Friday, March 4, 2011

On culture and the assimilation of new believers into the church

I've been feeling the need to talk about culture again.  I think I've written about it before, but it's come to the forefront of my mind as I read through the church planting strategy of the denomination that I've affiliated with and as I think about what I'm doing and where I'm going from here.

I find myself outside of the church, sort of.  I'm loosely affiliated with a church planting group, but I'm way more committed to the people I know in the world than I am to a church group.  I think there are a lot of reasons for this, and I'm not sure that they're important.

I'm also a just-for-fun observer and analyzer of cultures.  I moved overseas with my family when I was 13, and I spent a lot of time trying to piece together what was different there and why it was different.  Along the way I found the freedom to adopt the values and beliefs that I want to rather than being stuck with what I grew up in because I could actually see the different cultures and the different options available to me.  I tried to allow the character and person of God to inform my choices about those things, but that was it.  I didn't really feel any particular affinity to the American or the Baptist or the Presbyterian ways of doing things or believing.  So anyway, I still love looking at culture, identifying cultural values, observing conflicts as cultural clashes, etc.

So I've been walking with these people for several years now who have been outside of the church.  When we started hanging out, some of them were hostile toward God.  Most of them were hostile to the church.  I have lived beside them, pursued them, invited them to give to my life and meet some of my needs, and we have developed true and deep friendships.  I have also seen many of them move from hostility toward God and the church to a true openness to God.  I have seen God working and moving, and I have seen several take a defining step into the kingdom of God.

Now I'm struggling with what to do with them.  I mean, I feel a responsibility as a follower of Christ to invest in the people around me at a spiritual level.  I guess you could say that I have a passion to pastor people and to encourage people to grow in their ability and desire to relate to God.  So at this point, there's a question... many of my friends are now choosing and trying to follow God.  They want to know him better, they want to follow him, they are beginning to love Jesus.

If I introduce them into a church culture, what's going to happen is that they're going to get caught up in adapting to the culture of the church.  They're going to learn (before the Spirit convicts them) of all the things that they're doing that don't conform to the way of Christ, and they're going to start adapting to the culture around them before they've truly internalized or had a chance to figure out what things are really biblical.  Some of them might make the transition well, and within 3 years they'll have left behind all their relationships outside of the church, and like most church members in the area, will have no relationships left with people who don't know Jesus.  Their ability to participate in the mission of God to draw all men and women to himself will then be truncated and will never reach its full potential.  If they make the transition poorly, they'll end up walking away from the church disillusioned.  Right now, those are the only two possibilities I see here on the ground.

So what do I do? 

I just had the chance to speak at a chapel seminary, and afterward, a professor asked me what the church could do for people like me.  And I don't know the answer to that.  I know that I can't be the only Christian in a person's life.  I know that I can't be the evangelist and pastor and theologian and minister.  I know that one of the costs for me of being bivocational and living in the world as a minister is that I have very little time.  And when I'm not working or ministering I'm so exhausted that I don't have the ability to find like-minded individuals or work to fight to get a church behind what I'm doing.  I just can't.  If I have to choose between the church and investing in my friends outside the church, I will choose my friends every time.

What I do know is that I am seeing God work and move among the people I live with each day.  I do know that he desires to see them cared for holistically - not just spiritually.  My question for the church is whether you are read and willing to let go of some of your culture so that there is a place for my friends.  My question is whether you're willing to set people like me free to do what we're doing, but still somehow being committed to supporting us.  We need the church.  Desperately.

What are we going to do? 

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