While in Manila last year I stumbled on a secular bookshop which to my surprise boasted a large Christian book section in which Piper, Grudem, Keller and Carson among many others could be found. Strolling around the store I came across another section entitled ‘Self help’. I must confess that I chuckled (maybe I should have wept) when I found books by 2 of America’s best known TV preachers. The secular bookshop manager proved extraordinarily insightful; what was on offer was not actually “Gospel help” but “self help” masquerading as Christianity. In the USA these books would have held pride of place in the average Christian bookshop alongside the greeting cards, Christian novels and plastic angels.
Sometimes the Gospel not only loses its edge it is actually so distorted that it becomes unrecognisable. In many places in the West the church has become so enmeshed in the culture that it is difficult to discern its radical message. So many so-called Christian books encourage the believer to prosper, succeed, “be a winner” in the culture and all this by exercising faith.
Moses lead a radically alternative lifestyle
How refreshingly different to read in Hebrews11 “by faith, Moses refused…” Other gods such as the Nile and the Sun had been incorporated in the Empire, part of the structure, but you can’t incorporate Yahweh. He won’t bow the knee to Pharaoh, Caesar or any one else. He won’t mingle.
Moses, sitting at his parents’ feet and listening to their dream had heard enough. He saw through Pharaoh’s short term kingdom in spite of its pomp, power and prestige. Exodus! Exit! Out and into the forming of a radically alternative existence accompanied by a glory cloud.
I guess he could have stayed in the palace, inherited Pharaoh’s authority, changed the conditions of slavery, and improved the lot of his brothers by gradual adjustments in their favour. Instead, Exodus, departure! “They were all baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Cor. 10v2). He led his congregation through the wilderness to another place.
Jesus lead a radically alternative lifestyle
Undoubtedly Paul draws on the Exodus story to undergird his teaching on baptism. We were all baptised into Christ’s death (Romans 6v3), his refusal to embrace Satan’s alternative offer to inherit the nations by bowing down to him. By faith and obedience Jesus refused: in baptism we share His exodus. He too established a congregation of His own who are called to be unimpressed by this passing age, an alternative society, meek, mourning and hungering for righteousness.
In some ways it was more straightforward for Moses because he physically left Egypt. The “exodus” that Jesus accomplished at Jerusalem (Luke 9v31 “exodus” being the actual word used in that conversation on the mount of Transfiguration) would leave His disciples inside the Roman empire, having to work out all the subtle nuances of rendering to God His things and rendering to Caesar his. Here lies the challenge! The world needs to see a church which is distinctively different, which in some senses has left the planet. Simon Peter calls us aliens and exiles yet also tells us to “honour the emperor”.
Radically, alternative churches
When the radical Wesley brothers together with Whitefield first erupted into an unprepared and largely pagan Britain, they were obviously foreign to the culture. Existing churches refused them, so they preached in the open air—outside! Crowds flocked to hear them, followed them, and became formed into societies overseen by them. Gradually their followers impacted the culture. Salt and light, they gradually transformed society until it became respectable to be a Methodist. Church and culture began to combine; the Gospel became opaque, and Christian distinctives faded.
I think it was Luther who said “Every generation needs a Reformation.” Some have argued that if we don’t embrace the culture to some degree we are in danger of becoming a sectarian oddity. The fact remains that, like Paul, we “serve another King”. Our King is actually the authentic one! His throne is in Heaven but the Earth is His and His kingdom advances every day, soon at His return to break out in all its unmixed glory.
Arguably the strongest church in the world today can be found in China; out of step with their nation’s culture they serve God, know His presence, experience His power and often go to prison—yet still they grow like no other nation could boast. Now even the formal Three Self church in China has more in attendance on Sunday than all of Europe’s churches combined.
Yes, let us comprehend and confront the culture but beware the dangers of compromise and over-engagement. We live in a troubled world embarrassed and humbled by economic and political ineptitude. Maybe we are entering a devastating time of economic collapse and depression.
Elijah prayed down chaos into his culture. Asking God to stop the rain could be compared to praying for the banks and economy to fail, but Elijah’s testimony was that “he stood before God.” He was distinctively different, but vitally in touch with the One who had the real power. Beware the seduction of those who appear powerful. The Lord reigns. We are his representatives, and a called-out people.