Letting the Walls Come Down

by Justin Lonas

Fourth in a series of articles on the difference between "doing church" and being the church.

Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control-how many, if any, of these attributes can attain their full meaning in solitude? They're all focused on our relationship to others. If the Fruit of the Spirit is any indication, God's vision for His followers is to live out His plan in the context of society.

The words of Christ affirm this fact-much of the Sermon on the Mount deals with how we relate to those around us. This is summed up in Matthew 5:13-16: "You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your father who is in heaven."

Why, then, does the church insist on focusing its ministry on the individual and sorting out his own spiritual situation? This seems antithetical to the others-focused communality of Christ's teaching. We cannot hope to influence the culture or the world at large if we are not equipping believers to move beyond a purely aesthetic (introspective and self-centered) understanding of the Truth to an ethical (practical and others-focused) perspective. We can't live out our faith in a "spiritual vacuum"-it only makes sense that Truth be fulfilled in application.

My pastor likes to call this missed focus "the ministry of me." It often slips in under the guise of otherwise good teachings by twisting them to relate only to the individual. Churches put a lot of emphasis on how I avoid sin, how I solve my family problems, how I manage my finances in a godly way, what I need to do to get closer to God, etc. In turning our work inward, we cease to be a part of the larger community. We try so hard to make sure that we're not of the world, that we are, in effect, no longer in it. When we steer the bulk of our ministry to the individual instead of striving toward a humble, corporate Christ-bearing, our fellowship and internal strength suffers (see "Life Together" page 27 of the June issue) and our evangelism becomes a tacked-on "good deed."

Rich Tatum talked about such "tacked-on" outreach on Christianity Today's "Christian News & Research" Blog. He mentioned a recent survey which showed that seven out of 10 committed believers were led to Christ through "non-manipulative dialogue" and the personal involvement of other believers in their lives, whereas seven out of ten non-believers who rejected evangelistic outreaches said that they received an impersonal "fact and theology-based" presentation of the gospel.

Tatum said, "Despite aggressive evangelistic efforts, perhaps something intrinsic to the Western church's theology, practice, or culture is "un-converting" new believers, driving them to apathy, if not outright apostasy. This study's results indicate the need to revise evangelistic strategy. [Authors Win and Charles Arn] recommend abandoning manipulative coercion and viewing evangelism as a process rather than a one-time gospel presentation. They also believe evangelism should be fundamentally relational and tied closely to the church. For if the church community doesn't befriend and incorporate believers within the first six months of their spiritual life, the church will likely see new converts become apostate dropouts."

How did we get to such a place in which the Body of Christ has put up all manner of walls between believers and non-believers? Part of the problem, to be sure, is the church's reliance on the Western business model of organization rather than a Kingdom model (flowing from the Sermon on the Mount). As cultural observer Wendell Berry put it in his essay "God and Country," "It is clearly possible that, in the condition of the world as the world now is, organization can force upon an institution a character that is alien or even antithetical to it. The organized church comes immediately under a compulsion to think of itself, and identify itself to the world, not as an institution synonymous with its truth and its membership, but as a hodgepodge of funds, properties, projects, and offices, all urgently requiring economic support." We're often so focused on the immediate needs of our church operations that we forget to trust God to take care of our ministry as we heed His call to the community. When those outside the church see us as just another organization, they become less and less willing to listen to what we have to say.

Much of the blame also goes to the external culture. Today's "me" generation has been raised on a steady diet of relative truth, instant gratification, and over-entertainment that has led to taking a "buffet" approach to spiritual life. People want to pick and choose beliefs and practices that "work" for them or fit into their lives. If churches cater to that by offering countless programs and continuous repackaging of the truth, we'll always lose in the long run. We've got to transcend that attitude rather than feed it. The Truth of Christ and the reality of His call have withstood countless passing philosophies, cultural "norms," and attitudes through the centuries. It is much harder to remain faithful to the Truth of the ages and to allow Christ to impact our neighbors through our patient and persistent relation to them than it is to come up with a new strategy to reach those whom we do not truly know. To reach out with "relevance" is really to reach no one at all; to tear down the walls of truth that make us distinct fails the call just as surely as retreating into ourselves.

Letting the walls of the church come down to impact the people around us for the Lord is so much more than "outreach" and "evangelism." It's not about condescendingly giving light to the darkness, but about giving yourself to Christ each day, bearing Him in every situation. Christ should be so alive within us that it is only natural to do His bidding and to share His joy with everyone.

Neither is community involvement simply providing general services to the needy in your area. Real community service is involvement in the lives of our neighbors by church members. Unless you know them, you'll never know how to really help them in specific ways. Throughout the Gospels we see Christ meeting people's specific needs in ways that opened their hearts to Him and brought glory to His Father. He was among the people, not separate from them, in doing the work He came for (e.g.-Matthew 9:9-13).

Bearing Christ cannot be done without turning our eyes to those around us and showing them the truth through love and service. As singer/songwriter Michael Card so aptly put it in his song "The Basin and the Towel": "The call is to community, the impoverished power that sets the soul free. In humility, to take the vow, that day after day we must take up the basin and the towel." Christ shook the world not by condemning it (the religious leaders of the day did plenty of that) but by befriending and humbly serving its lowliest citizens.

Why are our practices of following Christ so different from His practices in following the Father? The cross bridged the gap between us and God-the last thing we should be doing is creating a new gap between those who know the truth and those who desperately need it.

Justin Lonas is publisher of Pulpit Helps.

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