Last Sunday, we began a new series of lessons about the need for us to reach out to the community around us. And I made the observation that going to church is no longer considered a normal part of American life. It used to be. But gone are the days when everybody went to church on Sundays. Fewer and fewer people have any interest in going to church, and, as a result, church is becoming more and more unfamiliar to millions of Americans.
I gave you some statistics to back that up. According to Barna Research, 43% of Americans are “un-churched,” which means they have not attended a church service in the past six months. Many of those are “de-churched” means mean that they used to go to church, but they don’t go anymore. And some of those are people who have never even been inside a church building. That number includes a growing number of young people, who didn’t grow up in the church and have absolutely no interest in church.
And, so, I said that there is a great chasm that exists between the church and the world. We don’t have the same values. We don’t have the same priorities. We don’t have very much in common at all. But, as recently as 30 or 40 years ago, the church could more easily bridge that gap between itself and the world. Because, in those days, even if everyone didn’t go to church, the church at least everyone’s trust and admiration, and so the church had a great influence on the morals of society. But those days are gone, and we are left with a wide chasm between us and the world that seems to be getting wider every year.
As I suggested last week, if we are going to succeed at bridging that gap, we are going to have to remember that the church does not exist for the sake of the church. It exists for the sake of the world. Now, unfortunately, there are a lot of churches that are focused on simply meeting the needs of their own members. And because so many people have so many different needs, it’s easy to understand how that can happen. Even Paul said in Galatians 6:10, “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
And, so, there’s nothing wrong with meeting the needs of our own members. That’s a biblical thing to do. The problem comes when that inward focus takes top priority. And when that happens, it can lead to some very unhealthy consequences. Needs soon turn into wants. And, if we’re not careful, there is a toxic self-absorption that can easily develop. “Us” becomes all that matters. Spiritual impact is rarely considered beyond the borders of the church property. Whenever plans are made or decisions are made, the first and sometimes the only question that is asked is, “What do we need, and what do we want?”
But even in those times when the church has tried to reach out to the world, many of our efforts to try to bridge that gap have been completely unsuccessful. To use an image from Robert Lewis, some churches hurl verbal grenades concerning sin and wrongdoing across the gap and into the world, hoping the shrapnel will somehow rattle sinners back to their senses. But it doesn’t. Many churches try advertising, impersonally inviting unbelievers to “seek us out.” But, for the most part, they haven’t.
And, as a result, our attempts to reach out to the world — no matter how sincere they may be – have often not only been ineffective, but sometimes they have resulted in an even greater hostility and alienation between the church and the community.
I think a big part of the problem is that we have been trying to convince a postmodern world that we have the truth – we’re doing worship the right way, we’re organized the right way, we have the right name. And we think that if we can just convince those people on the other side that we have the truth and they don’t, they will flock to come over to our side. The only problem with that is, and I don’t know any way to put this except to be absolutely blunt – the only problem with that is that the postmodern world around us has absolutely no interest in the truth.
Now, for those of you who weren’t aware of that, it may come as a bit of a shock to you. Many of you can remember a time when we tried to win arguments by holding debates. My guess is that it’s been a long time since you’ve been to a debate or even heard about a debate being held. Virtually nobody today has any interest today in listening to two people argue with each other about how their position is the truth.
I’ve used the word “postmodern” to describe our culture. Let me explain what that means so that you can understand why it’s so important as we relate to the world around us. The essence of the postmodern view is that there is no truth. Or, to be more accurate, there may be truth out there somewhere, but none of us has access to it. Knowledge really comes down to one’s perspective. And so, we never really have all the facts; we only have our interpretation of the facts.
Back in the good old days, everyone at least agreed that there was some truth. Now, we might have an argument about what the truth is, but there was no disagreement that there was a right and a wrong answer to this question, and so, one of one is right and one of us is wrong.
But today, we may have a disagreement about what the truth is on any particular matter. But, we are more likely to have a disagreement about whether or not there even is a truth. And the way this is usually expressed is something like this – “You have your opinion and I have mine.” However, with our young people, they have an even more irritating way of expressing this. I think it was Randy Harris that I heard one time talking about the disregard of young people for truth and he said that their attitude is summed up in one word – “Whatever!”
You can argue about how you’re right, and these are the ten reasons that support your position, and when you wait for them to come up with their argument in response, and they’ve only got one word – “Whatever!” Which is shorthand for “I don’t really care. You think you’re right and maybe you are. But the truth is, it doesn’t really matter. You have your opinion and I have mine, and there’s really no need for me to try to convince you of anything. Whatever.”
And so, in our culture, nothing is regarded as completely right or completely wrong. More and more, we are finding that truth is being defined as a matter of one’s own preference or perspective, if it even exists at all.
In his book Losing Our Virtue, David Wells has written, “This is the first time a civilization has existed that, to a significant extent, does not believe in objective right and wrong.” And, for that reason, we have not been very successful building a bridge across to the world, because we are building our bridge with the assumption that we have the truth, and the world’s response is pretty much the same as Pontius Pilate in John 18.
When Pilate asked Jesus if he was a king, Jesus said, “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37). And Pilate’s response was to ask the question, “What is truth?” (John 18:38).
There are some people who think Pilate was being very honest in that question as he asked, “What is truth? I’d like to find the truth. I’d like to know the truth.” But I think it was more likely the question of a cynic. “What is truth? I don’t think anybody really has the truth.”
And I think that’s the attitude of society today. Scripture tells us we need to speak the truth in love. But how do we teach the truth to a culture that has no interest in truth?
And I think the answer is this – we need to be careful not to make the assumption that our postmodern world doesn’t care at all about truth. In spite of what I’ve just told you, I think our society cares very much about truth. But, to the people of this world, truth has to be more than just words. Our postmodern world is tired of words – it wants something real. It wants something authentic. It wants something it can see.
And yet, authenticity is something the church in general seems less and less interested in demonstrating. Like the Pharisees, we sometimes are more interested in how we appear to others to be religious than in having a righteousness that flows from the heart. And so, we’ve gotten real good at preaching and telling everyone what they need to do to get right with God.
But the important question is this — where is the love of God that we talk about? Where is the transforming power of Jesus Christ? The changed lives? The selfless giving? The good works? While we are focused on talking about truth in our church buildings, the world out there is waiting to see that truth lived out in their communities. George Barna has said, “Americans are not going to patronize an institution which appears incapable of living what it preaches.”
Which is why I think the church has not done a good job of spanning the chasm and connecting with the community. We have been trying to build bridges based on truth alone, while the world is crying out for proof. We need bridges that balance public proclamation of truth with Christians living out that truth. As James said, “Faith apart from works is dead.” (James 2:26)
I believe we have to accept the fact that the world has drastically changed. But I also believe that the chasm is impossible to bridge. It can be bridged. Because we do not, as many people think, live in an age that despises belief. Rather, we live in an age that very much wants to believe. But it wants to believe in what it can see and, more importantly, what it can experience.
Which is to say that our world is in need of not only the word of truth, but the Word made flesh. Robert Lewis has given this description of the church – it is “a community of people who stand firm in the truth…who present living proof of a loving God to a watching world.”
The truth is, our culture is not all that different from the culture of the first century church. The Christians at that time also lived in a world filled with skeptics. Early Christians were called to live out the truth of their faith both in word and in deed.
“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
“We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)
“As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good.” (2 Thessalonians 3:13)
“As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share…” (1 Timothy 6:17-18)
“waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:13-14)
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.” (Hebrews 10:24).
With this combination of proclaiming the truth and living out that truth, those first believers built a bridge to the ancient world. In his book The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark noted the very rapid expansion of Christianity in the first and second centuries. “[Stark] was puzzled at how a marginalized, persecuted, often uneducated group of people were able not only to survive, but thrive…He concludes that a key reason was their willingness to sacrifice themselves out of love for each other and for their world.” (Shaunti Feldhahm)
We don’t need to be more relevant to draw people in our community to Jesus Christ; we need to be loving and more caring. We don’t need to be more religious; we need to be more connected. Because the world out there is waiting to see is whether what we have is better than what they have. And there are a lot of people around saying to us, “If your Christianity is real, let’s see it.”
The whole idea of influencing people through our lives was Jesus’ idea. We looked last week at Jesus’s statement in the Sermon on the Mount — “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:13-14). He’s talking there about influencing people by the way that we live. And Jesus also said that, without that influence, we are “no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.” (Matthew 5:13)
And I want to suggest to you this morning that the best way for us to have that kind of influence is to follow the example of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus not only taught the truth; Jesus was the truth. His life bore witness to the words that he spoke. The life that he lived caused people to listen to the words that he spoke. Because it wasn’t enough for Jesus to be religious; he lived his life in such a way that he connected with people around him.
Jesus associated with people. A lot. And it wasn’t for his own benefit. It was for the good of others. He showed sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. And then, he said to them, “Follow me.” And I would suggest that associating with others, sympathizing, ministering to needs and winning their confidence was as much a part of his strategy as was his invitation for them to follow him.
Let me share with you four significant elements of Jesus’ mission:
1. He spent time with people
When God conducted the greatest evangelistic campaign of all time, he did so as Immanuel—God with us. He chose incarnation (or fellowship) as the first essential element of his bridge. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:1,14)
Jesus’s mission was to be with the people. Even though he was God, even though he was holy, even though he was perfect, he didn’t hesitate to spend time with people as diverse as Mary Magdalene, Levi Matthew (the tax collector), Nicodemus (the religious leader), the Samaritan woman, Zacchaeus, the Roman centurion, and Simon Peter, to name a few. Jesus did not remain distant or aloof. He spent time with people.
2. He served people
Paul said that Jesus came “by taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:7). In Matthew 20:28, Jesus said, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” That was the lesson Jesus tried to impress upon his apostles when he washed their feet at the last supper in John 13.
Unselfish service is a very powerful force, even in secular society. People will take notice of those whom they perceive to be unselfish, humble, genuine, and caring.
3. He had a heart for those that others looked down on
Justice is closely associated with serving others. I encourage you to do a study sometime and see how often scripture talks about the importance of relieving those who are oppressed, caring for those who are downtrodden, sustaining those who are in poverty, grief, or disadvantaged in general.
Take, for example, Micah’s call, which is still valid today: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:6-8).
That call for justice is repeated in almost all the prophets of the Old Testament. And Jesus himself stressed the same thing. Notice, for example, Matthew 23:23 where Jesus said to the religious leaders, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”
Christ calls his people individually and corporately to strive for justice to the oppressed, the fatherless, the widow, those without power and those without a voice. And, if we do those things, we will find ourselves being more like Christ
4. He called people to follow him.
It’s important that we remember that we don’t just help others because we’re nice people. We help others to show others the one whom we have chosen to follow. We let our lights shine “so that they may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
The end result of our mission doesn’t happen until an invitation is given to follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. But to accomplish that, to get to that point, we’ve got to do what Jesus did. We need to associate with people, desire the good of people, show sympathy for them, meet their needs, and win their confidence.
Let’s look at a few examples of how Jesus put this into practice.
1. People who were healed.
We could go through a long list of people that Jesus healed – the blind, the lame, the woman with an issue of blood, the lepers, the paralytics. And rarely did Jesus teach anyone before he healed them.
Usually, he met the physical need of a person before he addressed their spiritual need. And it’s important to see that Jesus didn’t meet their physical needs just so that he could pound them with spiritual truth later. Rather, he knew that people who have physical needs – whether it’s hunger, or thirst, or need of a doctor – can’t concentrate on a spiritual problem unless the physical need is taken care of first. That’s the way our bodies work. Whatever hurts demands our attention.
And so, Jesus met the physical needs of those people out of compassion. But, because he met those physical needs, people flocked to him and they listened to what he had to say.
2. The Samaritan woman (John 4)
Notice that not all needs are physical needs. Here was a woman who was an outcast from the community because of her lifestyle. It’s likely she didn’t have many, if any, friends. And certainly, there weren’t any religious leaders who had anything to do with her. But Jesus spent time with her. Even though he was a man and she was a woman. Even though he was a Jew and she was a Samaritan. Even though he was a perfect God and she had a lot immoral behavior in her life. Jesus sat with her, and spoke with her in gentleness, opening the door for her to ask questions.
3. Feeding the crowds (John 6)
This may well have been the most significant miracle that Jesus performed. At least, it’s the only miracle recorded in all four of the gospels. Jesus goes out, away from the cities, and this huge crowd follows him. Five thousand people. But, after a while, they get hungry and Philip says, “There’s no way we can feed this many people.’ But, of course, Jesus feeds hem using only five loaves of bread and two fish. And then, after that, he uses the opportunity to make a spiritual point.
But I think there’s something important to notice here. Sometimes I hear people say, “If we meet people’s physical needs, then that’s all they’ll be interested in.” And I don’t dispute that that may well be true. But, here in this chapter, Jesus didn’t let that stop him from meeting the needs of the people around him. When it’s all over and done with, almost every one of those people left without following Jesus. And Jesus knew that would happen before he fed them. But it didn’t stop Jesus from using it as a bridge to reach the others.
4. The adulteress woman (John 8)
Here was a woman who deserved to be punished. She deserved to be criticized and judged and stoned to death. That’s what she deserved. But what she needed was mercy. And that’s what Jesus extended. When no one picked up a stone and threw it at her, Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.” (John 8:11). And it wasn’t because Jesus believed that no one should be held accountable for their sins. In fact, he followed that up by saying, “Go, and from now on, sin no more.” But his mercy and his willingness to forgive built a bridge to that woman. And while we’ve not told what happened to her after this, I’d be very surprised to find out that she didn’t follow Jesus.
5. The “tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 15)
Again, people who didn’t necessarily have a physical need, but who had been made to feel like nobodies – the people nobody wanted anything to do with, outcasts. But there was Jesus, not just associating with them, but eating and drinking and enjoying a close bond of fellowship. Building bridges.
I could go on and on with more examples. And it’s not surprising that when Peter summed up the story of Jesus in Acts 10, he said that Jesus someone who “went about doing good.” (Acts 10:38). Because Jesus believed in building bridges to the community around him. And while he did that through the words that he spoke, he did it first through the life that he lived. Because, to the people of this world, truth has to be more than just words. Our postmodern world is tired of words – it wants something real, something that is lived out.
And so, I ask again — where is the love of God that we talk about? While we are focused on talking about truth in our church buildings, the world is waiting to see that truth lived in in their communities. That is our challenge. A challenge to live in such a way that people in the community can describe us the same way that Peter described Jesus – “they go around doing good.”
And as elders here at Cruciform, that’s what we encourage you all to do. Discover your talents and then find a way to use those gifts to stir your passion and advance the kingdom of God. We want to do everything we can to encourage you and to support you. Find a way to go around doing good. Go out and make a difference in this world. Build a bridge!