For about the past three years, Katie and I have led a small group. This group has been wonderful, filled with amazing people, and a catalyst for life change. One of my concerns, though, has been that I could never get anyone from my neighborhood to take part on a long-term basis.
Over the same time as the small group, I also created and cultivated a neighborhood poker group. The people who came to the poker group, ranging from 5 to 10 people, never came to the small group. It was all men and the talk could get a little un-Christian. However, spending time with the 4 other regulars created community and has allowed us to speak into each other’s lives.
One poker player, who is a Christian, left the group because it didn’t line up with his values and “there was nothing good in it”. Interestingly, Michael Frost remarks on a similar instance in which he started a neighborhood poker group and a Baptist refused to take part. In both cases, Christians removed themselves from the occasion for no other reason than their “Christian walk” compelled them to do so.
I am becoming increasingly concerned that we Christians are too caught up in creating a Christian Culture rather than creating connection and understanding our “neighbors”, thereby fulfilling God’s greatest commandments. What do I mean by Christian Culture? It’s the symbols, language, and behavior we create to identify ourselves to each other and form a recognizable group that is distinct from the world. The end result, though, is we create a divide between ourselves and the world which eventually forms an ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy. In Alan Hirsch’s terms, we falsely separate the world into a Christendom and a Heathendom.
In this separation, we are all guilty…
Refusing to say good luck because I’m insistent that God plans every action means I’ve taken a step into Christian Culture. There is room for good luck in God’s plan as any sporting event testifies.
Caring about whether we can put the Ten Commandments at a courthouse (see Montgomery, Alabama) or a giant cross in a public park (see St. Petersburg, Florida) is placing our emphasis on Christian Culture. Jesus didn’t ask us to create monuments. He pleaded for us to love.
Wearing a t-shirt that professes my Christianity or that contains Bible verses emblazoned across it creates the Culture. That t-shirt is not a statement about Jesus nor a way for me to love others, it’s my self-expression.
Choosing to do business with only believers creates the Culture. In fact, I’ve had friends admonish me for starting projects and business ideas with non-believers rather than “blessing” Christians with the idea. Coming alongside people in the institution of work is a manifestation of love and is not to be withheld from those unlike us.
Making Sunday a church day in which all our waking time is spent on the church further creates the Culture. Our “neighbors” are not going to our church, if they’re going to church at all.
None of the above things are bad in and of themselves, which further complicates the issue. Gathering with a body of believers is necessary. However, these actions carry a cost when they separate us from non-believers. And when we engage in many actions like these, the costs mount and the separation widens to the point that we entirely lose touch with the world around us.
In many ways, the declining attendance and relevance of the modern church are problems of our own making that stem from the false divide we create between our Culture and others. Blaming modern culture (whether its consumer culture, scientific culture, or popular culture) for the church’s problems further propagates Christian Culture. The blame and story that goes with it is a myth. When people walk away from Christian Culture, it’s because they don’t want to be defined as part of this in-crowd nor the Culture War it engages in. It’s not because those people reject Christ’s message, which thrives in any space, in any culture, and especially in the margins (see China).
To put it simply, my point is that we are called to two things above all others, to love God and to love others. This calling is the distilled essence of the gospel. Loving others means going to where they are and immersing ourselves in their lives, not talking them into joining ours or repackaging our Culture for them. If our Culture gets in the way of loving others more than ourselves, if it sidetracks us from presenting the Gospel to those on the margins, then we may have to ask what parts of the Culture are necessary and which parts are merely to satisfy our own desires.