by Beth Seversen
(Editor’s note: This is the 5th in a 9-part series on Finding Our Gospel Voice in a Changing Culture.)
In the book Unchristian: What a new generation really thinks about Christianity … and why it matters (2007), David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons focus on the negative perceptions emerging adults have of churches and evangelical Christianity. In his second book, You lost me: Why young Christians are leaving church … and rethinking faith (2011), Kinnaman addresses why 56 young people who used to attend churches frequently as teenagers are no longer participating in faith communities.
Whatever we think of the research (and there are those who question the generalizations made from the data as well as the lack of peer review), still the indictment is profound: emerging adults (19-29-year-olds) today have an allergic reaction to the American Church and find it and us to be hypocritical, too focused on getting “people saved,” anti-homosexual, sheltered, overly political, and judgmental. One non-Christian respondent described Christians as:
Most people I meet assume that Christian means very conservative, entrenched in their thinking, antigay, anti-choice, angry, violent, illogical, empire builders; they want to convert everyone, and they generally cannot live peacefully with anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe. (Kinnaman and Lyons 2007, 26)
Whoa! What an indictment. That’s the reality for many young adults of their experience of the church.
So how can we minister the gospel in a culture where many are adverse to Christians, or worse, have been harmed by the church? How do we effectively share our faith in a culture saturated with the gospel, where people often believe they’ve “been there, done that” when it comes to Christianity? And how do we navigate an increasingly unfriendly and disinterested culture without inflammatory reaction and withdrawal?
Let me suggest four postures that will aid us in navigating our churning cultural landscape. Perhaps these postures might go a long way in reversing the negative perceptions young adults have of us and our churches.
1. We continue to engage. As the church becomes increasingly marginalized, a natural reaction for Christians is to withdraw or retrench. But neither a posture of retreat, nor disengagement, nor retrenchment will further the kingdom. We minister the gospel most effectively when we remain engaged.
Daniel is instructive for us. In a secular culture Daniel neither assimilated nor disengaged. Without compromising his own convictions and surrendering to cultural issues, Daniel continued to engage for the benefit and the welfare of the Babylonians. By helping the Babylonians he built trust and gained influence. When we step up and connect and engage and serve our society—not only is it the right thing to do, but our witness gains credibility.
2. We gently and firmly hold to our convictions. Don’t get me wrong. Now is not the time to do unto others what they do not want done unto them. People expect us to be argumentative and judgmental and “unchristian.” Let’s prove them wrong by our gentle answers and thoughtful responses without compromising our own beliefs, convictions, and values. The strength of our ministry engagement flows from a position of deep conviction of the truth of the gospel. Paul too is illustrative for us. He describes his gospel ministry among the Thessalonians as gentle and affectionate:
But we were gentle among you like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. (1 Thess. 2:7-8 )
Paul describes his deep love for the Thessalonians as that of a mother for her newborn. There is fierceness and tenderness behind his metaphor. Faithfulness to our biblical convictions will help us navigate the complexities of changing cultural landscapes. Still, tender and loving engagement and gentle evangelism will prove the most winsome in a culture disillusioned by and suspicious of a church reputed of judgmentalism and hypocrisy.
3. We choose to be sensitive and loving toward those who have a different moral compass and ideology than our own. Our calling is not to fight a culture war, but to love people to Jesus. Let’s not be sidetracked by culture wars. Let’s not allow our witness to be hi-jacked by anti-intellectualism, defensiveness, factionalism, isolationism, pessimism, and separatism. Let’s surprise people by not being what they expect. Let’s don’t speak in clichés, but in ways that provoke curiosity and awaken interest in our faith. Let’s speak to serve others. Let’s share our faith and convictions with humility. Let’s choose to be known for our love and our service.
4. We choose to be inviting. The stereotype that all we’re interested in is converting people, can we wreck that and ruin it forever? If that were all God was interested in, you’d think there would be at least one sinner’s prayer recorded in scripture. We have something bigger to invite people into—compelling and challenging Christian community that seeks to reconcile all things and heal all that’s broken through the transforming power of the gospel. Yes, we affirm our gospel is crucicentric and we are conversionists. But walking with God is about far more than receiving a ticket to heaven. We are called to invite people into meaningful relationships, and into challenging Christian community where they can observe (1) our real and gritty faith, (2) our authentic worship and deep, passionate love for God, (3) our love and service toward God, one another, and those outside the Christian community, and (4) our life of “evangelship”—of witness and reproducing discipleship where we naturally share the good news of Jesus and invite people into a culture of discipleship before they ever commit to faith.
Our God—Father, Son, and Spirit—is an inviting God. He has invited us into relationship and into community. Real friends invite people into meaningful relationships and compelling community. Let’s work on our woo factor and become more like our inviting God!
By engaging our culture and serving our community, by graciously affirming our convictions, by choosing to be sensitive and loving to those who have a different cultural lens, and by becoming inviting people who offer a compelling and alternative community, we can change—both “blow out” and “break out of”—those “unchristian” realities and stereotypes young adults have of us, far more than by reacting, withdrawing, or entrenching.
We can choose to become real and unexpected friends with non-Christians while still affirming our faith in Jesus and maintaining gracious convictions. There is a way forward in our shifting cultural milieu. By gracious engagement, we can continue our gospel witness with authenticity, integrity, and winsomeness — and in humility reclaim our “Christian” witness.
1. What’s your natural response to criticism? If you answered withdraw or retrench ask the Father to help you take a step toward engaging non-Christians in meaningful relationship.
2. Which of these four postures is your “strongest link” and which is your “weakest link?” What will you do to strengthen your weakness?
3. Where can you build bridges to your community or culture?
Beth Seversen is the denominational leader for evangelism in the Evangelical Covenant Church. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Beth is researching emerging adults and the factors that make churches effective reaching them.