If we consider Christ’s example as arguably the first and best example of a Christian missionary, (He left the splendor of heaven and entered a foreign and hostile culture to deliver a transformative message) I think we could gain some insight as to how the church should relate to nonbelievers. To religious non believers (pharisees and the like) He confronted them, challenged them, and generally made them uncomfortable to the point that they conspired and followed through with killing Him. To non religious unbelievers (woman caught in adultery, tax collectors, prostitutes etc.) He showed compassion, love and service. So if we were to apply Christ’s example to how we do church, we would seek to make members uncomfortable and those who are considered outsiders to feel loved, served, and welcomed.
Of course, what complicates my analogy, is that the distinction between saints and sinners isn’t as clear as perhaps it was in Jesus’ day. For example, in Oklahoma as in much of the Bible Belt, perhaps most everyone would claim Christian beliefs, and those in and out of the church would probably have difficulty articulating the gospel and core Christian doctrines. So what do we do? The challenges of social distancing in the age of COVID-19 gift us with an opportunity to challenge how we do Church. Perhaps it is time for Pastors and parishioners alike to rethink our methods.
I think in order to be a good missionary to our culture we have to seek to be attractive to the culture by pursuing excellence. Excellence doesn’t equal perfection nor does it equate with making people feel “comfortable” per se. Excellence is worshiping God to the best of our abilities and gifting while encouraging others who are in Christ to do the same, and giving them opportunity to do so. So that when unbelievers come to visit, even if they reject our message, they will be impressed with our devotion. Excellence glorifies God and inspires people. When it is truly and effectively preached, the gospel of Christ will always be offensive to the unbelieving heart, so we should do our best to remove any other unnecessary offense to the gospel. A desire for and purposeful pursuit of excellence in all that we do helps to achieve this end.
Likewise our services, should also be disruptive, disturbing the peace of all who attend by showing an alternative Kingdom of God as opposed to the kingdoms of this world.
As Neil Postman famously observed in his classic book Amusing Ourselves to Death, “With the invention of the clock, eternity ceased to serve as the measure and focus of human events.” Thanks to further invention and innovation, we now have the ability to not just tell time but to also waste it. With technological advancement it seems humanity is increasingly insulated from the wonder of the enchanted world. This presents unique challenges for those of us who are called to be witnesses for the gospel of Christ. How do we effectively engage our culture—which has successfully segregated that truth to the sphere of privately held religious beliefs—with the truth of the gospel? Especially since our culture embraces pluralism, where faith is but one option among many?
Alan Noble, in his book Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age, seeks to illustrate these challenges while illuminating a course of action that Christians can take that will result in a better understanding of “how our culture processes beliefs, so we might better fulfill our duty to love our neighbor and glorify God.” Dr. Noble acknowledges, “There are no easy answers to the problems created by our contemporary condition, but by changing our personal habits, recovering church practices that convey God’s holiness, and rethinking how we participate in culture, we can offer a disruptive witness that will help people to see the world anew, as created by a living and sustaining God.” Noble lives up to his namesake in making an effort to disrupt conventional thinking when it comes to reaching the culture for Christ, specifically by building on the contributions of Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and his daunting work, A Secular Age. In this text, Taylor posits the idea of buffered selves, a phenomenon where “the modern person experiences a buffer between themselves and the world out there,” resulting in distraction “from the kind of deep, honest reflection needed to ask why we exist and what is true.”
Noble unpacks the portmanteau of the buffered self through a series of illustrative moments from his personal experiences as well as through references to literature, culture, and scripture to prod readers forward to a powerful understanding of what it means to live our Christian faith instead of just believing in our Christian faith. For the casual reader, a word of caution is necessary: Noble seeks to stretch the boundaries of your mental acumen. The content of this book will disrupt what it is you think you know, and it will require some effort on your part to fully comprehend the arguments. You will need to read it twice, maybe three times, to appreciate its depth. Like the culture he is critiquing, and the Christian response to it, Noble refuses to produce just another consumable tome that results in a sugar high with no lasting intellectual nutritional value. The Christian reader may be a bit disappointed in a lack of easily digestible scriptural illustrations, although there are some. For example, Noble references 2 Peter 3:4 to illustrate the lament of a distracted generation: “They will say, ‘Where is this “coming” he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.’” But front and center is a challenge to what so many Christians have sacrificed on the altars of cultural relevance and a call to reclaim and redeem our personal and collective habits for the glory of God. In an age of distracted, cacophonous shouting, Alan Noble reminds us that a reflective whisper of an enchanted world is a welcome reprise and may be the most disruptive and effective witness for Christ.
Our witness must be disruptive if we really seek to make a difference in our distracted world.
Again, the example of Christ is helpful. He was both attractive and disruptive. He would have mass gatherings where He miraculously fed people and healed them (perhaps a modern equivalent would be having services that are designed to minister to the “felt” needs of folks) and then He would then preach to them “Eat my flesh, and drink my blood” making them so uncomfortable that most would leave.
I don’t think it necessarily has to be an either/or dichotomy. We can faithfully minister to the culture and challenge the culture at the same time. In fact, I think Christ has uniquely designed the church to do exactly this.