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Cultural Shift – Part 2

[dropcap3]M[/dropcap3]inistering in a theistic environment is relatively easy. Relatively easy in the sense that the you, and the person to whom you are ministering, are playing from the same deck. When you ask, “Can I pray for you?” there’s likely a common understanding about prayer. When you speak about God you can assume that your hearer has a similar concept of God. Religious people with a similar [theistic] worldview are generally more receptive to the gospel, thus “large-scale” evangelism can be effective.

Evangelism in America for several generations had been anything but cross-cultural. For many, “cross-cultural evangelism” has been the equivalent of “foreign missions.” That is simply no longer the case, and contextualization of the gospel is now commonplace for evangelism in our own backyard. There are however some problems. “Contextualization” seems foreign to most ministers over 40. The mainline church is still [largely] relying on evangelistic tactics that are oriented toward a theistic worldview, and expecting receptiveness to the gospel like what you’d hope for among theistics (if I can make up a word).

At the close of 2008 I began teaching through the book of Acts at Calvary Escondido. Six months later, as we came to chapters 10 & 11, I was struck by how the move of the gospel from Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, to the “uttermost parts” – or the Hellenistic Roman world – mirrored the shift of culture the church is now facing in 21st century America. In many ways we’ve reverted to a 1st century mindset and culture in the west. How’s that for progress? This is incredibly foreign for the western church, as it has not experienced such an environment for centuries. This epic shift has given rise to the term “Post-Christian,” which strikes great fear into the hearts of masses of evangelicals.

The first week of April, 2009, Newsweek’s cover featured the headline “The Decline and Fall of Christian America.” John Meacham’s provocative article “The End of Christian America” got more than a little rise out of many in the Christian community. A year prior, in February, 2008, The Pew Forum released it’s nearly 150 page “Religious Landscape Survey.” Pew’s survey of more than 35,000 Americans explored this religious and cultural shift; it was, in many ways, the catalyst for Meacham’s article and Newsweek’s cover.

Post-Christian. This is the cultural landscape of 21st century America; and Western Europe for that matter (Europe is actually far further down the path). Christianity and the “Christian worldview” are no longer the default in America. Some staunchly hold that America is a Christian nation and consider it their call to defend [politically] “Christian America.” Every time I am confronted by this mindset, I am reminded of Jesus’ words to Pilate, “If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight… My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36, emphasis mine) Perhaps we’d do well to actually read those bumper-stickers that are so trendy among evangelicals today.

Why does this reality seem to frighten us so much? Have we totally forgotten that the world in which Peter, John, Paul, Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, Titus and many others ministered was wholly non-Christian by the very fact that it was pre-Christian? Do we honestly [and arrogantly] believe that America is the last hope for the Christian faith? Look at the statistics, Christianity is not slowing it’s pace of growth in the least. Sure, it may be growing fastest in places other than America and Western Europe, but the Christian faith is not in decline, even in the west.

What then is in decline? To answer that we’d have to ask, “What exactly is “Christian America?”” I believe that “Christian America” has actually meant “Christian Consumerism,” or if I can make up another word, “Consumeranity.” If that is dead or dying, may it be that the DNR is signed and notarized.

Certainly the long way about it, but what exactly is the point for 21st century evangelism in America? Clearly it’s going to look different than it has, but it’s going to be more like it was, as in the days of Paul.

Large scale “crusade evangelism” may still have a place [for a time]. However, most who attend crusades are already theistically minded. They are, for lack of a better analogy, the low hanging fruit. Paul did seek such individuals in his evangelism. Always when he entered a new city he searched for the synagogue; he first desired audience with the Jews and gentile god-fearers. Ultimately he would endeavor to reach the unreached; the paganistic, polytheistic, pluralistic Roman mind.

Evangelism with Romans involved contextualization and more explanation; and uptake, or receptiveness to the gospel was on a much smaller scale. Roman’s were skeptical and suspicious. At Athens in Acts 17 there were a few who were open, but most mocked and dismissed Paul’s defense. This is what I believe awaits the evangelist of our day; skepticism, suspicion, mocking and dismissiveness. Add to this, they, the modern day lost, are not going to come to us; we must meet them in the marketplace, outside the structure of the church.

These may be changes from the norm of Christianity in America, but the reality is that what we’ve experienced in America has not been normal to Christianity. American Christianity for the last hundred years (or more) has made abnormal, normal. So much so that we’ve lost sight of the fact that every Christian is called to be an evangelist on mission. We have exalted a few key leaders as evangelists and cast on their shoulder the burden of the task. The harvest is white and the few laborers are bound to grow weary unless we reengage the body as a whole.

10 replies
  1. Gunnar
    Gunnar says:

    Miles great thoughts. As I read your post, two great books on this subject came to mind that I think are worth sharing:

    Evangelism Made Slightly Less Difficult: How to Interest People Who Aren’t Interested, by Nick Pollard – http://www.amazon.com/Evangelism-Made-Slightly-Less-Difficult/dp/0830819088/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1311348806&sr=8-1

    Breaking the Missional Code, by Ed Stetzer – http://www.amazon.com/Breaking-Missional-Code-Missionary-Community/dp/0805443592/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1311348918&sr=1-1

  2. Daniel Fusco
    Daniel Fusco says:

    Great post Dr. DeBenedictis!

    Can you flesh out a bit of how you are approaching things differently in light of these cultural shifts? How the move from theory to practice looks like for CC Escondido?

  3. Ed Taylor
    Ed Taylor says:

    Just wrote this today to send out next week. seems to flow with your line of reasoning.

    “Disciples Not Consumers”

    Psalms 61:7 (NKJV) He shall abide before God forever. Oh, prepare mercy and truth, which may preserve him!

    Even when I don’t want to shop, stores are invading my email box with offers and advertisements designed to get me to buy. The pictures are always done in sunny places with happy people. If I just had that shirt. Wow, how happy I’d be. It’s all false and fake. There’s only one reason they would frame the shot the way they did using the person they used the way they did with the angle the chose: to get me to buy! I just notice things like that.

    This all consuming mentality of “consumerism” has invaded the church of Jesus Christ. Rather than prayer and reliance on the Holy Spirit, church leaders are more interested in catchy phrases, intelligent marketing ideas, polished plagiarized sermons, and packaged church growth programs to bring more people into their buildings.

    Please be careful friend. We don’t want to settle for the emptiness of man’s ideas baptized with Bible verses. We desire the Living God to move in and through us by the power and presence of His Holy Spirit! Away with such worldly nonsense.

  4. Tim Brown
    Tim Brown says:

    Thanks, Miles –

    You wrote that we are a post-Christian society, but I couldn’t really tell if you think we are a post-theistic society. The early church spoke into a profoundly theistic world – polytheistic, pantheistic. Your mention of the Acts 17 passage points to the multi-theism of that city. In fact, the early Christians were considered atheistic for it was thought they had turned their backs on the gods-of-the-day.

    40 years ago, a generation ago, for the most part, when you spoke to people about God, you meant, and you know they understood you in the light of the God of the Bible. But what a shift in just one generation. In my city, we have a mosque four buildings down from us (Ibrahim Khalilallah Mosque – Abraham the Friend of God). The last few months I have seen quite a few Buddhist monks out and about. The New Age movement and alternate spiritualities have carved out a new way that people are thinking about God. How does the church engage a multi-theistic culture? Is it 1st century all over again? Are we face with the same spiritual landscape the early church encountered?

    • Miles DeBenedictis
      Miles DeBenedictis says:


      I think it’s important to differentiate between monotheism and poly/pan… So when I say theistic I’m speaking more of monotheistic. Perhaps I should make that more clear..?

      Yes, I do think we’re beginning to face the same spiritual landscape as the early church. I believe we’re reverting to a 1st century Hellenistic worldview.

  5. Jon Langley
    Jon Langley says:

    Good word, Dr. D.

    For the Jew (read: religious, theistic) the cross is a stumbling block. While walking the theistic path it must come upon the cross (because if there is a God then there must be a cross to get to Him). When that path reaches the cross the theistic non-believer stumbles, but can be stablised by the nearby evangelist, ready to interpret the meaning of this enigma.

    For the Greek (read: non-theistic, irreligious) the cross is utter foolishness. If that path should ever come near it the “Greek” will simply laugh and walk around it. No need to stumble. No need for a stabilising hand to help. This is the predominant worldview of younger America today.

    It’s no longer a matter of shoring up theism with the cross of Christ. It’s now a matter of demonstrating practically AND verbally why the “foolishness” of the cross is actually the most awesome and beautiful and intricate plan ever devised! If something appears foolish to me then I need to see it’s wisdom in action to be convinced! If the cross is meant to deal with a very real, yet unrecognised issue — the great chasm between a perfect and holy God and those whom He desires to be in communion with — then I need to not only hear, but SEE the truth of this wisdom in order to understand that it really isn’t foolishness at all.

  6. Bill Walden
    Bill Walden says:

    Does this mean we need to produce Christians who are culturally flexible, and think critically? Oh dear… 😉

    Good word…looking forward to part 3.

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