This morning I was sat in a coffee shop a few hundred miles from my home country. Behind me there were six or seven elderly men in highly animated conversation. By highly animated I mean literally shouting over each other and gesticulating wildly. They were not in a conflict, they were in a normal Saturday morning conversation.
This would have been completely normal for a local observer, but for me as a foreigner it was highly fascinating. Each culture has its own set of “normal” behaviours and values which will feel anything but normal to an outsider.
Another feature of this visit is the number of conversations I have been involved in that relate to church tensions. To the insiders, each conversation has reflected what they might call deeply held biblical convictions. To my outsider ears, each conversation has reflected deeply held cultural values. Of course, you can attach a Bible verse to such things, but at their core these issues have been much more about guarding the sub-culture of a church tradition than promoting the life-giving health of the gospel.
Just like the men shouting over each other in the coffee bar, so also the men shouting over each other in these church tensions … all are very much playing out their own cultural norms. In the case of the church issues, some of those norms are cultural as per their country, while other norms are sub-cultural as per their denomination.
This presents a challenge for us all. How can we know when instead of promoting the gospel in our context, we are merely reflecting the cultural and sub-cultural norms of our context? How can we know when instead of being ambassadors for Christ in a needy world, we are instead being roadblocks to Christ that are getting in the way of people seeing His character displayed before them?
Here are seven questions to ask yourself that may help to identify where your Christianity has devolved into sub-culture promotion or protection. Actually, it is very hard to see this in the mirror, so be sure to ask these questions in conversation with others, and especially with God – He certainly will want to help you see clearly where you are not effectively representing him.
1. Do people in your church feel comfortable bringing friends into the church community? While all might affirm the importance of inviting outsiders into the church, most will hold back if they sense that the environment is not welcoming and appropriate for their contacts. One huge barrier will be when believers sense that their church is more about maintaining its own culture than reaching out to the lost.
2. Is there any expectation that certain issues preclude people from getting saved or hearing the gospel? It could be a lifestyle issue, an unacceptable habit, a certain look, or whatever. Is the gospel for all, or only for those that fit in with us?
3. Do certain issues dominate conversation about church more than the wonder of the gospel, the goodness of God, or the blessing of fellowship? Once you turn on the radar it soon becomes obvious what issues keep cropping up in conversation. Perhaps if there is more talk acceptable and unacceptable behaviour than there is talk of Christ, then maybe your church or your family is more about the sub-culture of a pure church than the wonder of bride of Christ.
4. Would someone encountering your church community see you as representatives of Christ, or would they see you as guardians of a specific issue / the police for a specific sin? People will notice when they meet a love that is different from anything they have experienced before. They will also sense when your church comes across with a guardians of purity (as defined by them).
5. Do people have thought-through biblical rationale for issues that come up a lot, or is the Bible brushed aside in conversation about that issue? If a church is dealing with specific issues repeatedly then it is not unreasonable to expect the leaders to have thought-through, biblically solid, but pastorally sensitive rationale for their position. It is a clear indication of trouble if the Bible is dismissed when it is used to challenge a dogmatically held opinion.
6. Does the manner of conversation and addressing difficult issues reflect the characteristics of the fruit of the Spirit? If the position that a person is taking is a godly position, then it won’t come across with venom and acrimony. It will bear evidence of the fruit of the Spirit. Divisive, critical, grace-less, argumentative or condemning attitudes are not evidence of the Spirit’s work in a person or church.
7. Are those who differ on a non-primary issue considered sub- or non-Christians? Are their churches considered sub- or non-churches? The primary issues are required agreement for fellowship to exist – that is, the Trinity, the person and work of Christ, the inspiration of Scripture, salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. No matter how important, we cannot make a non-primary issue into a primary one by simply declaring it as such ourselves. Your view on clothing, on music, on certain hobbies, on smoking, on divorce, on tattoos, etc., does not make them primary issues.
It is good to prayerfully take stock and make sure that your church stands for, represents and smells of the beauty of the gospel, of the wonder of God’s saving grace, of the other-worldly fellowship of believers and so on. It is so easy for our churches to become bastions of a sub-culture. And the frightening thing is that we may not see it, even if we look in the mirror!