By Andrew Munneke
I have two young boys: Asher who is 3 and August who is 15 months old. It’s needless to say, but our house is a symphony of rambunctious screams, discordant torment, and the occasional plea for a parental figure to come and fix everything. Anyone with young children knows that your house can turn from tranquility to calamity in an instant.
This happened to me one Friday morning. Known affectionately around our house as “Dude Day,” most Friday’s I take the boys to a local bakery for donuts. (Because every “Dude Day” needs an enormous amount of sugar. It’s part of the man code.)
Now I usually have a “no cell phone” rule when it’s just me and the boys, but this particular day my phone kept buzzing with situations I needed to address. So I would glance at my boys, then look down at my phone and type. Glance up—Ok, still eating donuts—glance back down at the glowing screen and keep typing. Glance up, and just like that my 3-year-old had unscrewed the pepper shaker on the table and was pouring pepper all over my donuts. Solid prank, but a terrible seasoning for donuts.
I think for many Christians right now it seems like almost overnight, or a quick glimpse down at our phones, that suddenly everything has changed and we have been pushed into the margins of our culture. Especially here in the South, the church has had a position of privilege within our society, but we are finally realizing an environmental shift has taken place.
But living on the margins of society is nothing new for the church. In fact, the early church boomed within the Roman context in which it lived as a compelling, contrastive community that didn’t seek relevance and conformity as its goal within the culture but sought to challenge and contradict that cultural good. In other words, the church was salt and light living in a decaying and darkening world.
The Western church has lost that, and we need to get it back.
Moving “beyond” Christianity
It is almost universally acknowledged that we live in a Post-Christian culture. This does not mean that our culture has shifted back to a Pre-Christian worldview but that it has “progressed” beyond Christianity, all while “feasting upon its fruits.” The creed of modern-day progressive elites proclaims the dignity of all human beings, the eradication of poverty, tolerance of all beliefs and worldviews, and the supremacy of science as the sole arbiter of truth.
In this creed it’s clear that there is still a yearning for the Kingdom of God and for shalom to be restored, but there is no mention of Holy God. The foundation of these philosophies is birthed out of the Christian mission and reconciliation, yet there is one major difference: the elevation and reign of the individual will.
The creed of modern-day progressive elites proclaims the dignity of all human beings, the eradication of poverty, tolerance of all beliefs and worldviews, and the supremacy of science as the sole arbiter of truth.
The seeds of the exaltation-of-self began with Descartes, who famously proclaimed that all things must first be assumed as false until they can be proven true with his conclusion of, “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes has been called the father of the Age of Reason (the Enlightenment). He sparked the flames of the autonomous self and the idea that the individual, not a deity or even a collective community, determined right and wrong, true and false.
We see how the fruits of this idea really took-off in the 1950s with the rise of consumerism and materialism. Happiness, identity, and prosperity no longer were the reward for hard work and diligence—they could be bought. This rise of the consumerist individual paved the way for the sexual revolution in the 1960s and ‘70s with their sacred cows of abortion and divorce. The goal of life became the pursuit of happiness and pleasure, and because “I determine my own truth through reasoning” was the mantra, no system, government, or religious institution was able to convert them.
The church’s response to this new “culture war” seemed to be running to the courts and aligning themselves with a political party that would seek to enforce a biblical worldview upon those who opposed it. While Christians sought to capture the law of the land, the progressives pursued our imaginations through creative arts and cultural engagement. Entertainment highlighted this new individualized theology with themes of self-discovery through experiment, following passions in the face of opposition, and embracing individuals’ uniqueness.
The goal of life became the pursuit of happiness and pleasure…no system, government, or religious institution was able to convert them.
These combined ideologies of consumerism and a yearning for self-discovery began to influence how the church “reached lost people.” The goal of churches changed to becoming relevant to the culture. Sermons drifted towards self-help lessons. Churches started marketing themselves using “sales techniques” to differentiate themselves from other churches in town. Even worship songs drifted away lyrically from corporate declaration of praise and morphed into a more personal experience.
Simply put, the culture turned the church into another marketplace, one that sold religious goods and services to the masses, and the result was parishioners who now seek churches to fit their own needs instead of seeking to meet others’ needs (in contrast with the early church in Acts 2:44-45).
But recently the church moved back to the margins of society. How? For the past 40 years, the dominate message the culture has received from the church is “come to Jesus and it will improve the quality of your life.” Yet because the church has certain beliefs that do not hold up to modern sensibilities, casual churchgoers are discovering that identifying themselves with Jesus actually interferes with their quality of their life.
Now I know I need to clarify what I am saying so that I am not misunderstood. The Gospel most definitely brings joy and an overwhelming affection for Christ. However, to declare “Jesus is Lord” and not “The culture is Lord” costs you something. Only those whose hearts have been captured by the Gospel can truly say, “You can take the world because I have Jesus.” But for those in our churches who have bought into a “prosperity gospel” that says “Jesus will make you happy,” they will leave our churches in droves when a life with Jesus leaves them persecuted instead of happy.
More than a compelling community?
I know for some of you, the current trajectory of the church’s relationship with our culture is a scary reality. However, am I more optimistic than ever for the future of the church if we embrace our role as a compelling minority within our culture! Here are just two reasons why:
1. The church was born and exploded on the margins of society, and it will not die at the margins of society.
In a pre-Christian context, everybody knew that their testimony could end with them losing their life, and in that context the church boomed! This is our heritage. In a Post-Christian context, we have to know that declaring “Jesus is Lord” probably won’t lead to us being killed, but it does mean that we might lose friends, our jobs, and a certain level of approval.
Do you really believe Jesus’s words: “the gates of hell will not prevail against the church”? (Matthew 16:18) If Christ is the one who builds, sustains, and grows the body, then nothing will hold us back!
2. Because of hyper-individualism, the world needs the church.
There has been a saying that “people love Jesus but not the church,” but in a Post-Christian context what we are beginning to see is people love the church but not Jesus. Let me give you an example of this.
A couple of years ago, a movement began in London called The Sunday Assembly. If you walked into one of their services on a Sunday morning, you would see a gathering of hip millennials from all different walks and stages of life gathering for reflection, community, and renewal. The thing is…they are all atheist and agnostic.
The Sunday Assembly started from a group of people who wanted the good things about church…this movement has planted 480 churches.
The Sunday Assembly started from a group of people who wanted the good things about church—community, charitable deeds, being part of something bigger than yourself—but without all of the belief. This movement has exploded to over 480 congregations. You catch that?! This movement has planted 480 CHURCHES because hyper-individualism has left people lonely, lost, and with a yearning to be part of something bigger than themselves.
One of the reasons why millennials are flocking to church plants and smaller churches right now is because they are yearning to be known and to be a part of something bigger than themselves. In other words, they don’t want to be the point of church.
What an opportunity for the church!
Welcoming & transforming
We knew when we planted The Hill Church that there were unbelievers who would not know Jesus until they knew His people first. That means we were to invite them into our community to live life with us, break bread with us, and cry and laugh with us. That’s what discipleship is! We understood that it’s a process and that different people are in different places in their spiritual spectrum.
Have you thought about how Jesus called 12 unbelievers to be His disciples? Then for the next three years of Jesus’ ministry, those disciples came to call Him Lord at different moments in time. Peter was the first of the disciples to rightly see Jesus for who He was. Thomas didn’t fully become a believer until he stuck his fingers through Jesus’ pierced hands. And Judas never confessed Jesus as Lord, but he wanted more of what Jesus could give him rather than Jesus himself.
Jesus called his 12 unbelievers to be His disciples. Then for the next three years of Jesus’ ministry, those disciples came to call Him Lord at different moments in time.
We have embraced the form of discipleship that we call, “Welcoming and Mutually Transforming.” What we mean by this is that we have a posture of humility, confessing that we ourselves are not perfect, fall short, and that we still need the cross and Christ’s righteousness. We welcome people into our community regardless of if they look like us, talk like us, or even behave like us because some people won’t accept Gods love and grace until they have experienced it through His people first!
All the while, we do not fit-in to our host culture because we are exiles. We live in this “socially awkward” tension because this is not our home. The Apostle Peter described the church as “aliens and strangers in this world.” (1 Peter 2:11)
Therefore, as a compelling community that is different than that of the culture, we must embrace our alien ethic. We must embrace that our church culture lives radically different than the world in how we handle money, sex, and power. And this distinctiveness is a good thing. I like how Stanley Hauerwas puts it:
The church must show the world something it is not—and cannot be—apart from Jesus.
You might be reading this and feel like I did at the donut shop with my boys. A moment ago the world seemed fine, but then you looked up and everything has changed. My hope for this blog is to encourage you! Don’t fall into despair but actually be excited for the potential work that God can do through the church when it is on the margins.
When Israel went into exile in Babylon, God did not tell His people to escape the city and run away from the culture. He told them to seek the welfare and the prosperity of the city. (Jeremiah 29:7)
The church needs to be ambassadors of beauty, stewards of generosity, and cultivators of renewal in the cities and the places they belong. And if we embrace the calling to live in the world for the world, then certainly nothing will overcome the people of God!