In an attempt to pen an anthem for change, Bob Dylan wrote, in 1969, “Come gather ’round people wherever you roam; and, admit that the waters around you have grown; and, accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone. If your time to you is worth savin’, then you better start swimmin’; or, you’ll sink like a stone for the times they are a-changin’.” He accomplished his goal. For over 4 decades those words have shaped peoples’ views on society — “The times they are a-changin’.”
For the Christian church in America, however, the times aren’t a-cahngin’; they have changed. We presently live in “post-Christian times.” That does not mean that there aren’t plenty of churches and many Christians in our country. Actually, the opposite is the case. We have one of the highest rates of churches per capita in the world, and we have more churches now than we’ve ever had in our history. And, though mainline Christian denominations have experienced decline in recent years, the number of evangelical Christians has steadily grown. This means that the Christian church, as a whole, is actually growing numerically. Yet, this growth can be misleading because other religions have steadily grown as well. America is more religiously diverse than ever.
This rise in religious diversity indicates that a a drastic shift in the prevailing influence on the mind and heart of our culture has occurred. Our social, political, moral, and intellectual landscape has changed, causing Christianity to no longer occupy a place of dominance. It is now just one of many voices being heard around the table of American religious and public life. This shift causes us to make a choice: We can romanticize the past, lament the change, refuse to accept it, and withdraw (even bitterly) from society. Or, we can accept the reality of the change and live our lives in the gospel in a way that ensures that our voices will be heard. You and I both know what the only biblical option is — to accept it and live so our voices are heard.
What has Happened?*
We have been overrun by barbarians. But, these contemporary barbarians are not like those who attacked ancient Rome and threatened its women and children with violence, or who stormed its borders and climbed its walls. They are far more civil, so civil that they are unrecognizable and have gained significant influence in our society and culture. Charles Colson explains:
“…[T]he invaders have come from within. We have bred them in our families and trained them in our classrooms. They inhabit our legislatures, our courts, our film studios, and our churches. Most of them are attractive and pleasant; their ideas are persuasive and subtle. Yet these men and women threaten our most cherished institutions and our very character as a people” (Colson, Against the Night, 23-24).
These new “non-threatening” barbarians see themselves as catalysts for building a better society — an inclusive society which they will build by making truth relative (relativism) and by elevating the rights of the individual (narcissism). This philosophy is nothing new. It is, however, more prevalent now than it has ever been in America, and it is leading to our demise, signaling “the death of a culture based on objective truth and civic virtue” (Ryken, City on a Hill, 18).
Simply put, relativism is the rejection of absolute truth, which leads to the opinion that reality itself depends upon one’s personal perspective. Reality adapts as each person finds what is true for him or her. Everyone has his or her own story, but there is no divinely ordained story that ties them all together. Thus, no one knows anything with objective certainty; it all depends on a particular point of view. A person’s worldview is only a matter of his or her opinion.
Because of its prevalence in all generations, relativism has had and continues to have tremendously negative effects in American culture and society. Perhaps the most troubling effects are seen in the areas of ethical and intellectual standards of science, law, medicine, and journalism, as well as the way our culture understands religion. At best, Christianity is just one of the many religious options for people, and, at worst, it is to be rejected because of its exclusive claims such as, “the Bible is God’s authoritative Word” or “Jesus Christ is the only Savior.”
Narcissism is radical individualism and/or an infatuation with oneself. Though there has always been a general narcissistic tendency in human culture because of human sinfulness, contemporary American culture has taken it to a new level by removing the constraints of an objective reality built upon objective truth. We now live in a time of unbridled individualism. Such an individualism, which emphasizes self-love, is quickly becoming a foundational virtue of American culture.
As is the case with relativism, narcissism effects the majority of Americans, not just the younger generations. And, the toll it is taking on our culture is equally pronounced. When people make value judgements and decisions regarding their behavior on the basis of self-love, they feel justified to do whatever is in their self-interest, without respect to their spouses, children, co-workers, and neighbors. This leads to the development of a consumer culture full of takers and critics, not givers and creators. Our culture is devoid, for the most part, of any notion of self-sacrifice, so even the simplest of tasks that require cooperation have become increasingly difficult.
As ancient Nineveh was, America is filled with people who do not know their right hand from their left (Jonah 4:11). They do not know what is true (if anything is true) and they are unable to do what is right, just and good. Essentially, they do what is right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25). And, we should not be surprised at this. Intellectual skepticism quickly leads to moral relativism because the standard of truth upon which morals are built is eroded by our skeptical presuppositions. People feel, therefore, alienated and abandoned because they are unable to connect to loving and living communities. Their skepticism causes doubt regarding the possibility of love and romance, not to mention marriage and family. Consequently, we live in a time when people are skeptical about the possibility of truth and serve themselves, causing them to be hesitant to engage and connect with other people.
What is Our Response to the Shift?
As I mentioned earlier, our only biblically acceptable response to this cultural shift is to accept it and to commit to living our lives in the gospel in such a way as to ensure that our voices are being heard. That means that with respect to the evangelical Christian Church we are to resist the temptation to think that we need to either: find a new way of “doing” church or to become more set in our traditional way of “doing” it. On one hand, we want to be relevant so that we are able to engage the people we have been called to reach for Christ. On the other hand, we don’t want to be so relevant that we do away with the distinctions that make us a church. We have to find that proper balance between these two extremes.
The Acts 2 Balance
The earliest Christians lived and breathed in times that were very similar to ours. They were certainly no strangers to relativism and narcissism. They also suffered from another deadly “ism,” syncretism, which wreaked havoc on their spiritual and religious climate. Yet, they found their balance and we are to learn from them.
Acts 2:42-47 gives us a remarkable description of how they built their church on the Lord Jesus in such a way as to have a tremendous impact in their world. This description also sheds light on their congregational and ministry priorities in the way that it reports the congregation’s activities. They devoted themselves to “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (vs. 42), and they involved themselves in ministries of mercy, generosity, and outreach.
A Brief Discussion of the Essential Components
If we were to break each of those congregational priorities and activities found in Acts 2:42-47 down in detail, it would take pages upon pages to complete. And, that is NOT my desire! I want to give you a brief overview of, what I believe are, the essential components of the early church’s life. These are the things that must be emulated if we are to be faithful and effective in the 21st century. The Bible and our culture demands a church that is focused on worship, community, service and outreach.
- Worship — The Christian church is a worshipping family of faith. Therefore, along with the early church, our desire is to worship our Savior in such a way that is intellectually and emotionally stimulating. We are devoted to the apostles’ teaching, and so, we gather to hear God’s Word preached, sing Psalms and hymns, and offer ourselves as one in our prayers. Our worship extends to every aspect of our lives, for we are created to worship God.
- Community — The Christian church is a family. God refers to the church as his family on several occasions in the Bible. Therefore, we seek to follow the early church’s example of building one another up in love by encouraging one another’s spiritual growth through fellowship, faithful stewardship, gracious generosity, christian nurture and education. We want to encourage, equip, and inspire all our brothers and sisters in Christ, young and old, to be growing and faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, reflecting him in the world.
- Service — The Christian church is called to respond to the needs and brokenness in the world. This response isn’t to be overly planned or programmed; it is to be spontaneous, personal and organic. The early church simply responded to needs within and without their congregation. They did it generously and joyfully. So should we. We are to share God’s love by loving and caring for others in a way that brings them to Christ and allows them to flourish spiritually and personally.
- Outreach — The Christian church is a sharing community of faith. We share the hope of our salvation with others. We let it ooze from our veins. We witness to the glory of Christ by words and deeds. Acts doesn’t specifically tell us of outreach/evangelistic programs that the early church used, but it does tell us that they had “favor with all the people,” and that “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (vs. 47). There is only one way to be saved — believe on Jesus — and there is only one way to hear of Jesus — someone telling the gospel story. Therefore, we share his love, grace and mercy with all people in all places.
Keep Plugging Along
As our culture continues its downward trajectory, our biblical responsibility is to continue doing things that we have always done, which are: standing strong on the Bible and the gospel and involving ourselves in worship, nurture, service and outreach. I am confident that we will experience organic and sustained spiritual and numerical growth as we maintain our biblical focus. We will also find that what God has given in the church is exactly what the post-Christian culture needs.
Therefore, congregations are to renew their commitment to being a congregation that exists to glorify God by developing mature, worshipping disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ for the advancement of His Kingdom to the ends of the earth. May God bless us and make us more devoted disciples of Christ personally and establish our congregation firmly as a congregation devoted to “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
*My line of reasoning originated while reading Phil Ryken’s book, City on a Hill