Monday, November 7, 2016

Engaging the Culture, Rather Than Enraging It

Dorothy and Toto, no
longer in Kansas!
Surveying the American scene today, I’m reminded of the classic words of Dorothy early in “The Wizard of Oz,” when she said to her little dog, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

I find myself feeling the same way at times. My “Kansas” was the era when I was growing up. No, it wasn’t a perfect time. Not hardly. Racism was more overt. Women didn’t have the opportunities they have today. Anti-discrimination laws were yet to be enacted. We certainly didn’t all of the technological advances and conveniences we enjoy today. Heart disease and cancer treatments that save so many lives today didn’t exist then. TV had only a handful of channels, and we had to get up from our chairs to tune into a different program!

At the same time, when I went to school, most of the kids came from intact homes with both a mother and a father. Divorces happened, but were fairly unusual back then. Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and Lord’s Prayer, along with reading an Old Testament Bible passage, was a standard practice to start the school day. During elections, the Democratic and Republican parties seemed to share many of the same goals; they just differed on how to achieve them.

The list of the differences between then and now could go on, but it’s clear society and the world today are much different from the days before Vietnam, hippies and “free love,” Watergate, and even 9/11. As a result, we’re now involved in what some observers term the “culture wars.”

We see it regularly on social media, people posturing with starkly opposing views, leaving little room for discussion or compromise. Being confronted by the same realities, but arriving at totally different conclusions. The news media and entertainment industry widely espouse values and practices that never would have been condoned in decades past. In the midst of this, followers of Jesus are exhorted to engage the culture, but too often we find ourselves enraging it instead.

Frankly, opinions and beliefs I read or hear make me want to do more than SMH (shake my head, for those not familiar with messaging jargon). “How can people think that way?” I sometimes wonder. And yet the reality is, no one has ever been argued into the kingdom of God. And that matters far more than prevailing in a political or ideological debate.

So how can we effectively engage the culture, rather than enraging? There’s no simple, one-size-fits-all strategy or program, but the Bible provides clear guidelines we should heed. For example, in 2 Timothy 2:23-24, the apostle Paul offered this admonition for a young disciple in ministry: “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.”

While in touring Athens, Paul saw many examples of Greece’s polytheistic culture. He could of stiffened his neck, denounced their beliefs, and arrogantly challenged their thinking. Instead, he made this observation:
“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands…” (Acts 17:22-24).

This didn’t win over everyone who heard him, but Paul’s approach was to attract, not to attack. He looked for open doors to those willing to listen, rather than trying to force open doors to the disinterested. This is why he wrote, “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always fully of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:5-6).

So even though it’s so very tempting, God instructs us to look for opportunities, handle them with wisdom, speak tastefully with grace, and provide reasonable answers when others ask questions. Is this easy? No. But it’s what Jesus did, and the apostles, and effective evangelists through the centuries.

People need the Lord, but they’ll never find Him if we beat them over the head with spiritual two-by-fours. We’re not in “Kansas” anymore.

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