My wife will tell you that I'm not always the sharpest knife in the drawer, especially when it comes to quickly picking up on things. But a trend is afoot in the American church that is so obvious, you'd have to be asleep to miss it.
And the trend is this: Followers of Jesus in the west are increasingly filled with fear.
This fear is manifest in several ways, but mostly, I see it coming out in a paranoid way through people--and sometimes entire ministries--dedicated to criticizing any attempt to engage culture. Sure, we can cross the line and compromise Biblical principles, but between the guy who occasionally goes too far and has to repent, and the guy who does nothing because he fears going to far, put that first guy on my team!
Our world is changing, and doing so more rapidly than at any other time in human history. For a church that was so sure of itself just decades ago because of the relatively prominent place we held in western society, these changes feel threatening, principally because they make us UNsure. But as frightening as it may be to think of engaging the world in new and fresh ways, there is something we should fear even more.
The more I observe the modern paralysis in the western church, the more I'm reminded of a well-known parable of Jesus. In Matthew 25, a landowner entrusts three of his servants with varying degrees of oversight--five talents to one, two to another, and one to the last. The first two went to work using the resources that had been given to them, and doubled their investment by their master's return, but the third buried his talent.
So when the master returns, he rewards the first two servants with more opportunity and responsibility, but took particular exception to the third, who told him "I know you. Your'e a difficult man, reaping where you haven't sown and gathering where you haven't scattered seed. So I was afraid, and went off and hid your talent in the ground." (25:24-25, HCSB)
The thing about Mason jars is that while they protect money and keep it from getting dirty, they don't earn anything either. And, this Master apparently didn't care if his money got a little dirty. He wanted a return on his investment!
Keep in mind that this is one of three stories linked together to teach us about the Kingdom. The point? Our Master expects us to engage, and He expects us to produce. And what is the one thing that kept the last servant from doing what his Master expected?
Three words: "I was afraid."
People driven by fear are actually pretty easy to spot:
1. They dismiss any expectations beyond "faithfulness." "We aren't responsible for the results. We are just supposed to be faithful." Sounds great doesn't it? Problem is, it just ain't true! Now, if by "results" you mean sheer numbers, then you may have a point. God doesn't call every pastor to lead a mega-church, we are all gifted in different ways, and sometimes the results of our labors will look very different. But a casual perusal of any parable about the Kingdom, or just reading the Sermon on the Mount, reveals quickly that Jesus expects results. Salt can't help but preserve. Light naturally illuminates. And when we are granted stewardship of the most powerful and effective story in history, you'd better believe Jesus expects us to do something with it that results in transformation. Dismissing those demands by surface level appeals to 1 Corinthians 3:6 or other similar texts is the mental equivalent of putting the gifts God has given you 6 feet under for safe keeping. There is no "increase" without planting and watering, but the latter ALWAYS leads to the former in some form.
2. They see "compromise" in every attempt to engage. In 1790, there was virtually no Christian presence that existed in the world that was further than 100 miles from the north Atlantic Ocean. It was in that environment that a young William Carey realized the need for alternative means to reach people with the message of Jesus, and in spite of his hyper-Calvinist detractors, his efforts launched the modern missions movement. Over the next century, the world would know of Jesus through rapid evangelism and church planting efforts that would eventually mean a Christian presence in most nations.
Nearly 300 years later, the modern era has come to an end, and we are witnessing a massive and rapid shift and collision of cultures like never before. Where is the next William Carey? My guess is he will emerge from one of the many being currently flayed by critics too afraid to join him in his efforts to engage the postmodern world. Historically unprecedented global migration patterns, which came as a result of now inexpensive global travel and rapid technological advance, has "reset" boundaries of every sort and kind in this new world. The modern world, which was marked by hard national, tribal, linguistic, religious and even ethic and racial lines is gone. Everyone now lives everywhere, and thus the way we interact with the world has to reflect this new reality. But those too anxious to hunch and feel their way through this new global arrangement tend to see compromise rather than effective engagement
3. They have little confidence in the efficacy of the Gospel. Paul put it this way: The Gospel is "the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes." I still believe this. The grand story of God's redemptive mission by sending Jesus into the world has no equal in the universe! No other vain, empty philosophy even comes close! So if its really true, and it its really that powerful, why is there such fear among Christ followers just because the world has changed?
The only conclusion I can reach is one of tragic irony: Too many followers of Jesus are actually afraid of the world He died to save!
Maybe its because we want the "old days" back when we sat in comfort atop the mountain of cultural superiority. Maybe we long for the days when all the non-Christians were "over there," and even those who were "over here" didn't have that much influence.
In this present world, when my neighbor is as likely to be a Hindu as a Presbyterian, its harder to be trite, simplistic, and distant from those who don't follow Jesus. "Sunday School" answers to their questions just won't cut it. I'm actually going to have to use my head, and in the process, build a relationship with someone with a radically different worldview.
Yep, I can understand why we would prefer the old world. But you and I live right here, right now, and Jesus has given us the world we have. One day, He is coming back. On that day, will you have your shovel in one hand, and a dirty Mason Jar in the other? Or, will you have found ways to invest the Gospel in this brave new world in a way that will cause Him to say "well done, good and faithful servant."?
Jesus is Lord over the whole earth, and every part of it, and His is the most wonderful, and powerful story in all of human history, and He has given it to you. What on earth are you afraid of?
*This post originally appeared December 2, 2013