A foundational teaching of the more conservative side of the emerging church is the idea that Jesus was incarnated into the culture of this world and the Christian is commissioned to do the same thing. They call this “missional.” Note the following statements by Mark Driscoll:
“Jesus’ incarnation is in itself missional. God the Father sent God the Son into culture on a mission to redeem the elect by the power of God the Ghost. After his resurrection, Jesus also sent his disciples into culture, on a mission to proclaim the success of his mission, and commissioned all Christians to likewise be missionaries to the cultures of the world (e.g., Matt. 28:18-20; John 20:21; Acts 1:7-8). Emerging and missional Christians have wonderfully rediscovered the significance of Jesus’ incarnational example of being a missionary immersed in a culture” (Confessions of a Reformission Rev., p. 26).
“Missions is every Christian being a missionary to their local culture” (Confessions of a Reformission Rev., p. 19).
The liberal emerging church believes the same thing. Mars Hill Graduate School proclaims:
“We believe a person or community can never receive a hearing, nor offer the gospel, unless it incarnates the gospel through joyful participation in a culture's glory and honest engagement in its darkness. We wish to develop lovers of language, story, drama, film, music, dance, architecture, and art in order to deepen our love of life and the God of all creativity” (Mars Hill Graduate School, http://www.mhgs.edu/common/about.asp#scpriture).
WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY?
In answering this we must first emphasize that every Christian IS to be a missionary, and this is an important and biblical challenge.
Too many members of even staunch Bible-believing churches are half-hearted at best about evangelism and have little or no concern for the unsaved. Too often we don’t even pass out gospel tracts; we don’t spending time each week sharing the gospel with sinners; we don’t befriend unbelievers with the goal of winning them to Christ; and we don’t have any unbelievers on our daily prayer list.
The conservative emerging church challenges believers to take their responsibility as ambassadors for Christ seriously, and that is a something that needs to be shouted from the rooftops. Consider the following challenge:
“At a recent staff retreat we each wrote out ‘missionary letters’ like overseas missionaries do when they raise support. We wanted to ask how we are doing as ‘missionaries’ and what stories we would tell. How do we schedule our week as missionaries?” (Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches, p. 103).
This is a good idea. Each member of a New Testament church should consider himself or herself a missionary and should be fully engaged in missionary work. Writing a missionary prayer letter would help the individual see how seriously he is taking this work.
Along this line, it is important for believers to be equipped to deal with the people they meet, whether they are Hindus or Buddhists or New Agers or agnostic evolutionists or whatever. Consider the following statement:
“Our culture is now flooded with pluralistic religions and mixed spiritual beliefs. Our culture is spinning out of control with sexual, religious, and moral confusion and choices. How do we respond to the somewhat parallel words of Jesus and Buddha? How do we answer the pro-gay theological arguments given today? What about euthanasia? What about women in ministry?” (Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches, p. 87).
That is a good challenge. Believers should be trained to deal with people wherever they might be in their thinking. In particular, we need to learn how to use the Bible effectively. It is not enough to know a simple Romans Road plan of salvation.
In 1973 I was pursuing a self-centered life of pleasure and had cobbled together a religious philosophy from bits of the Bible, Hinduism (via Paramahansa Yogananda and the Self-Realization Fellowship Society), Christian Science, Buddhism (via Herman Hesse), New Age (via The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ), and other things. One day I was driving in my car near Miami, Florida, and passed by a man riding on a bicycle. For some reason, I turned the car around and pulled alongside of him and asked him where he was going. He said he was going to Mexico. I told him that I was going a couple hundred miles north to Lakeland and offered to give him a ride. He agreed, so we put the bicycle into the trunk of the car and drove down the road. I broached the subject of religion and asked him if he believed in God. He said, “Yes,” and pulled a Bible out of his pocket and we began discussing the serious issues of life. As it turned out, I spent four or so days with the man, traveling from Florida to Mexico and back to Florida, and I was converted to Christ at the end of that journey.
The reason why I was willing to travel with him to Mexico in the first place was that I was impressed with his knowledge of the Bible. He was able to answer my questions and challenges with appropriate and powerful statements from Scripture, and he could take me right to the passages. I was amazed that the Bible was so practical. When I told him that I believed in reincarnation, he showed me Hebrews 9:27, which says that men are appointed to die once and then the judgment. When I told him that I was following my heart, he showed me Jeremiah 17:9, which says the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. When I told him that I believed that God will accept any man as long as he is sincere in his faith, he showed me Proverbs 14:12, which says there is a way that seems right to a man but the end thereof are the ways of death. When I told him that I believed that there were many paths to God, he showed me John 14:6 and Acts 4:12. When I told him that I didn’t believe it was possible to know the truth for certain, he showed me John 7:17 and 8:31-32.
I am thankful that this man was equipped to deal with me effectively.
The challenge that churches need to equip the saints to do the work of evangelism in this age is an important one that we need to take seriously. Churches should offer courses on how to understand and deal with Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, New Age, and whatever other isms that we have to confront today. At the very least they should make good literature readily available for private study on these things.
But above all, they should train the people to be serious students of the Bible so they can answer people with God’s infallible Word.
The emerging church also challenges Christians to be hospitable to unbelievers and not to keep them at arm’s length, and that is a good challenge. Consider the following:
“Very simply, we need to show grace-giving acceptance more than behavior-centered judgment to an unbelieving world. The problem with practicing this theology comes down to messiness. If we really live out grace, not just as words we say, but as a way we treat people, all kinds of messy people may just feel accepted enough to crash our church-party, and that would feel a lot different than the party of near-perfect people some of us have come to enjoy. But that’s how grace works--by making beauty out of ugly things. If you owned a Rembrandt covered in mud, you wouldn’t focus on the mud or treat it like mud. Your primary concern would not be the mud at all, though it would need to be removed. You’d be ecstatic to have something so valuable in your care. But if you tried to clean the painting by yourself, you might damage it. So you would carefully bring this work of art to a master who could guide you and help you restore it to the condition originally intended. When people begin treating one another as God’s masterpiece waiting to be revealed, God’s grace grows in their lives and cleanses them. We have watched gay people, radical feminists, atheistic Harvard grads, homeless crack addicts, couples living together, porn addicts, and greedy materialists come into our church, hang out around the body of Christ, find faith, change, and grow to wholeheartedly follow Christ (but for some it takes a long time, and some never change). Could those people, good and bad, come to your church? Can you picture it?” (Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches, pp. 66, 67).
While we reject the New Evangelical non-judgmental philosophy in no uncertain terms (see Ephesians 5:11; 2 Timothy 4:2; Titus 2:15), it is true that believers should extend God’s grace to other sinners in a compassionate and friendly and patient manner.
I am thankful that I know many Biblicist churches that do this.
I think of the man who led me to Jesus Christ. When I met him I was a hitchhiking, drug-abusing, jail-going, Hindu meditation practicing reprobate, but he loved me enough to spend a few days with me, putting up with my worldly behavior, my constant smoking, my foul mouth and pathetically proud attitude, patiently answering my brash challenges from Scripture. After a couple of days I told him it was ridiculous to base all of one’s thinking on the Bible and that he should toss his Bible out the window so we could have a decent conversation. I reproved him for quoting Scripture and not having any thoughts of his own. In spite of this he stayed with me and even shared his hard-earned money with me, because I didn’t have any, and he bought me a beautiful leather-bound Bible and a Strong’s Concordance.
I think of the first church I joined after I was saved. The founding family of that church, the Hooveners, opened their home to young people who were in the world and loved many of them to Christ and discipled them, and as a result young people went out of there to Bible College and then on to serve the Lord in various ministries. I was already saved when I met them, but I was a new Christian and still had shoulder-length hair and smoked and loved rock music and trashy movies and had a lot of emotional problems that stemmed from heavy drug use. They loved me and instructed and discipled me, and as a result I gradually cut my hair and quit smoking and gave up rock music and gained some emotional stability and confidence and began to be grounded in a right understanding of the Scripture.
I think of one of my cousins in Florida. He opens his home one evening each month to people who are visiting America from other countries. He has traveled extensively to various parts of the world and thus understands foreigners better than the average American, but it is his Christian love and kindness that is the main attraction. He invites some of his Christian friends and relatives to join them, and they play games and talk and just get to know one another, and they also witness to the unbelievers and invite them to church.
I think of a church in Norfolk, Virginia, pastored by a friend named Jerry Matson. For decades, he has ministered to sailors who work on commercial ships that dock at the nearby shipyard. He goes on the ships and meets the men and invites them to visit his service center. There they are befriended and loved and fed and entertained and allowed to make phone calls home and are patiently taught the gospel of Jesus Christ. As a result, some have come to Christ and gone back to their homes in various parts of the world as missionaries.
In our missionary work in South Asia, we try to make Hindus feel welcome in our church services and encourage them to stay afterwards so that we can answer their questions about Christ and the Bible. We serve snacks and drinks. It usually takes several weeks and even months before they really understand the gospel and come to repentance and faith. Some Hindus have also lived at our house for various periods of time.
That being said, we do not agree with the idea that Jesus was a missionary to culture or that believers are missionaries to culture.
First, Jesus was not a missionary to culture but to people.
Christ came to seek and to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). It is the people in the world that God loves, not the culture of the world (John 3:16). Jesus did not adapt Himself to man’s culture so much as He challenged it. He did not do what was expected, neither what was expected by the Jews nor what was expected by the Gentiles. He boldly disregarded the tradition of the Jews as well as that of the Samaritans (Matthew 15:1-2; Luke 6:1-9; John 4:9, 20-23). Christ did not give us an example of being a “missionary to culture” but of being a missionary to men while challenging culture.
Second, believers are not commanded to be missionaries to cultures but to preach the gospel to people.
Driscoll actually sites the Great Commission as support for his doctrine (Matthew 28:18-20; John 20:21; Acts 1:8-8), but these passages say nothing about being incarnated like Jesus or being a missionary to culture. The Great Commission says we are to preach and baptize and teach and disciple. We are to “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). Preaching the gospel to every nation and baptizing and making disciples does not add up to the emerging church’s incarnational doctrine or to the idea of being a missionary to culture.
John 20:21 is perhaps vague enough to support such a doctrine, but only if it had support from elsewhere in the New Testament. In John 20:21 Jesus said, “Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.” If this verse were isolated, it might be construed as saying that as Jesus was incarnated so must the believer be incarnated, but this interpretation is contradicted by the wider context. The Lord Jesus gave the Great Commission five times in the Gospels and Acts (Matthew 28:28-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:44-48; John 20:21; Acts 1:8). To interpret John 20:21 as saying something different than the other references is a presumptuous exegesis. What Jesus was saying in John 20:21 is that as the Father sent Him to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15; 1 John 4:14), even so should His followers dedicate their lives to the same task.
Third, the book of Acts gives the divinely-inspired example of the fulfillment of the Great Commission, and there we do not see the Christians being incarnated like Jesus or being missionaries to culture.
In Acts we see the believers living holy, separated lives, preaching the gospel to unbelievers in the power of the Holy Spirit, and baptizing and discipling those that God saved.
What is needed to reach unbelievers is not incarnating into their culture but simply preaching the gospel with power. You don’t have to understand or appreciate their music or know anything about their movie stars or think their fashion is cool. You just have to care about them and proclaim God’s message of reconciliation in a biblical fashion. That is what we see in the book of Acts.
I think of my wife. She has worked with Hindus in South Asia since she first went there as a single missionary nurse in 1975. She doesn’t dress like a Hindu or listen to their music or watch their movies. She isn’t even an expert on Hinduism. She just loves them and patiently tells them about Jesus, and she has seen many of them come to Christ.
I think about my maternal grandmother. When I was out in the world far from Christ, she didn’t know anything about my music and philosophies and ways, but she loved me and always reminded me of Jesus and the Bible and prayed for me with fasting and tears, and in this way she had a great part in my conversion.
It is true that people live in cultures and we must try to communicate the gospel in a way that they can understand, but this does not add up to being a missionary to a culture.
The missionary to culture idea smacks of an excuse to be worldly even while claiming to be holy, to love rock & roll, beer and gambling, R-rated movies, and champagne dance parties.
Fourth, culture is not innocent.
Culture is permeated with sin and idolatry, because it was fashioned by rebellious men and is part of the darkness of this world ruled by the devil (2 Cor. 4:4). Take the South Asian culture, for example. It is permeated with idolatrous Hinduism and Buddhism as well as evil western influences, and the missionary must teach the people to reject everything in the culture that is associated with idolatry and darkness. We do not build western style churches there, but we do teach the believers to reject everything within the culture that is wrong. In the churches we plant in South Asia the people speak their own languages and sit on the floor and shake their heads sideways to indicate yes and wear saris and kurta sudawals and eat daal baht with their fingers and never hand you something with the right hand and typically come to services late, all of which are cultural customs. But they do not wear “holy strings” or tikas or red saris or anything else associated with Hinduism, and they learn how to wear their saris and kurta sudawals in a modest manner and how to reject the immodest unisex fashions that are coming from the West and they learn that “spiritual songs” acceptable to a holy God are different in character than the world’s party music. The music that our churches sing is largely indigenous, written by national Christians, but it sounds distinctly different from the music that is heard on the FM pop stations or in the pagan festivals.
Finally, the apostle Paul did not support the “be like them to win them” philosophy.
Paul’s statements that “all things are lawful to me” and “I am made all things to all men” have been wrongly used to justify the “missionary to the culture” philosophy. We have considered these verses in their proper context in the chapter on the liberal emerging church. See “Liberal Emerging Church Error # 9: Worldliness.”
The previous is excerpted from our new book What Is the Emerging Church? This is available from Way of Life Literature.
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