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Is the state of the culture a report card for the church?

I think I first heard Kevin DeYoung and John Piper ask and answer that question. They both concluded “no.” I think I agree with them. There is no direct relationship between the effectiveness of the church and the broader unbelieving culture.

Yet, it seems most Christians tend to assume a relationship. If the church was doing _____ then the culture wouldn’t ______. Because the church is weak in _____ the society is experiencing ______.

Many Christians too readily draw these kinds of conclusions. I think it’s well-intended. What Christian doesn’t want to see the church have a lasting positive impact on their society?

But I’m concerned that this thinking, especially among preachers and pastors, might be contributing to some unhealthiness in the church. I don’t know if I’m right about this, so you all chime in with your perspective. But it seems to me that some well-meaning leaders who use the state of “the culture” as a report card for the church sometimes end up hurting the church.

The church hurt comes from an overcompensation. My wife has chronic shoulder pain. It probably got started when our children were young and needed rear-facing car seats. She would very often stretch and contort her shoulder to reach and adjust a pacifier or pick up some toy that fell in the back seat. Pretty soon she had sharp pains in her shoulder. Being an excellent doctor but not a very good patient, she refused to go to the doctor and instead compensated by using her opposite shoulder and arm. You can guess what happened next. She developed pain in the “good” shoulder, too. She overcompensated and further hurt herself.

I think something like that happens with our response to some broader cultural “failures” or “threats.” It’s like turning the hot water up too high because the shower doesn’t warm quickly enough.

Let me try a couple examples.

Some leaders see gender roles–and the very idea of gender itself–suffering at the hands of a secular culture bent on redefining gender relationships. They seem to think that an egalitarian impulse in society is a very bad development. Thus far, I’d have a great deal in common with them. But some of my brethren become militant complementarians. Gender roles become an almost cardinal doctrine with them–not in theory but in practice. So they preach against egalitarianism relentlessly. They counsel young men and women toward “complementarian” practices that could hardly be justified with scripture. Those who fail to toe the line get their toes stepped on. They end up creating a culture that stifles, controls and alienates. Healthy relationships become more difficult to form. Social awkwardness increases among young adults trying to figure out how to “date” or “court” according to “biblical rules” they’ve never encountered in their two-years-out-of-the-world lives. The zeal of the leadership for a good thing, dialed up in response to the culture’s downgrade, ends up harming a segment of the church.

Or consider the current debates regarding same-sex issues. The church is perceived as “losing” on that issue and a good number of leaders are exercised about it. I’m not making light of their concerns and I share much of it. But when well-meaning leaders fall prey to the subtle temptation to make state legislation granting same-sex marriage rights a report card on the church, strange things can happen. Like the pastor who ceases his ministry of regular exposition to do a series on homosexuality. The series isn’t so much an exposition of key texts or a sensitive approach to discipleship in this area, but a jeremiad against “the culture” and a desperate ringing of the church bell to alert everyone to the impending doom. Public policy figures prominently in the sermons and in after church discussions. The pastor gets exercised. The church gets politicized. People get ostracized–and not just those who may be addressing same-sex desires in the course of their Christian discipleship.

So what am I driving at in all of this? Just a simple question: Are we (Christian leaders) sometimes over-reacting to current cultural issues in ways that actually hurt our churches?

The reality is most pastors have very little influence beyond their local congregations. That’s as it should be in many respects. But this means that the first and perhaps only place that a pastor’s cultural angst gets worked out is in their local congregation. Fear about the culture’s “report card” morphs into “discipleship” pressure inside the body of Christ. Often that pressure is out of keeping with the balance of things in the scripture and more in keeping with the focus of our favorite news outlets.

So, how to avoid this problem? Here are five suggestions:

1. Before you teach that topical series on that pressing social issue, pray and talk about it with the rest of your leadership team. Are they as worked up about it as you? Do they share your concern for the issue’s impact on your particular congregation? Is the issue an issue in your church? Are you agreed on how the issue should be addressed?

2. Wait a while. If it really is a cultural issue that the church is “losing,” that means your actions this week or next week won’t be of much consequence. So take your time. Watch the developments. Don’t just watch the news; watch your congregation, too. Listen to what your members talk about when they idly talk, or what they’re asking questions about when they come to you.

3. Read and talk with other pastors. Spend some time doing some homework. Let us not be uninformed but really thoughtful.

4. With your elders, think through your church’s message. What does the Bible say? Don’t stop with this or that pet passage; seek the whole counsel of God. What do you want the people to learn from the scripture? How should that truth be applied to their lives in their particular setting? If there’s an action to take, what should it be? And is there a way to identify people who may be easily offended so that you can talk through these things with them in more intimate settings? Can you seek them out to help you with your perspective and balance?

5. Do a whole lot of praying. From beginning to end, pray. You’re about to bring a contentious “outside” issue “inside” the church. To some extent, you’re about to let the world set the agenda for your church. Before you do that, pray real hard.

So what do you think? Are we sometimes in danger of over-compensating for cultural “defeats” and hurting the sheep?

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9 thoughts on “Are Christians Prone to Over-Compensate for Cultural “Losses”?”

  1. LittleShaun says:

    If I’m reading your right, this has to do with reaction of Christian leadership in regard to the loss of cultural ground correct? I am not a leader but I would think the tendency in most of us is to over-compensate to some degree. I know there was a tumult in my own soul where I wanted to push back, but like anything seemingly hard, God’s grace had me take a step back and re-evaluate how I deal with it so that I don’t ascribe a ‘fleshy’ attitude in presenting my sound convictions. My refuge in this cultural storm has been to lay hold of the sovereign transcendent God. Looking to the unseen and a having faith that, in spite of it all, it ultimately brings us a unifying peace in our common affliction drawing the elect closer together, all the while a sword is at work cutting and separating ideas, thoughts, truth, and, lies. I think the best thing for leadership to do is to NOT ‘react’ or compensate at all, but rather, ACT humbly, graciously, and biblically to a world that IS SUPPOSED TO BE HOSTILE to their beliefs. Christ made the only and eternal compensation needed when he struck a wound into the world, the flesh and the devil and the elect bleed out from it everyday. So, let us then only lay hold of that eternal compensation found in Christ with no lasting expectation to win over a God hating world or culture. I am convicted that this issue is not dividing the church but is bringing true Christians closer together and is being used as a great means to bring sanctification and coherence to a weak confused American church.

  2. I think this was very well written and very helpful! Thank you!

  3. Rem says:

    Good word.

    I’ve sat under pastors that have done this and can say that another, unintentional byproduct of the reactionary cultural ranting is that it can foster a fear of outreach and evangelism. When everything going on “out there” is terrible and we’re losing, the people become paralyzed about pursuing the lost. They’re winning, after all.

  4. Michael says:

    Thank you for discussing such an important issue facing the church today. While the five steps that you mentioned are important in deciding the message and direction of the church, I tend to think that there is more power in the church than we are led to believe, and there is much more at stake than what we are able to see. My experience has shown me that the issues that our nation is facing today are much less political and much more spiritual than I believe the church is wanting to acknowledge. In short, I believe that the nation has lost or is in the process of losing its soul, the very nature of what made America what it has become. The first chapter of Romans deals with this directly. When we indulge our fleshly desires and the desire of sin, we will be given over to it despite our knowledge of the ways of God. It is because we seek sin against God’s Word in our hearts that we will be given over to the ways of sin. Deuteronomy chapter 8 deals with the nature of pride. God provided a rich land full of resources and opportunity for our bounty, but when we give ourselves credit for receiving God’s gifts, God shows us the true source. It will be taken away. The church alone possesses the message of Christ. Just a Christ proclaimed Himself as the source of eternal salvation, so His church must proclaim itself as the source of the message of salvation. If the church is not standing on principle and boldly proclaiming the way to repentance and salvation, how, then, will the culture know that there is a way to the truth?

    If the church is not defining the values and morals of a people, then who is? If we cannot define what is moral, then anything could be defined as moral, even sin. This is the great lie that the enemy has perpetrated across our country. It is up to the church to set the standards.

  5. Bill Newberry says:

    Ok, possibly the state of our culture is not an appropriate guage of the state of the church. I am not sure we should be so quick to dismiss this possibility, however, since the culture within the church looks too similar to the rest of society in way too many ways. It is shocking to see how many within the church can’t bring themselves to the point where they can pronounce homosexuality (as just one example) a sin because they either aren’t biblically literate enough to make that determination or because they think it is unloving and intolerant to adhere to those old antiquated notions of what constitutes sin. When divorce rates and pornography use within the church aren’t much different than the rest of society, a little overreaction might be in order. Maybe that just means our concern should be with the internal condition of the church as opposed to the rest of society but the church’s report card doesn’t look that good when its internal condition is examined, never mind the church’s impact on the rest of society. If Matthew 7 is to be taken seriously, it will be hard for the church to impact the unbelieving world around us if we haven’t allowed the Holy Spirit transform us first so that we look different and can be a genuine example of the power of God in our lives.

  6. Ginny says:

    And a loud “Amen!” And because everyone is in a tizzy as to the state of the family, the church has started holding parents up to impossible standards of parenthood.

  7. Curt Day says:

    The Church is losing its privileged position in society in controlling culture. But it is a mistake to be alarmed by that loss. Those who are alarmed take a more black-white thinking approach assuming that those who are not occupying a privilege position are pushed to the margins. And thus they see the Church as losing as it loses control over culture. The problem here is that if we are consistent with this type of thinking, then we have to ask who was being marginalized when the Church occupied its privileged position. The disturbing answer that comes back is that nonWhites were being marginalized. So either the Church was leading the white supremacy charge or it was negligent or even impotent in stopping it.

    But there is an alternative to the Church seeking a privileged position in controlling society. That alternative is that the Church should imitate Jesus in His first coming, rather than in His second coming. The Church should seek to serve rather than to control and it should seek to defend those, especially those with whom we disagree, who live in the margins. Should we do that, we might discover that nonChristians would find the Church to be far more relevant than they do now.

  8. Duane Warren says:

    I feel the same as Bill does. But maybe with a slightly different perspective of what the over compensation means. For a generation the church has attempted to imitate the culture of world because of the assumption that if it did not it would no longer be relevant in our culture. Compromise after compromise was made. It clearly indicates that Satan is no fool. He carefully chooses his moments to strike, in accord with his goal to confuse people as to the difference between good and evil. He does not take advantage of all sin to correspondingly afflict each person who sins, because then he would eventually discourage sin, and his success depends upon encouraging it.

    Satan was patient indeed….much much more patient then most of us could ever claim to me. He waited until divorce ran ramped in the church….both leadership and congregation. He waited until pornography became an addiction….both in leadership and congregation. He waited until sexual abuse became an epidemic….both in leadership and congregation. He waited for greed to become the norm….both for leadership and the congregation. He waited…..and then exposed the church to the world as being a phony hypocritical worthless establishment and used us…..US….to mock Jesus Christ…..because for so long….we have been. And he did it with one… sexual sin…..homosexuality. Amazing.

    Are we prone to over compensate? Absolutely. Kinda like Adam and Eve panically scrambling around to find something to cover their nakedness.

  9. Bobby says:

    This is a helpful piece. I’m an openly gay evangelical Christian, but currently worship at a mainline Episcopal church because I grew tired of dealing with pastors and elders who had little facility at discussing sexuality apart from the broken categories bequeathed to us by the Culture Wars.

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Thabiti Anyabwile

Thabiti Anyabwile is a pastor for Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC and a council member of The Gospel Coalition.

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