We planted a church in Boulder under no illusions regarding its warranted reputation as one of the most left wing cities in our nation. It is no secret that Boulder is a bastion of progressivism and regularly listed as one of the least religious cities in the country. It is a source of pride for our city in some ways. City officials regularly point to San Francisco policies as something to which they aspire. Perhaps the problem with scale has kept it from experiencing the same problems which SF has recently discovered with their policies. Regardless, the city desires to be known as progressive.
But as young church planters, we did not see it as an obstacle to ministry but an opportunity. After all, does not Jesus himself want to reach those outside the favor of the religious establishment? We imagined ourselves to be going after the prodigal son or the woman at the well. We found that most people in our town enjoyed the creative climate of Boulder, the great weather, and the laid back pace it offered. They were generally uninterested in being radicalized by progressivism. Or at least that was in 2011, before the BLM flags, the rainbow painted crosswalks, and the COVID mandates. The change first came to my attention when a church family moved away from the area because of transgender ideology being taught to their kids in area public schools in 2014. Then came the rainbow sidewalks and storefronts in 2019. Our church was trying to navigate these challenges with the same gospel-centered, missional posture we started with. We even saw a woman in a committed lesbian relationship come to know Christ and leave her relationship. But all the while members of our church were being flooded with messages surrounding our city’s new found appetite for sexual indoctrination. When our elders decided to adopt more definitive language regarding biblical sexuality in our statement of faith, some of our members were troubled by the obvious stance we were taking which did not match the cultural current of our city. We preached a sermon series on sexuality in 2016 to address some of these matters but we shied away from speaking too confrontationally of the city’s departure from historic biblical norms regarding sexuality.
The question we eventually needed to ask was: should it concern pastors when their cities fly transgender flags above city hall? We have been told it is a major problem if a state or city flies a confederate flag. Is this just another “blessing of liberty” or does it warrant any sort of denouncement from the pulpit? Church planters, I was taught, are tasked with the responsibility of taking the unchanging truths of the gospel into a culture for the cause of Christ and beginning a church in that culture that proclaims the unchanging truths of Scripture in the changing cultural context. It is a difficult task for any individual Christian, missionary, or church planter. Contextualization deals with several aspects simultaneously.
First, one must have an awareness of the core message of the gospel. The gospel is a message of reconciliation and hope dealing with various themes surrounding Jesus, the kingdom, grace, etc. In fact, this was part of the in-house debate regarding justification and kingdom in the 2000’s: what does it mean to be gospel-centered? This core narrative or message of the gospel is treated as the center of missionary’s strategy. In order to take this gospel message into a new context, the church planter or missionary must shed the cultural skin obstructing this gospel. Through this process of dis-enculturation, the church planter frees the gospel to take root in a new culture. I remember when we moved to Boulder, a longtime parachurch leader here said that I needed to adopt the local college team as my own. As a third generation Texas A&M Aggie, he did not know this would never happen, but it communicated the vibe well. You are in a new context, therefore you need to adopt the cultural heroes as your own.
Finally, you must re-enculturate the gospel in your new context. You need to make sure that the core message of the gospel takes on new flesh. Hudson Taylor is a hero in this regard. As a missionary in China, he adopted the dress and style of the locals which was rather unorthodox in missionary societies at the time. Today, it is considered the gold standard in church planting. For us, it meant becoming a fan of the local food scene, the best trails, and celebrating the entrepreneurial culture of our city. In fact, for a minute I considered buying a prius, ditching my coffee habit for tea, and hanging out at the legendary Trident Cafe on Pearl sporting a beret and scarf. At the very least, I subscribed to the New York Times and perused my local bookstore regularly because that’s what Tim Keller said was part of this missionary strategy.
This ethos becomes embodied in the evangelistic strategies of the church. A significant consideration in church planting is reaching new people. Most, if not all, church planters are not looking to start a church for people who are already Christian. They are looking to start a church to reach the lost. This in itself becomes a bit of a problem. Why? Because churches do exist for Christians. Proper churches are those that preach the word and administer the sacraments rightly. They hold fast to the faith and equip the saints for the work of ministry. They act as a further extension and expression of the mission of God in the world by the power of the Holy Spirit. When a church plant derives its core identity as that which is to seek and save the lost, it begins on shaky ground. This already shaky ground becomes even more sand-like when evangelistic methods fail to reckon with the ways in which a hostile world is eager to colonize the kingdom of God.
The gospel has already taken on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. Our cultural context is not king. It does not determine, at least in a final way, the biblical model for ministry. While each cultural context demands a variety, and often unique set, of biblical strategies to reach it, those very same biblical strategies cannot be abandoned or discarded when they begin to threaten the stability of the church in its context. Biblical strategies for preaching and mission which beckon hostility from the surrounding culture cannot simply be muted in order to create a church which is ultra-amenable to the context. To submit the kingdom of God and its incipient methods of growth and advancement to context is to give it over to colonization. That does not mean there should not be a dialogue between the gospel message and culture. This is not some fundamentalism which is not receptive or open to the translatability of the message.
In order to escape colonization, boundaries and resistance must be established. There must be a de-radicalization as the culture aims to radicalize us. What would this look like? A return to farming à la Wendel Berry? Taking up fly fishing a la Eugene Peterson? We cannot just embrace the posture of the desert monks or even just that of resistance. The Benedict Option may be appealing and necessary for some but not all. Amongst calls to reject winsomeness as a pragmatic method of transforming culture, we must consider what is next. We must actively de-radicalize. But how?
Relational evangelism is a common strategy to reach the lost and exemplifies some of the challenges produced in a radicalized culture. The premise of the method is to gain enough relational credibility as a friend before you invite them to church or share the gospel with them. The effectiveness of the invitation is contingent on the perception and comfort of the friend. Christians are encouraged to attend events with that new friend and get involved with common ground activities such as recreation and sport. The goal, again, is to establish a neutral relationship where a gospel presentation or invitation to church can eventually take place.
The challenge arises when that Christian is not being sufficiently equipped to actively resist the worldview of their friend. It also becomes a problem in a radicalized culture where people are demanded to deny certain identities in relationships. One young man at our church was trying to follow this method of evangelism and so he joined some neighbors on a Thursday night bike ride. However, at the end of the bike ride everyone decided to do cocaine. While many Christians are not exposed to such an example, they are regularly invited to snort slogans and ideas which are foreign to the Christian worldview.
Sometimes this concept of evangelism takes on the ethos of winsomeness (which has received its own reevaluationrecently). The strategy of winsomeness is to highlight areas of agreement, celebrate common ground, and invite exploration where there might be opportunities to point to Christ. The challenge with this method becomes clear when we are asked about issues of so-called “sexual identity.” Tim Keller and J. D. Greear have made a point to show that heterosexuality does not save you and the Bible talks about greed more than sexuality. Greear and Jenn Wilkin have emphasized that the Bible “whispers” about sexual sin. The merits of those claims notwithstanding, these statements are becoming rather irrelevant in a culture which demands complete allegiance to the revolution.
How are Christians to practice relational evangelism in a culture which demands allegiance to things contrary to Christianity? What happens when we strip down the gospel to the death and resurrection of Christ as the message we hope to impart? Are we to “just preach the gospel?” We tend to end up avoiding areas of offense on matters related to sexuality, abortion, marriage, etc. in order to gain a hearing later. This invariably requires some relational sensitivity but, as often is the case, it can also involve some compromise along the way. Compromise can be a dirty word, but it is also the reality of human relationships. Even so, many can feel duped and even betrayed once Christian convictions on these matters inevitably become apparent. And become apparent they will in an age where the world is colonizing the kingdom. Demanding allegiance and confessing beliefs is a favorite tactic of these colonizers in their quest for dominion.
Rather than settling for mere “relevance,” church planters are to be navigating the tumultuous waters of contextualization. It’s a story as old as 2022. A young church planter moves to the city with a vision of reaching the people of that culture in the language of that culture with the good news of the gospel. He may not have studied Darrell Guder’s Missional Church or David Bosch’s seminal Transforming Mission, but he has picked up enough from Keller and Ed Stetzer to know how the game is played. He needs to make sure he contextualizes the gospel and disenculturates any impediments to the gospel. Over time, things begin to shift for him. He reaches people. But they have reached him too. Zach Lambert is the latest example. As the city becomes more pro-LGBTQ+, the pastor, earnest to hear and empathize with the plight of those hurting, begins to soften orthodox Christianity in favor of a so-called gospel-centered approach.
What are we to make of such a pedantic example? Colonization can happen to anyone. In seeking to make disciples, a new disciple has been made. How does someone with noble aspirations become a disciple of culture rather than discipling the culture?
Church planters must embrace a gospel message that is more robust than the four spiritual laws or Romans road approach or relational evangelism. We must develop in Christians and in churches the comprehensive scope of the gospel. If we are sent into the world after the benediction on Sundays, we must be sent out well equipped and well aware of what we are getting into. We must develop active ways to go on the offense lest we rehash the very style that got us into this mess: churches just trying to hold the middle. And make no mistake, when the church goes on the offense, it will be interpreted offensively. The church of God advances in the world and the world hates it for it. One way the kingdom of God advances by speaking prophetically against the idols of the city. This requires boldness from pastor and parishioner alike. It looks like a business owner not merely rejecting the rainbow flag brought by the local government official to hang on the storefront, but also encouraging fellow business owners to reject it as well. And it looks like telling that government official that God says this is wrong and why. All of that requires a level of discipleship from churches and discernment from God for which many are hungry.
Another way to equip Christians to resist radicalization is to teach the law of God. For many gospel-centered churches, the law is reduced to some impediment at best or giant hurdle at worst that people could never achieve. The law is portrayed as only sufficient and necessary insofar as it reveals sin. The gospel-centered movement has been plagued by an anti-nominan streak with characters such as Tullian Tchvidjian. Various uses of the law might be alluded to but the aspect in which the law shows you that you need a Savior is the one most often cited and celebrated. While this aspect of the law is biblical and has been an emphasis throughout church history, it is rather anemic. The law of God is not simply an MRI machine which reveals the cancer of sin. It is also instructive and useful for understanding God’s design for social relationships (Ps. 19:7). Christians gain insight into God’s standard for money, sex, marriage, child-rearing, government, rest, and virtue from the law of God. Those who have been ill-equipped on these matters, have an unappreciative view of the pedagogical realities of the law, and are then thrust into the world, will find themselves giving up ground left and right.
René Girard gives us the insight that people are shaped by desires. God’s law against covetousness recognizes this. We see what others have and who they are and we are invariably shaped by them. Social media is potent regarding this reality. It exposes us to an infinite number of images and statements and then invites us to position ourselves in support of or against those images. This social shaping by desire is not merely a result of the fall; it is by God’s design. We were not designed to covet, we were designed to be shaped by others. Children are designed to be shaped by their parents. Siblings shape one another. We choose our friends carefully because they shape us, not for their social advantage or opportunity. Friends impact our very personality and system of belief. Loyalty is a virtue in this regard. God designed us to grow close in community with others and to develop attachment to others. This attachment shapes us. And, this attachment to others is not absent in planting a church. Just ask any church planter what their most challenging reality on the ground is, and you’ll often hear the same refrain: loss. The greatest losses are the relational losses in church planting. That is because the church planter relationally attaches to many new people in a given context. The church planter gives relationally and is often left alone as the church changes.
This is not merely true of pastors and church planters. This is also true of Chrisitans. When Christians share the gospel and seek to be evangelistic, they are not some chemist conducting an experiment or a mathematician solving a problem. They are people relating with other people. They are invariably, and by design, shaped by those to whom they are attempting to evangelize. Many Christians are colonized by the city because they are naive to these realities. They believe that they can step into deep trusting relationships with radicals and avoid causing offense until the right opportunity occurs for them to share about Jesus’s life and death.
Typically, the Christian is either waiting for the other person to notice they are a Christian or they are waiting until their friend has a crisis moment. The former leads Christians to believe that the best thing they have to offer is that they are just like them, but with a little bit of Jesus. Or, for others, they conclude that in order to reach my friend or coworker, I must become utterly different so they ask what is different about me. This can create all sorts of unnecessary performative personality traits. The latter solution, waiting for a crisis moment, feels smarmy and predatory. Even though this tactic is not unbiblical and can be utilized by Christians, it can lead us to a “wait and see” approach to evangelism. We should not want people to have to experience a crisis before they come to see the beauty of the gospel.
This is why a robust community with deep attachments in the church is such a necessary and robust defense against becoming radicalized by the culture around us. But it is not merely for resistance. A robust church with places for deep relational attachment to Christ through rich liturgy and others in community provides two aids in resisting colonization:
First, it provides an alternative community which outsiders can experience. People can come and experience what life is like for those in Christ who have no need for revolutionary radicalism. Second, it provides an offensive bulwark against the excesses of our culture. As the church departs into the world, this community becomes indispensable to evangelism. Evangelism is not done alone. It is done alongside brothers and sisters who can complement our gifting and be on guard against false teaching.
Consider church planting in the midst of societal upheaval on matters of justice. Much of the gospel-centered and contextual approach to mission and church planting submits to a Rawlsian construction of justice and assumes the neutrality of the public square. For John Rawls, the ideal society was one in which each person has an equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with all. Society needs to be structured in such a way so as to maximize freedom. Furthermore, inequalities are assumed to be arbitrary unless we can demonstrate that it benefits us all. Therefore, any distinctions and particular identities become the grounds for special treatment in order to demand equality. Justice becomes merely political with no transcendent, metaphysical claims.
Christians who enter these cultural waters are assumed to adopt a neutral approach on matters of justice. As soon as a Christian brings up God and his transcendent norms and creational disparities, one has sullied the relationship and has now thwarted the opportunity to “share the gospel.” Therefore, it becomes expedient to adopt the neutral public square approach because after all, gay marriage does not infringe on my liberty, in order that I may win people to Christ. Even worse, Christians give up claims regarding equality and justice based on transcendent norms in favor of a Rawlsian definition. Then when the culture screams justice and equality these gospel-centered Christians hear Christian words but adopt non-Chrsitian beliefs. They become cultural captives, colonized by their city.
It really does follow the Hallmark movie archetype of the girl who moves to the big city to get away from her small town. Except in this story there is rarely an appreciative return to the small town. Instead, the church planter becomes recalcitrant and adopts the same sneering spirit as those by whom he has been colonized. What if in re-enculturation, church planters are in effect adopting secular ideologies which are in fact laying eggs inside the church eating it out from the inside?
Rather than this hollowing out of the pure doctrine of God within the church, churches must stand at the ready with the gospel, unafraid and unflinching in the face of a hostile world which would love nothing more than to destroy the kingdom of God. And if they cannot destroy it, they will at least attempt to neuter it, which is exactly what is happening when churches and Christians become colonized by the world.
Sanneh, Lamin. Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Orbis, New York; 1989); https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2022/05/justin-lee-on-fundamentalism-and-evangelicalism ↑