acts 17:32).
The gospel will inevitably offend some (1 Cor. 1:18), but that isn’t license for us to be needlessly offensive. If you were moving to a foreign country, you would (or should) seek to understand that culture; it would be foolish to do things that are culturally offensive, especially under the guise of “gospel ministry.”
Even if you’re in your native culture, you should want to know the lay of the land so that you can effectively bring the gospel to bear.
In Northern Ireland, as in most places, “knowing the culture” isn’t easy. It’s a shared society between Unionists loyal to the United Kingdom and Republicans seeking reunification of Ireland. We’re still trying to overcome a past that associates being Protestant with a certain political persuasion.
It’s also a country sadly marked by sectarianism, hatred, and paramilitary violence. As a pastor, I’ve had to work hard to understand these cultural dynamics. Speaking into sensitive issues in love is challenging. Knowing how to do this with gospel clarity—in a way that doesn’t alienate people—is a skill that church-planting pastors must pursue.
2. Know Your Bible
The quote I began with is not the accurate quote from Barth. Here’s what he really said: “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”
This is vital in church planting. We’re inevitably shaped by the world around us, which is why we must ground ourselves in the Word of God.
We’re inevitably shaped by the world around us, which is why we must ground ourselves in the Word of God.
Paul’s warning is timeless: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8). I’ve seen this happen in my city, and watched people led astray by pastors who demoted the gospel in favor of the latest cultural philosophy.
So while knowing culture is important, if you don’t stand on the solid rock of God’s Word, your church will (rightly) crumble.
May we be church-planting pastors who own well-worn Bibles, because, as my friend and fellow church planter Dai Hankey says, “The Scriptures ask the questions that culture won’t, and gives the answers that culture can’t.”
3. Know Your People
Knowing the “culture” is easier than knowing people. People are complex, and they carry weighty baggage. But we must be deeply acquainted with the people we want to see reached with the gospel—which amounts to far more than knowing statistics about them.
Jesus came alongside people and loved them. In so doing, he showed people their great need for himself.
Coming alongside people—in their homes, in their places of work, or on the streets—will give you an embodied experience that won’t come any other way. This is how Jesus lived and did ministry: among the people, face to face. Jesus came alongside people and loved them. In so doing, he showed people their great need for himself.
4. Know Your King
Apart from this final point, none of the others matter. Any “wisdom” severed from God is like striving after wind (Ecc. 1:17). May we not be like the Pharisees, whose knowledge of the Scriptures was ultimately useless and vain (John 5:39).
But in and through Jesus Christ, the impossible has become possible.
So let’s go in confidence to plant churches in a changing world because God, in Christ, has changed the world.