Church Renewal & Evangelism: Proclaiming Peace

As I consider the relationship between church renewal and evangelism, the words of the apostle Paul in Ephesians come to mind: “[Christ Jesus] proclaimed peace to those who were far off and peace to those who were near.”1

In the Ephesian context, those who were “far off” were the Gentiles; the “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”2 The world today is full of “Gentile” people who are estranged from God, God’s story, and God’s people.

For Paul, those who were “near” were the Jews; the chosen, covenanted children of Abraham. Many of the Jews did not listen to the testimony of Paul concerning the saving work of God in Christ Jesus, but some, along with many Gentiles, heard this testimony and believed. The communities they formed became the foundation for the vast, diverse network of communities and institutions known today as the church.

By the Spirit’s power, Christ Jesus still comes today and announces peace to all people in all times and in all places. This universal work of peace provides a framework for understanding the relation between church renewal and evangelism: church renewal is what happens when the peace of Christ comes by the Spirit to those who are “near” and evangelism is what happens when this same peace comes by this same Spirit to those who are far off. In either case, the purpose and goal is for all people to be “built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” in order to “gather up all things in [Christ].”3

While Paul’s words in Ephesians highlight the unity between church renewal and evangelism, they should not be used to obscure the differences between these two works of God’s saving grace. “Church” renewal implies the existence of a church: a community which has responded to God’s call to be God’s people on God’s mission for God’s world. This group of people is constituted by their corporate and individual response – a conversion – to God’s gracious presence. However, this response is not a singular event. It is an ongoing journey through history which God’s people must walk together with “fear and trembling” as God gives them power to do so.4 This power is none other than the presence of the Spirit who continually evangelizes the church as it struggles to live out its identity as God’s people for God’s world. The church is renewed by its continual conversion to the peacemaking, reconciling ways of Christ who confronts all of its idolatrous tendencies to seek its own good and ignore others.

This process of renewal is one by which God invites God’s own wayward people back into God’s mission in order to bring greater healing and wholeness to them and to the world. It must be noted that church renewal, while originating in God and coming only as a gift of God’s grace, is a set of practices which continually prepare the church to receive its renewal and enter more deeply into the reign of God. Through practices such as hospitality, Sabbath, thanksgiving, forgiveness, Eucharist, spiritual discernment, public worship, prayer, and evangelism the church makes space for the Spirit to come and bring new life.

Evangelism, on the other hand, is a practice of the church whereby God’s people help others say yes to God’s invitation and become active participants with God’s people on God’s mission for God’s world. Through evangelism, the church announces the good news of God’s reign to all people: the peace and love for which the world groans has come to life in Jesus Christ and is real today through the abiding presence of the Spirit who calls and empowers all people to restore and renew all creation.

This announcement is both verbal and embodied; the church’s life is shaped by the story it tells. In fact, the church should be a living demonstration of that story. While this announcement is universal, it must also be particular. The church does not exist in abstract but in specific times and places formed by unique histories and guided by differing values. In order to proclaim peace, the church must know its place and how that place uniquely suffers from a lack of peace. This dynamic process of becoming “all things to all people” is essential to the church’s work of evangelism.5 It is one way – a vital way – that the church fulfills its identity as God’s people who participate in God’s mission for God’s world. Without evangelism, there would be no church to renew.

1 Eph. 2:17, NRSV.

2 Eph. 2:12.

3 Eph. 2:22, 1:10.

4 Phil. 2:12-13.

5 1 Cor. 9:22.

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Church Renewal & Evangelism: On the Way of the Poor

What is poverty? What does concern for the poor have to do with church renewal and the church’s practice of evangelism?

Poverty is sin because poverty is death. It is the multifaceted evidence of idolatry run rampant in the world through the denial of God’s image, the ignorance of God’s revelation, the rejection of God’s mission, and the antithesis of God’s vision. Describing poverty as sin does not mean that poor people are somehow inherently sinful or idolatrous; this is not about placing blame or ascribing value. Describing poverty as sin is the only way to truthfully name the wounds we inflict on the bodies of others and ourselves when some of us live as if we are gods at the expense of others.

Because poverty is a systemic degradation of God’s wonderfully diverse creation in part and in whole, it manifests in many forms. First, poverty is experienced as a lack of material goods sufficient for sustaining a decent quality of life. Second, poverty occurs as physical weakness caused by poor health and harmful lifestyles. Third, poverty comes as an experience of isolation from the relationships, knowledge, goods, and services which could lead to a better life. Poverty can also be an experience of vulnerability in which the poor suffer from a lack of margin so that they have very few or no options to respond to life’s difficulties. The poor are those who are marginalized and ignored by others; people to whom no one cares to listen. Finally, poverty is an experience of alienation from the very sources of human identity in one’s life: family, friends, the community, and God.1

While it is possible to make some generalizations concerning these six forms of poverty, one should never assume to understand the depth of pain and suffering being experienced by those in poverty. The only way to really understand poverty is to be poor – this is the way of Christ. When God came into the world as Jesus Christ, God did not merely identify with the poor or stand on their side; in Christ, God was poor – is poor. Jesus was not the son of a ruler, a wealthy merchant, or even a priest. Rather, he was the son of a poor, simple carpenter married to a poor teenage girl. Jesus’ experience of poverty and powerlessness was deepened by his Jewish identity in a society ruled by the Roman Empire. As God, Jesus did not seek power but instead became a servant who gave his life for the sake of others. As a poor man, he was the one anointed by the Spirit to preach good news to the poor and enact holistic salvation for all who are wounded, alienated, and in need of restoration with God, themselves, and others.

If the church is to be the body whose head is Christ, it must learn to walk in the way of the poor. A majority of the church in the U.S. is akin to the rich young ruler who asked Jesus how he could secure eternal life. Jesus’ response is one we need to hear if we want to follow Jesus into the reign of God: “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.”2 Following the way of the poor means, on the one hand, rejecting the dominant, sinful narratives shaping our society which value money, pleasure, and power for the individual above all else. On the other hand, it means affirming God’s vision of peaceful, just, and loving community in which all are set free by the Spirit of Christ to recognize, honor, and celebrate the goodness of their relationships with God, one another, and creation. The church is alive and renewed to the extent that it experiences the resurrection life of the Spirit who accompanies, guides, and empowers those who seek the self-emptying way of the poor Christ for the sake of the world in all its poverty.

A church on the way of the poor will be freed to rediscover its true purpose in the proclamation and embodiment of the good news of God’s reign for all people. Evangelism is then directed towards the establishment of peace, restoration, and well-being for entire communities and their environments because God desires more than poverty alleviation – God desires shalom for all creation. This kind of evangelism also recognizes the systemic nature of poverty and the interconnectedness of creation which means that poverty degrades all people. Because all are called to the abundant life of God in community, the church should be a place where all people – no matter how rich or poor they are – have a place to know and be known as they participate in God’s mission for the world.

1 Bryant Myers, Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 67.

2 Mk. 10:21.

Story Matters

A powerful story about care, compassion, and redemption among the poor in La Paz, Bolivia

A powerful story about care, compassion, and redemption among the poor in La Paz, Bolivia

This is an essay I wrote for a class on church renewal and evangelism responding to the question: What are the characteristics, elements, approaches, as well as practices to avoid, in telling our faith story? I’m posting it now after experiencing the power of story firsthand over this weekend. During a meeting of community group leaders at my church, we took about an hour to hear each others stories. Two people shared their stories and, after each one, we sat in holy silence simply to revere and regard what they had shared. We then offered words of encouragement and held a time of prayer for each person. In light of that experience, I thought I would share why I think story matters.

Our stories are valuable because they reveal God’s personal presence in our lives and the way God desires to be in redemptive relationship with all people as they communally share in the love of God, the grace of Christ, and the fellowship of the Spirit.

As the Trinity of Parent, Christ, and Spirit, God’s life affirms relationship in communion as the ground of all being. The Persons of the Trinity exist in eternal relationships with one another in which each co-inheres and interpenetrates the other such that it becomes impossible to conceive of the Trinitarian Persons apart from their relations.

However, even in the mysterious depths of these relationships, each Person maintains their unique, ineffable identity; without their personal otherness, the dynamic community of Trinitarian relations would collapse into a static mass of uniformity and sameness. This Trinitarian life is the One who is always reaching out towards others in grace and inviting them into God’s communion. God as Trinity is the God who is for others and all creation.

God’s life as Triune Persons who live as saving communion is the story that comes before, mingles within, and goes beyond all our stories; it is the “big” story in which our stories find their origin and meaning. Our stories need to be told because they narrate our unique otherness which constitutes our personhood and enable us to be in loving relationships with God and others.

In his book True Story, James Choung develops a very helpful paradigm for telling God’s “big” story. It uses four circles which represent the four major turning points in the narrative of God’s salvation: (1) God created the world good; (2) Humans marred the world’s goodness and introduced brokenness into their relationships with God, each other, and the planet when they rebelled against God so they could be in charge; (3) In Jesus Christ, God comes to restore this brokenness and inaugurate a new way of abundant life for all creation; (4) God calls those who follow Jesus to be sent out together into the world to work for its healing and restoration by the power of God’s Spirit.

Evangelism – bearing witness to the “good news” of God’s story – can be understood as an invitation to God’s story through the telling and living of our personal stories. Telling our stories is a profoundly powerful act and one which must be done with care – both for ourselves and others.

First, stories need to be told in way that recognizes and celebrates our unique, yet limited perspectives. Our stories are not the whole story, but that does not make any story less valuable. Second, our stories should attempt to reveal the common ground between ourselves and those who listen. If our stories are totally strange and foreign to others, they will not understand who we are and our relationships with them will be strained. Third, when we tell our stories, it is important that we be honest with ourselves and others about our intentions. Our stories do not reveal the God who welcomes all just as they are when they are told for manipulative reasons. If our stories are told in ways which belittle others or glorify ourselves and our achievements, they will be of little use for inviting others into the story of a God who emptied Godself to become a servant to all.

Finally, we need to understand and articulate how our stories are being shaped and guided and transformed by the “big” story of Trinity lest we lead others down a path that ends with our limited experience. “Our” stories are not just about us; they are about all the others in our lives who have made our lives possible – most notably: God. Because God’s life is the source and destination of our lives, our stories can become means of grace that open up and put flesh on the story of God.

Faith, Works, & International Development

James, one of the first leaders of the early church in Jerusalem, includes a radical claim in his New Testament letter: “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”1 The apostle Paul agreed with James: “the only thing that counts is faith working through love [emphasis added].”2 These early church leaders were simply recalling the words of their Messiah who said that when his followers fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited the prisoner they were actually serving him. Jesus and the New Testament authors did not invent these views concerning the necessity of making love known through action. It was an essential feature of Old Testament law; one which the prophets had to continually bring to Israel’s attention. Love and justice, peace and well-being, faithfulness to God and faithfulness to neighbor – these have always been inseparable in the story of God. The prophet Micah says it well: “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”3

"Catch God's Dream" Pamorama Jones

“Catch God’s Dream”
Pamorama Jones

At its best, international development is one way the people of God participate in God’s mission to establish shalom on earth. Shalom is the overflowing abundance of God’s presence in a community so that the entire community experiences the wholeness, fullness, and satisfaction of a holistic well-being in complete harmony with its environment. It is a comprehensive reality of peace founded on the active presence of Triune love being worked out in justice. International development seeks to contribute to God’s shalom through activities which increase the standard of living and overall well-being for those living in situations of poverty in hope that all people experience a life which reflects their inestimable value as God’s image bearers.

However, international development has too often been the work of churches from Western, “developed” countries who work with churches and communities in the “developing” world in order to make them look and feel more like Western church and communities. As David Wright notes, the mission agencies of Western churches which perform this work “have uncritically borrowed a politically oriented aid rationale that was born in the immediate post-War years with the Marshall Plan and fine-tuned during the long ideological struggle of the cold war.”4 When mission agencies employ such a politically, economically driven rationale for development work among their international neighbors, they create relationships lacking any real mutuality which “cannot be authentic or constructive” and usually end in “uneasy dependence or frustrated estrangement.”5 Bryant Myers identifies the cause of mission agencies’ uncritical adoption of these development theories as the Enlightenment-born divide between the spiritual and material world which asserts that “religion, faith, and values belong in the spiritual world” and “science, reason, and facts are part of the real world.”6 Mission agencies born in the West tend to separate the work of international development in the “real world” from the work of the church in the “spiritual realm.” This dichotomy facilitates the removal or cheapening of distinctly Christian values, methods, and goals from the manuals of mission agencies so all that remains are the values, methods, and goals of Western economics, politics, and culture. God’s shalom gets replaced by an “international” version of American or European society.

For international development to contribute towards God’s shalom, it must leave behind its dualistic, paternalistic ways. Myers calls development practitioners to break free from the grip of a modernist worldview and begin operating from a “holistic understanding of an integrated spiritual-physical world” in order to practice truly Christian development within a global context.7 In addition, Wright suggests four changes to be made to the “aid relationship” between Western mission agencies and those with whom they work: “we must restore mutuality to the aid relationship, develop and apply contextual standards to the definition of need/aid, moderate the effects of the bureaucratization of aid, and create full webs of meaning in which to situate aid relationships.”8 With these fundamental adjustments, the work of international development can become a vital, life-giving expression of God’s mission to establish shalom in all creation.

1 Jam. 2:17.

2 Gal. 5:6.

3 Mic. 6:8.

4 David W. Wright, “The Pitfalls of the International Aid Rationale: Comparisons Between Missionary Aid and the International Aid Network,” Missiology 22, no. 2 (1994): 187.

5 Wright, 192.

6 Bryant L. Myers, “What Makes Development Christian? Recovering from the Impact of Modernity,” Missiology 26, no. 2 (April 1, 1998): 145.

7 Myers, 149.

8 Wright, 201.

 

The E-Word and the Cross

The apostle Paul, arguably one of the first great evangelists, begins his first letter to the church at Corinth by affirming his calling: “Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel.”1 The gospel Paul preaches to the Jews and Gentile Greeks in Corinth is “the message about the cross… the power of God.”2 However, this was a message neither group wanted to hear. Even though Paul knew how the “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,” he remained faithful to his evangelistic calling: “but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”3 Evangelism according to Paul is a distinctly cruciform practice. The cross of Christ is its sole content and no one – neither Jews nor Gentiles, neither Americans nor Iranians, neither black nor white, neither male nor female, neither rich nor poor – wants to hear about the cross because the cross confronts; it is a matter of life and death.

At the church in which I was raised, the cross held a central place in the practice of evangelism. One could hardly imagine explaining the Christian faith without mentioning the cross. It was used as the prime evidence to demonstrate both humanity’s utter depravity and God’s unconditional love. While the cross was essential to the logic of evangelism, it was hardly a characteristic of the lives – both individual and social – of the evangelists. The message of the cross was preached from positions of cultural, political, religious and economic privilege. Church members were the upright citizens, the hardest workers, the trendsetters, and the decision makers. The cross no longer confronted their lives; it had completed its work the moment they “accepted Jesus” as their “personal Lord and Savior.” It was now an abstract, verbal tool they could use to wield divine power over others. Evangelism was a campaign speech, a T.V. commercial thinly veiled in the language of “cross”, “sin,” “God’s love,” and “salvation.” Its goal was an individual decision, sealed by a quick recitation of words, which made Jesus the new “King of your life” but led to very few real changes beyond the rejection of individual vices like drinking, smoking, and casual sex. Evangelism preached the cross but refused to live under its power.

As Bryan Stone notes in Evangelism after Christendom, this kind of evangelism is “neither welcomed nor warranted” in the new post-Christian reality of mainstream American culture.4 The “e-word” has become a “barrier to mutual respect, careful listening, open sharing, and cooperation” arising from “an attitude of intolerance and superiority toward others” which leads to “a belligerent and one-sided attempt to convert others to our way of seeing things.”5 It is the “blessing” of Christendom which has allowed the church in America to preach the cross without becoming a people of the cross. As this reality fades away, some in the church turn to more creative, more relevant techniques to communicate the gospel more effectively; others look to philosophy to shore up the gospel’s intellectual bona fides; still others commend the benefits of a gospel lifestyle – anything but the cross. Stone diagnoses the situation clearly: “what the gospel needs most is not intellectual brokers or cultural diplomats but rather saints who have taken up the way of the cross and in whose lives the gospel is visible, palpable, and true.”6 Evangelism in post-Christendom America which preaches the cross without the social witness of a people who live together under the cross is vacuous and vain.

The apostle Paul rejected any other foundation for his evangelism and relied completely on “a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”7 The power of the cross is seen not in its violence but in the resurrecting power of the Spirit it unleashes which creates the possibility of a new creation kind of people. This is a people who are being “formed imaginatively by the Holy Spirit through core practices such as worship, forgiveness, hospitality, and economic sharing into a distinctive people in the world, a new social option, the body of Christ.”8 In order to preach Christ crucified today, the verbal proclamation of evangelism must be accompanied – if not replaced by – a “visible and embodied offer made by a Christ-shaped social body” which invites “participation in a community rather than a mere assent to a set of ideas.”9 Because the cross confronts all cultures, this kind of evangelism is seen as a practice of foolishness, weakness, and shame: “but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”10

Evangelism is an invitation into the story of God’s reign coming to the world and turning it upside down. In the midst of a pluralist, violent, individualist, wealth-seeking culture, it is the work of a people whose individual and social lives have been and are continually being shaped by the story of the God who brings home the outcast, restores the marginalized, and resurrects the crucified.

1 1 Cor. 1:17.

2 1 Cor. 1:18.

3 1 Cor. 1:22-23.

4 Bryan Stone, Evangelism after Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 10.

5 Stone, 10.

6 Stone, 12.

7 1 Cor. 2:4,5.

8 Stone, 15.

9 Stone, 249.

10 1 Cor. 1:27-29.

Church Renewal & Evangelism: Thoughts on Cell Church

heartcellsIn a profoundly insightful article describing the need for a renewed theology of the Trinity in the Western world, Eastern Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas reveals “a pathology built into the very roots of our existence, inherited through our birth, and that is the fear of the other.”1 This fear creates the conditions in which communion with God and one another become extremely difficult as society becomes more fractured by walls built to protect the privacy, happiness, and power of individuals and their homogenous groups. In this fear-driven, fragmented environment, the evangelistic church is given the very demanding task of creating a true community where the peace of Christ calms all fears and heals all wounds. Many churches attempt to respond to this task by creating some form of small group ministry in which its members gather in homes during the week in order to make time for building relationships, discussing matters of faith and discipleship, along with praying, worshiping and serving together. These groups are usually designed to be an additional ministry of the church; something added on to “create community” but certainly not to take the place of other, more primary ministries like the Sunday morning worship service or the mid-week Bible study. When churches design small group ministries as just another piece of the church puzzle, they fail to take full account of the fear of the other which Zizioulas identifies as a powerful, community-destroying force in Western society.

The cell church model offers a much more robust and radical response to the dire need for authentic communities which can model the love of God in a fractured world. A cell church places small groups, i.e. “cells”, at the very center of its life. Meeting with others in a small group is no longer an optional side dish on the buffet of church ministries – not belonging to a cell means not belonging to the church! As the defining feature of the church, the cell is a place where the entirety of the church’s life – its worship, praying, teaching and preaching of Scripture, service to each other and the community, and even its tithing – occur within the context of a 12-15 person small group.

This small group context removes the option of anonymity from the church’s practices and makes interaction and participation with others a necessity; there is nowhere to hide from the fear of the other in a cell church. This feature is the primary strength of cell churches in Western society, but it can also be their greatest weakness. Some people are not ready to confront their fear of others and are unwilling to make the kind of long-term commitment that is necessary for establishing an authentic relationship. The barrier to entry is just too high. These people may need the sense of anonymity offered in non-cell churches in order to come to place where they are ready to commit to deeper relationships where they can know and be known. However, cell churches do typically provide a place for newcomers or outsiders to “test the waters.” On a regular basis, all the various cells gather for a “celebration” service which is more akin to a non-cell church’s Sunday morning worship service. Cell churches must be intentional about the way they structure and present these celebration services so as to remain open and welcoming to all kinds of people who want to explore the cell church community.

Another key strength of the cell church model is the emphasis it places on the practice of spiritual gifts. The cell provides the relational context necessary for discerning the gifts of its members, while also being flexible enough to make a place for its members to practice their gifts. In a cell group, everyone gets to play. In this way, the cell church models a true dependence on the Spirit who empowers the church with gifts for its common good and the mission of God. Again, however, this strength can become a weakness, especially at the cell’s outset. Cell leaders may feel pressured to “delegate” leadership responsibilities to others who are supposedly “gifted” for these roles in order to relieve their own leadership burden or to encourage the growth of new cells. If this sharing of responsibility happens too quickly or if too little time is given to discern the gifting of group members, the life of the cell could be put at risk. This weakness highlights the need for regular pastoral oversight for all cell group leaders. It also suggests the need for establishing a cell leadership team before a cell begins which can help distribute the stress of launching a new cell. When these considerations are made, a cell is given a much greater chance of becoming a place where each member can operate in the power of the Spirit’s gifting as they serve one another and the community.

A final strength of the cell church model is its expectation for multiplication. When a cell reaches a size of 18-24 members, it is encouraged to split into two cells. However, preparation for this multiplication begins with the start of each new cell. One of the first responsibilities of cell leaders is to identify, recruit, and train apprentice leaders from within their cell membership. These multiplicative practices give the cell church model an evangelistic character. In many cases, those who have never been to a church are more willing to join a small group of people where they can sit across a kitchen table, drink a cup of coffee, and have meaningful conversations. Again, this strength reveals a weakness: it easy for cells to close themselves off and get too comfortable. In this case, the cell becomes a clique and therefore unwelcoming towards “outsiders.” This kind of cell will most likely resist being split in order to preserve their comfort. This possibility reveals the necessity of instilling the cell with a missional vision from its outset. Each cell should be partnered with a local community organization where they can “get outside themselves” on a regular basis and practice a life of service. In many cases, this will require the assistance and coordination of an outside pastoral team. However, a cell church whose cells remain outwardly focused will be poised to welcome people of all kinds who can see and hear God’s story brought to life.

1 John Zizioulas, “Communion and Otherness,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 38, no. 4 (1994): 350.

Church Renewal & Evangelism: Thoughts on Church & Culture

What is your understanding of the proper relationship between church and culture, as well as your understanding of the paradox of being in the world but not of it? Also recalling the panel discussion in Week 6, how are church and evangelism impacted by specific cultural contexts?

The relationship between church and culture begins with a Trinitarian doctrine of creation which describes the common ground of all existence and, therefore, the “raw material” of church and culture. Psalm 33:6 reads, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth.”1 For Pentecostal scholar Amos Yong, this passage reveals how “things are what they are because they are created by the Father [sic], through the Word, by the power of the Spirit.”2 As created “things”, church and culture find their ideal “concrete form or pattern” in Christ, the divine Word, and rely on the Spirit to be “the power of [their] actualization and instantiation.”3 This starting point reveals how church and culture share – at their core – in the same fundamental reality which finds its origin and destination within the gracious Trinitarian life of God. Both church and culture are designed by God to be transformed into the image of Christ as they are brought to life by the Spirit. This is important for affirming the inherent goodness of both church and culture as expressions of divine presence and activity.

However, “church” and “culture” are not creations in the same sense as a human individual. They are derivative, secondary creations which require organized human effort and ingenuity and which exist dynamically across time and space. As products of individual and corporate human will and purpose, church and culture share the same tendencies toward sin and evil which afflict humanity and lead it towards death. God is graciously present and active in both church and culture but only in varying degrees of incompletion. The reign of God is a reality to be “entered and received”4 through Christ by the Spirit; both church and culture refuse this invitation in a myriad of ways and neither one holds a monopoly on God’s grace.

While church and culture share these two fundamental characteristics, a vital distinction must be made between them. First, it should be noted that church is a form, a particular instantiation, of culture; sometimes a sub-culture, sometimes a counter-culture, and other times barely distinguishable from culture. In any case, church and culture belong in the same socio-anthropological category and always exist in relationship with one another. So what is the difference between church and culture? When Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane, he describes how his followers are “in the world” but do not “belong to the world, just as [he] does not belong to the world.”5 However, Jesus specifically asks that they not be taken out of the world; he prays that they would be sanctified – made holy – in the truth of Christ’s life as they are sent by Christ into the world “that they may become completely one” in order to be a demonstration and overflow of God’s love.6 As Elaine Heath states, holiness is about being “in partnership with God in God’s mission… to redeem all creation” – culture included.7 “Church”, therefore, is the holy people of God who respond to God’s saving work in Christ and, by the Spirit, join God’s work to redeem all cultures and bring them to their uniquely good completion in Christ who is “the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.”8

jazzThe church relates to culture the way an experienced jazz musician plays a classic song. The church takes up the culture’s instruments, draws from the culture’s repertoire, yet creatively improvises its tunes towards new life in harmony with the key of Christ’s holiness as it follows the syncopated, life-giving rhythms of the Spirit. The song is still recognizable, but it has been deeply and fundamentally transformed for good.

In this light, the practices of evangelism and church renewal point towards two processes which must be held in tension as the church lives in and among its particular culture. Evangelism highlights the need for the church to know its culture intimately. The church cannot improvise on a repertoire it does not know by heart. This kind of knowledge requires real relationships and, to the greatest extent possible, authentic appreciation for and participation with a culture’s ways of life. The church does not replace culture or impose its own will; it exists for culture as its priestly servant. At the same time, the processes of church renewal emphasize the ways in which the church is called to stand apart from its culture. The church sings in a different key and follows a peculiar beat; sometimes this music is misunderstood, rejected, ignored, and – at times – silenced. In order to maintain this posture, the church in all cultures needs to be reminded of its story again and again; it needs continual training in the peace, justice, forgiveness, and reconciling love of God as it seeks to be God’s ambassadors. The church holding these tensions well in an ethnically diverse, low income inner-city neighborhood will look and sound very different from a mono-ethnic, middle class church practicing evangelism and renewal in the suburbs but these cultural differences should be welcomed – not avoided or lamented. All of these divergent beats and discordant tunes in the church may seem confusing, but it is the work of the Spirit to bring all this cultural diversity into glorious and beautiful harmony that reflects the image of God intended for all creation.

1 Ps. 33:6, NRSV.

2 Amos Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s): A Pentecostal-Charismatic Contribution to Christian Theology of Religions (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 116.

 3 Ibid., 118.

 4 See Lk. 18:17.

 5 Jn. 17:11, 16.

 6 Jn. 17:15, 17, 23.

 7 Elaine Heath, The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), Kindle loc 139.

 8 Col. 1:18.