What do a Buddhist, a biker couple, a gay-rights activist, a transient, a high-tech engineer, a Muslim, a 20-something single mom, a Jew, a couple living together, and an atheist all have in common? They are the future Church in America.
Most of them are in their 20s or 30s and became followers of Christ in the past five years. And now, many of them are leading others in our congregation at Gateway Community Church in Austin, Texas. Over the last six years since we launched Gateway, we’ve seen that this is the generation the Church must reach if it is to survive. It’s an eclectic generation on a winding, wayward spiritual quest, and the Church has an incredible opportunity to be a guide for the journey.
I must warn you upfront, however, doing church like this is a mess…but it’s a beautiful mess! Many churched Christians who came through the doors of Gateway in the early days just couldn’t handle the discomfort of having so many seekers around them. They would hang out in the lobby after the service, strike up conversation, and slowly realize that the person they were talking to held none of their “sacred beliefs” about abortion, sex before marriage, evolution, or other hot topics of Christian subcultures. After a conversation like that, they usually scared each other off.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that we throw in the moral towel, but why would we expect a secular society to act like a Christian one? According to Jesus, loving God comes first—followed closely by loving people. But it takes a new kind of Christian to live and minister in the mess of Corinth. And that is precisely where we now live.
Our Very Messy, Corinthian Culture
As I read about the church in Corinth, I see many parallels to our situation in 21st century America today. Being so near the intellectual hub of Athens, first century Corinthians prided themselves on their intellectual pursuits. As residents of a large, wealthy metropolitan port city, the people emphasized luxury and comfort. They entertained themselves at the Isthmian games held at the Temple of Poseidon, and they advocated a full indulgence in the pleasures of life.
Corinth was known for its wild party life and sexual freedom. The famous Temple of Aphrodite, with a thousand temple prostitutes, towered above the city, beckoning all to come and feast their sexual appetites. Partying and hedonistic pleasure seeking was so common in Corinth that they branded the name. The phrase “to live like a Corinthian” implied diving into days of drunken, promiscuous living.
Plurality was also rampant. Rome proclaimed religious tolerance as a great virtue. In fact, the one thing about Christians that the Greco-Roman culture detested was this antiquated idea that Jesus was the only way to God. And Truth? “What is Truth?” Wasn’t it a Roman governor, raised in the same Greco-Roman culture, who asked this first recorded relativistic question to Jesus? Corinth was a mess.
Yet, as Paul’s letters attest, this is precisely the place where God’s Spirit built this beautiful mess of a church. Though anything but perfect and tidy, it still held God’s hope for the world. His church, functioning as the “re-presentation”—that is, an all-new presenting again—of Christ’s own Body, prevailed and changed the whole Roman Empire. And He can do it again today through His local church in our world.
Emerging cities of America have much in common with Corinth: wealth, education, leisure, sports, and entertainment 24/7; the most religiously diverse population in the world; unprecedented sexual indulgence; pleasure seeking and personal satisfaction as the prime directive; and the absolute rejection of absolute truth.
And much like the Church in the pagan, pluralistic, promiscuous city of Corinth, the 21st century Church will be messy if it’s to be effective.
An American Mission Field
These emerging generations I’m talking about represent the first post-Christian culture in America.
By now, you know that unlike the generations before them, these generations have no predisposition for Christian faith. Not only do they lack an accurate understanding, many have a distorted view of Christianity from what they’ve seen. What I like to call the “Postmodern Experiment” began in the ’60s in America and had a much broader effect than merely the relativistic way people think about truth.
The pragmatic effect of this experiment has been widely missed in the debate about ministry in our postmodern world. But this experiment has undoubtedly spawned a generation of wounded, broken, spiritually hungry people. These people seek spirituality with an openness not seen in decades, and yet the Church has completely gone off their radar. As in Corinth, Christianity at best is one among many equally good religious options on the menu.
In his 1994 book The Power of Story (NavPress), Leighton Ford indicates that North America now holds the distinguished honor of being the third largest mission field in the English-speaking world. And according to researchers Tom Clegg and Warren Bird in their book Lost in America (Group), the United States has more secular, unchurched people than most nations of the world; yet many of our churches don’t seem to operate in light of this fact. We forget that Paul was a visionary church-starting entrepreneur, who sacrificed dearly to dive into the mess of a culture foreign to him.
If you’re a church leader, prayerfully consider this: is your church raising a generation of leaders ready to lay down their comfortable lives to dive into the muck of cultural America? Or are you just playing church—developing spiritual dependents who consume the goods off whichever church shelf will “feed me,” or “puff me up with more knowledge,” or even “make me feel postmodern”?
No longer can our churches afford to stand on the cliffs high above the cultural mudslide, chastising people for not climbing out of the mess to come up to higher ground. No longer can we feel content throwing our heroic lifelines of propositions intended to save, or idly sit, bemoaning change, and wishing to turn back the clock to nostalgic days gone by.
I believe it’s time for Christian leaders, tethered to the lifeline of God’s Spirit and a community of faith, to gather up courage and plunge into the swirling mess of the cultural flow. Just as Paul said he did in Corinth, we too must “try to find common ground with everyone so that [we] might bring them to Christ.”
If the thought of reaching our post-Christian culture scares you, take heart. God can use anyone, because ultimately, it’s not up to us—it’s up to Him. But we do have a responsibility. Paul reminds church leaders in his letter to the Corinthians:
I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are God’s co-workers; you are God’s field. (1 Cor. 3:6–9 TNIV)
As Christians in a post-Christian society, our job is to become cultural farmers. As church leaders, ministry leaders, and small group leaders, we have to trust the God who’s already at work all around us, making things grow.
Our responsibility is not to make people grow or change. Our task is to create the right soil—a rich, healthy environment—in which people can grow up in faith until the invisible God is made visible through His Body, the Church.
How do we create that kind of soil? This is the art of culture creation. As we labor in the field with Him, creating a healthy come-as-you-are culture, God will cause the growth. As wise cultural farmers, we realize that God has given us responsibilities as His fellow laborers to create healthy cultural soil.
We know that Jesus often used agricultural metaphors to describe the Kingdom of God, not just because these metaphors related well in an agrarian society, but He knew they also referred to general principles of growth. All life requires the right soil for healthy growth. Clearly, this is true of plant life. Though the farmer never causes the growth, if he neglects the soil and it hardens or lacks nutrients or water, no growth will occur. If he does not protect the seed from the birds before the plant ever has a chance to grow, adversaries will destroy his work. Conversely, if the farmer does his part to create the right soil, growth happens.
Children, psychologists tell us, also need the right soil to grow. Research confirms that kids in loving, secure, truth-speaking family environments tend to thrive. It’s the family culture that most influences healthy growth toward maturity. But have we considered the soil needed for a healthy Christian community in a hard-packed, post-Christian society?
God is responsible for changed hearts, but the soil is the responsibility of the leaders and Christ-followers who make up the Church. Creating a come-as-you-are culture is the most important task leaders can undertake to reach a post-Christian society. Yet, we often give culture creation little mental effort. In fact, because culture is largely unseen, we are mostly unaware of the cultural soil we have created in our churches, small groups, or ministries.
In discussing the effect of culture on organizations, business consultant James Alexander notes how “the culture becomes highly ingrained to the point of becoming invisible to the members of the organization. That’s why it’s so difficult for group members to talk about their culture. It operates at a level below our normal consciousness.”
That’s why several churches may be trying to reach the same group with the same methods, yet one just “feels” completely different than the other.
That intangible “feel” is the culture. The culture is what seekers pick up on immediately, though it may be imperceptible to regular members. But the culture makes all the difference in the world in a post-Christian society. Effective leadership must be synonymous with creating the right culture.
Context: The Invisible Ingredient
The next logical question is “How do we create the right culture?” We’ve come to associate “seeker” or “postmodern” services with certain aesthetics—cool music, candles, or whatever the latest conference is hyping. Yet, all too often, leaders implement these types of services, thinking they’re creating the right culture. But they miss the most essential nutrients for healthy Body-growth.
When I was executive director of ministries for Willow Creek Community Church, I saw leaders come to conferences and get excited about leading people to Christ. Yet tragically, they’d assume it was the music and drama or other visible elements they were lacking. They’d go home to start a drama team or a “contemporary” service with a new band and less worship, assuming “If we build it, they will come.” But many missed the all-important culture created specifically to effectively reach one particular culture of suburban-Chicago Baby Boomers. Much of the criticism aimed at the “seeker church” for being entertainment-oriented derives from this common mistake.
I remember hearing about a staff member at Willow Creek who walked into the auditorium during a conference to witness a team of visiting church leaders measuring the auditorium. Curious, he asked them what they were doing.
“We love what’s happening here,” they said, “so we’re just going to copy every last detail of it.”
Unfortunately, I suspect we could make the same error with emerging generational trends. We may end up with cool-looking candlelit venues, hip-sounding music, a mosaic of “postmodern” do-it-yourself art in the service, or some other fad, and yet not really engage or penetrate our postmodern, post-Christian society at all.
It’s not the visible but the invisible that needs attention. It’s not candles but community, not art but attitude, not liturgy but love that makes the difference in our broken world.
Are you planting and watering, tilling and fertilizing the culture of your church, small group, or ministry? Do you see the fruit of God’s Spirit as secular people find faith and grow in your particular region? What does a come-as-you-are culture need to look like in a post-Christian society? What does it need to look like in your unique region or city?
When we launched Gateway, we used to joke about our “Corinthian core.” From six people, the church grew to a couple thousand in the first five years. We keep seeing God draw hundreds and hundreds of people to faith in Christ every year out of messy, broken, spiritually eclectic backgrounds.
In our diverse world, many diverse methods and strategies must be employed to create the right soil for the right context. Gateway’s not a perfect church—far from it.
Just as there are no perfect people, there are no perfect churches. We definitely do not claim to have all the answers or even know all the questions, but we see God at work, powerfully forming His church out of this broken, lost generation.
Adapted from No Perfect People Allowed: Creating a Come As You Are Culture in the Church by John Burke Copyright 2005. Used by permission of The Zondervan Corp. Copyright © by Outreach magazine. All rights reserved. Used by permission.