I recently proposed a three-week study, “Engaging Culture for the Gospel,” to the group of 20- and 30-somethings whom I pastor. An interesting exchange ensued. Having just finished an in-depth study of 1 John, these young Christian families were having difficulty harmonizing the Great Commission with John’s teaching about not loving the world. My folks jokingly recalled several models from their youth group days as ways to achieve such a synthesis:
- Duplicitous Christianity—I am one type of person on Sundays and another type Monday to Saturday.
- Separatist Christianity—I protect and preserve myself and my family from anything outside of Christian culture.
- Pagan Christianity—I am Christian by tradition but pagan in worldview and desire.
- Accountant Christianity—I wear myself down trying to check off all the Christian boxes so as not to be in the world.
While we all laughed about the absurdity of these approaches, an air of honest shame weighed heavily in our classroom . . . for each of us had admittedly donned one of the particular approaches during our youth and college years. As I thought about it, a scene from my youth group days flashed into my mind.
My Sunday school teacher once talked about “Christians” vs. “The World” and demonstrated his point by asking a high school senior to stand on a chair and a seventh grader to stand beside the chair. The seventh grader’s task was to try to pull the senior off of the chair. The seventh grader won each battle. My teacher later explained the parable by telling us that that chair represented “being a Christian,” while the ground represented “the world.” Christians were cautioned against trying to pull someone up onto the chair because, as he said, “It is easier for the world to pull us down than for us to pull the world up.” This analogy became a blanket illustration for a practice of avoiding movies rated PG and above, listening to secular music, cussing, drinking beer, and attending high school parties. Subtly, this analogy became the working worldview for how I approached life, culture, and ministry.
Not coincidentally, most of the folks in my Sunday school class also grew up with the chair illustration as their default worldview. Even the ones who lived pagan college years still held to this worldview. They knew that the world is bad and that Christians should not be a part of it. Out of honor, many decided to check out of Christianity. What I came to realize is that the primary struggle for the folks in my Sunday school class is not obedience to God, but how to share the gospel with “people who will pull me down.” They were asking for a helpful paradigm for thinking about Christianity and culture.
From The Chair To The Life Raft
I appreciate how the chair illustrates the clear difference between Christians and non-Christians (1 John 3:15; Rom. 12:2). However, it teaches a man-centered approach to evangelism by having the chair people work in their own strength to pull up the floor people. It would be the real-life equivalent of someone trying to argue a non-Christian into the kingdom without the aid of the Holy Spirit. That is not a biblical model of evangelism. My class needed a model for cultural engagement that maintains the strengths of the Christians/world distinction but relies on God’s sovereignty for evangelism. And I found the solution in church history.
D. L. Moody, the famous preacher and evangelist from the nineteenth century, is quoted as saying, “I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can.’” Now, Moody’s approach to evangelism has many faults. Dawson Trotman, founder of the Navigators, later corrected these faults with his emphasis on discipleship. Still, the lifeboat is a helpful paradigm for Christians engaging the culture for the gospel.
Essentially we can think of the lifeboat as the church, which is made up of formerly wrecked people who are buoyed by the gospel. Second, the watery wreckage around the lifeboat is symbolic of the world (Rom. 5:6). This maintains the church/world distinction of the chair illustration. The third component is the “life preserver” represents “the gospel of Jesus Christ.” This illustration places the burden of saving people on Jesus and the gospel. The job of boat people is twofold: (1) to develop skills for sharing life preservers (gospel), and (2) to row wherever there is wreckage (broader culture).
Go Wherever There Is Shipwreck
The young adults in my Sunday school class were drawn to this paradigm shift but immediately began asking for practical application. Here are some suggestions:
- Consider phase of life. Many parents cling to something like the chair illustration for high school and junior high kids because of its value at keeping kids out of drugs, sex, and other things that distract from a God-focused teenage existence. Throughout my seven years of college ministry, I also found these same parents asking for help in getting their college students to re-engage with people for evangelistic purposes. I recommend that parents who want their kids to reach out to non-Christian friends to consider partnering with their kids as a lifeboat family. As a family, swim over to the lost friends of your kids. As a family, invite those kids over for dinner. As a family, get to know those kids for the gospel. And as a family, share Christ with those non-Christian friends. If this is modeled as a family during the junior high and high school years, the children will continue it as college students and young adults on their own.
- Consider weaker brothers and sisters. We have a ministry at our church that reaches out to women in the sex industry. Once a month this team of Christians goes to strip clubs and shares the gospel, prays for, and builds relationships with dancers, managers, and bouncers. However, only the women enter the clubs. The men either pray from the church, or men drop the women off and the stay in the cars praying for the work that is being done in the clubs.
- Consider hobbies, interests, and routines. Wrecked people don’t only go to bars, strip clubs, and late night parties. One of the ways that my Sunday school guys engage the culture is through a regular basketball game on Fridays. One of my pastor friends (who spends his whole day around Christians) makes sure to get his haircut, pump his gas, and deposit his money at the same places at the same times so as to build relationships with the people he meets there. Another pastor friend of mind makes a habit of going to garage sales every Saturday morning and recently led a woman to Christ through that venture. Other friends join health clubs, social organizations, and scrapbooking clubs. They go wherever there is shipwreck.
If my pastoral experience has any value it is this: gospel-bearing can happen no matter the culture. North, South, East, West, Christian, pagan, or pluralistic. The gospel will buoy the church, affording us the opportunity to row over to the wreckage, toss the life preserver, and see God bring people into the boat.