A missionary encounter today?

In two previous articles we have looked at how the early Christians before Constantine were both highly persecuted for being too exclusive, narrow, and strange, and yet at the same time they were fast growing, especially in the urban centers. (See Alan Kreider, “The Improbable Growth of the Church” in The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, Baker Academic, 2016). 

This has been called an effective “missionary encounter” with Roman society. There was both offense and attraction, confrontation and persuasion. Christianity did not adapt to culture in order to gain more adherents, but neither did it remain a small, withdrawn band. Christianity confronted and critiqued the culture, believers suffered for it, and yet the faith also convinced many people, attracting growing numbers of converts daily. 

It is obvious that in western societies Christians are again seen as too exclusive and narrow, and they, too, may soon be excluded from many government, academic, and corporate careers and jobs, and be socially marginalized in various other ways. What can we learn from the early church so that we can have our own effective missionary encounter?

First, we need to avoid thinking that faithful witness will mean either fast, explosive growth (if we get the ministry formula just right) or a long-term dwindling with little fruit or impact. 1 Peter 2:11-12 gives us a good brief summary of the original missionary dynamic when it tells us, in one sentence, that some outside the church accused and persecuted them, while others saw their good deeds and glorified God. 

Second, we must avoid either assimilation or rigidity. There are indeed those who, in order to draw thousands, play down the more offensive and demanding aspects of Christianity. There are also those who insist that any effort at all to adjust our evangelistic presentations to particular cultural mistakes and aspirations is wrong. Yet Gregory of Nyssa, in the prologue to his Great Catechism insisted that you couldn’t win a polytheist and a Jew by the same arguments. You must frame your exposition of the gospel differently in each case. So must we. 

So what might our missionary encounter consist of? It might contain: 

1. A public apologetic, both popular and "high." The early church developed effective public apologetics (e.g. Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen, the author of the Epistle to Diognetus, and Augustine). We must not present a purely rational apologetic, but also a cultural one. Augustine developed a "High Theory" critique of pagan culture. He defended the exclusive-looking beliefs of Christians like this. “Our beliefs and lives do not in any way weaken the social fabric — rather they strengthen them. Indeed, you will never have the society you want if you maintain your polytheism.” 

But besides a high level critical theory, there must also be popular apologetics. We need to show how the main promises secular culture makes regarding meaning, satisfaction, freedom, and identity can’t be fulfilled. We need an explosion of memoir apologetics — thoughtful, accessible, and wildly diverse stories of people who found Christ and had their lives changed by the gospel. We also need a host of accessible books putting forth the deep logic of Christian sexuality. Finally, public apologetics in a post-Christian society will have to include public repentance for the failures of the church in the past and present.

2. A counter-culture. Like the early church, we should be an alternate society with several characteristics: 

(a) We should be marked by a striking multi-ethnicity. Christianity is far and away the most ethnically and culturally diverse religion in the world. This is an enormous credibility factor for Christianity. Yet the western church often does not look multi-ethnic to its culture. The public spokespersons for the church should be from as many different racial groups as possible.

(b) We should be pioneers in civility, in building bridges to those who oppose us. The earliest Christians were viciously persecuted and put to death, but the church practiced forgiveness and non-retaliation. Nowhere in the west are Christians facing this, yet many respond to even verbal criticism with like-toned disdain and attacks. Instead, Christians should be peacemakers, rather than pouring scorn on our critics and "sitting in the seat of the mockers" (Ps. 1).

(c) Like the early church, today’s church should be famous for its generosity, care for the poor, and commitment to justice in society. It should be well known as the main institution working to organize poor and marginal communities to advocate for their own interests with government and business. 

(d) Like the early church, we should be committed to the sanctity of life, and to being a sexual counter-culture. The church today must not merely maintain the traditional sex ethic among its own people, but it must learn to critique the false cultural narratives underlying our society’s practice and view of sex.

3. Faithful presence within the vocations. Today’s church must equip Christians with the doctrine of vocation to integrate their faith with their work. This “faithful presence” within the vocational fields by Christians would lead, among other things, to a reformation of capitalism (restoring trust to the financial markets through self-regulation), to a reformation of politics (restoring not just centrism but bipartisanship), and to a reformation of the academy, the media, the arts, and technology. For help in understanding “faithful presence” see James D. Hunter’s To Change the World and the many books on integrating faith and work. 

4. An evangelistic stance and approach. There is no evangelistic presentation that fits every culture. Every culture requires the basics of sin and salvation to be communicated in different ways. The gospel relates to other religions and world views as “subversive fulfillment” — the Gospel fulfills culture’s deepest aspirations, but only by contradicting the distorted and idolatrous means the world adopts to satisfy them. 

Today’s church must discover various ways to present the gospel to our culture and its various sub-groupings, not merely through preaching but through every Christian learning to be public about his or her faith in their walks of life. For help in understanding how the early church did evangelism see Michael Green’s Evangelism in the Early Church and Evangelism Through the Local Church to consider what is possible today.

5. Christian formation in a digital age. The early church formed people into vibrant Christians in the midst of a pagan culture. Its members had sharply different priorities concerning money and sex and in many other regards. Alan Kreider points out that early Christians achieved this distinctiveness through up to three years of catechetical training, through the strength of their community and relationships, and through rich worship.

The church in our day faces the same challenge. In the midst of a secular culture, with its narratives (e.g. “you have to be true to yourself;” “you have to do what makes you happy;” “no one has the right to tell anyone else how to live”) — how do we form Christians who are shaped more by the biblical story and narrative? But we also face something different, namely communication technology. In a digital era a person can take in thousands of words and hundreds of ideas every day that can undermine the power of what happens in face-to-face interaction. In this situation, how do we form people who are distinctly Christian?

This will entail, at least: (a) new tools of catechesis that are formed to present all the basics of Christian truth as a direct contrast to the narratives of late modern culture (e.g. “You have heard it said — but I say unto you.”) (b) worship that combines ancient patterns of liturgy with cultural forms, (c) great use of the arts to tell the Christian story in stories, (d) theological training of both ministers and lay leaders to conduct these kinds of formative practices. For information in Christian formation see: J. K. A. Smith's You Are What You Love and his cultural liturgies series.

 

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Why does anyone become a Christian?

Many say that Christians who maintain the historic, traditional doctrines are behind the times, are too exclusive, and are “on the wrong side of history.” Two recent books that cast doubt on this view are from historian and biblical scholar Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016) and Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? (Marquette University Press, 2016). 

The earliest Christians were widely ridiculed, especially by the cultural elites, excluded from circles of influence and business, and often persecuted and put to death. Hurtado says that Roman authorities were uniquely hostile to them, compared to other religious groups. 

Why? It was expected that people would have their own gods, but that they would also be willing to show honor to all other gods as well. Nearly every home, every city, every professional guild, and the Empire itself each had its own gods. You could not even go to a meal in a large home or to any public event without being expected to do some ritual to honor the gods of that particular group or place. To not do so was highly insulting, at the least, to the house or the community. It was also dangerous, since it was thought that such behavior could bring the anger of the gods. In particular, it was seen as treason to not honor the gods of the empire, on whose divine authority its legitimacy was based. 

Christians, however, saw all these rituals and tributes as idolatry. They were committed to worship their God exclusively. While the Jews had the same view, they were generally tolerated since they were a distinct racial group, and their peculiarity was seen as a function of their ethnicity. Christianity, however, spread through all ethnic groups, and most of them were former pagans who suddenly, after conversion, refused to honor the other gods. This created huge social problems, making it disruptive or impossible for Christians to be accepted into most public gatherings. If an individual in a family or a servant became a Christian, suddenly they refused to honor the gods of the household. 

Christianity’s spread was seen as subversive to the social order, a threat to the culture’s way of life. Christians were thought to be too exclusive to be good citizens. 

But in light of the enormous social costs of being a Christian in the first three centuries, why did anyone become a Christian? Why did Christianity grow so exponentially? What did Christianity offer that was so much greater than the costs? Hurtado and others have pointed out three things. 

First, Christians were called into a unique “social project” that both offended and attracted people. Christians forbade both abortion and the practice of “infant exposure,” in which unwanted infants were simply thrown out. Christians were a sexual counter-culture in that they abstained from any sex outside of heterosexual marriage. This was in the midst of a culture that thought that, especially for married men, sex with prostitutes, slaves, and children was perfectly fine. 

Also, Christians were unusually generous with their money, particularly to the poor and needy, and not just to their own family and racial group. Another striking difference was that Christian communities were multi-ethnic, since their common identity in Christ was more fundamental than their racial identities, and therefore created a multi-ethnic diversity, which was unprecedented for a religion. Finally, Christians believed in non-retaliation, forgiving their enemies, even those who were killing them. 

Second, Christianity offered a direct, personal, love relationship with the Creator God. People around the Christians wanted favor from the gods, and eastern religions spoke about experiences of enlightenment, but an actual love relationship with God was something that no one else was offering. 

Third, Christianity offered assurance of eternal life. Every other religion offered some version of salvation-through-human effort, and therefore no one could be sure of eternal life until death. But the gospel gives us the basis for a full assurance of salvation now because it is by grace not works and by Christ’s work not ours. 

I hope that by now you can see the relevance of these studies. The earliest church was seen as too exclusive and a threat to the social order because it would not honor all deities; today Christians are again being seen exclusive and a threat to the social order because it will not honor all identities. Yet the early church thrived in that situation. Why? 

One reason was that Christians were ridiculed as too exclusive and different. And yet many were drawn to Christianity because it was different. If a religion is not different from the surrounding culture, if it does not critique and offer an alternative to it, it dies because it is seen as unnecessary. If Christians today were also famous for and marked by social chastity, generosity and justice, multi-ethnicity, and peace making — would it not be compelling to many? Ironically, Christians were “out of step” with the culture on sex to begin with, and it was not the church but the culture that eventually changed. 

Another reason Christianity thrived was because it offered things that no other culture or religion even claimed to have — a love relationship with God and salvation by free grace. It is the same today. No other religion offers these things, nor does secularism. Nor can the “spiritual but not religious” option really capture them either. These are still unique “value offers” and can be lifted up to a spiritually hungry and thirsty population. 

The early church surely looked like it was on the “wrong side of history,” but instead it changed history with a dogged adherence to the biblical gospel. That should be our aspiration as well. 

 

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Civility in the Public Square

This month I will join with Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times and John Inazu of the Washington University Law School, to discuss “Civility in the Public Square.” This could be read as nothing more than an appeal for people to be nicer to one another. However, I hope it will be an introduction for many to a much more crucial and ambitious project. 

It could be argued that America has never really been a genuinely pluralistic, perspective-diverse, free society. We have never been a place where people who deeply differ with one another, whose views offend and outrage one another, nonetheless treat one another with respect and hear each other out. Those who have held the reins of cultural power — its greatest academic centers, its most powerful corporations, and the media — have always excluded unpopular voices and minority views that fell on the wrong side of the public morality of the day. Many white evangelical Christians in the 1980’s and 90’s wanted to occupy those places of power and showed little concern at the time to create a society that respected communities with sharply differing moral visions. Today cultural power has shifted, but those newly come to power seem to show as little interest in genuine pluralism as did the cultural elites in the past. If anything, observers argue that different perspectives and viewpoints are treated with even less respect and courtesy than in the past. The agenda has become not to engage, but to marginalize and silence. 

What will it take to create genuinely pluralistic society? That will start not in the courtroom (though the courts are important) but primarily in neighborhoods, at the local level. John Inazu’s Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference (University of Chicago Press, 2016) shows the way. He calls for us to come together with our neighbors around what he calls “aspirations” of tolerance, humility, and patience.

Tolerance is neither indifference (we may be appalled at the other person’s views) nor acceptance. It means rather treating the other person with respect even if we find her ideas difficult to endure. 

Humility is not to doubt the truth of one’s own beliefs, but to recognize the limits of what we can prove to others. Even if your Christian, Muslim, or secular views of the world and morality are true, there is no way to prove them to all rational persons. And that should humble you. 

Finally, patience does not mean passivity, nor does it mean to countenance injustice or evil. Yet if there is tolerance and humility, they should lead us to also be slow to posit motives, to be careful but persistent in our efforts to understand, to even empathize and to take time to communicate our own point of view. In sum, we should tolerate rather than demonize, we should be humble rather than defensive, and we should seek patiently to work toward as much agreement as possible, rather than simply trying to coerce the other side. 

There are many good reasons to wonder if the project of “confident pluralism” can succeed. The most telling criticism is that our social institutions no longer can produce these aspirations, traditionally called “virtues” or qualities of character. Indeed, our culture seems to breed their opposites. Tolerance and patience are now seen as inferior to outrage, protest, and anger. Self-assertion is again, as in ancient times, far more valued than humility. Our society is becoming radically individualistic, and religious authority is perceived to be one of the main barriers to human freedom and flourishing. 

There is another barrier. Face-to-face interaction — not video conferencing, e-mail, phone calls, or social media — is the best place to recapture and practice these aspirations. It is much harder to caricature, insult, and denounce people as evil fools when you are three feet away. But today fewer and fewer of our relationships are face-to-face. 

Is there any hope, then, that we can move forward into genuine pluralism? I don’t know, but I do know what Christians can do. First, Christians can admit their contribution to and responsibility for the current situation. Much of the hostility to religious freedom comes from people with memories of how the churches, when they had more social power, marginalized people who differed with them. We should admit this.  

But secondly, we should follow James K.A. Smith’s proposal in his June 2016, Bavinck Lecture at Kampen titled “Reforming Public Theology.” There he says Christians should consciously seek to form people who are capable of tolerance, humility, and patience through public worship. We should consider how the Christian practice of confession could engender humility. We should remember how praying in worship for our neighbors, even our opponents, in light of the cross and Jesus’ costly forgiveness of us, can create both tolerance and patience. There are also innumerable biblical texts to be preached and studied, from those describing the life of the Jewish exiles in Babylon to the Good Samaritan parable. They all direct Christians to show sacrificial love, not just tolerance, toward those with whom we differ deeply.  

Smith concludes: “Recognizing (and documenting) the way that Christian worship forms citizens for pluralism might be a way to counter the “religion-is-poison” narrative by out-narration, showing that it is in fact Christianity (and perhaps religious communities more broadly) that do the work of forming citizens for common life and the public good.” 

I believe that is exactly right. Could the Christian church become one of or even the main factory where good citizens for a pluralistic society are formed? Yes it could. Who would have thought it? 

 

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The Gospel and Redeemer’s Future

We are in the midst of our Rise Campaign, and the most important part of that effort is to cast a vision for Redeemer’s ministry in the city over the next 10 years, as well as to raise the various resources we will need to accomplish that vision. We want to become a family of close-knit churches who, out of our faith in the gospel, partner with many other churches to exponentially grow the Body of Christ in quality and quantity until our presence makes a welcome and beneficial difference to the life of the entire city. 

This will require the three current Redeemer congregations to become far more “generative” than they have been in the past. We must start more sites and churches, collaborate more closely with other congregations, devote energy and resources to raise up and train more lay leaders, pastors, and ministry staff — than we have ever done before. We also want to root our East side congregation in its neighborhood for generations, acquiring a ministry center to enable them to reach residents and create community in ways that the West side congregation has been able to do through W83. 

This vision, if God blesses it, would allow us to minister to the city in ways we have always dreamed of — but in ways that up to now we have only dreamed of. It’s an enormous vision and a compelling one. But what’s our motivation? Is it simply the kind of bigger-is-better mindset so prevalent today? A franchise empire instead of a mega church one? No. Speaking for myself and for everyone else in Redeemer leadership, I can unequivocally say that is not the reason. 

The reason is, still, always, first and last, the gospel itself. Let’s look at the components of the Redeemer vision that we have been addressing in this Spring’s sermon series.

The first sermon, on Galatians 2, was “The Centrality of the Gospel.” In this passage Paul tells Peter that his racial attitudes were “not in line with the gospel.” This means that the gospel has implications for every area of life. Redeemer’s ministry has always been noted for its “balance” — we call people to be converted but we also care for the poor, whether they believe like we do or not. We affirm the importance of serving God in one’s "secular" vocation, yet we also lift up the importance of the ministry of the Word and the critical necessity of church and Christian community. Many observers have pointed out that most churches do not combine all these emphases. But we believe these are all simply implications of the gospel itself for how we live our lives. They are “in line with the Gospel.”

As in the past, every part of the future vision we are putting forth during this season flows from our faith in the gospel and our hope of seeing its power more realized in our lives and in the city than it has been before. 

Next came the sermons on John 4, “Changed Lives” and “Public Faith.” We believe that the gospel is not merely a set of doctrines to be believed, but a power that changes hearts and lives now. Our aim over the next 10 years is to take both the way we do outreach and evangelism and the way we disciple people for gospel life change to levels we have not reached or even attempted before. We have plans to train lay leaders for spiritual growth and ministry and to train people to be effective witnesses to God’s grace. 

The sermon on Isaiah 58, “Doing Justice and Mercy,” and the sermon on Matthew 5, “A Counter-Culture for the Common Good,” followed. The gospel always turns people into those who care about justice and the poor. We do not simply want to multiply just any kind of church in the city. We want those churches to have hearts and skills to do justice and show compassion to the needy. To that end we will be having Hope For New York consult with our new churches and instill this mindset in the new church planters. 

The sermon on Isaiah 60, “Integrating Faith and Work,” which will be preached this Sunday, reminds us that the gospel has implications for all of life, including our vocation and life in the public square. As part of the RISE vision, we plan to double the number of Gotham fellows annually in each of the three congregations. Faith-work integration will be a central in the training of all these new lay leaders and pastors. 

In the final sermons, on Jeremiah 29 and 1 Peter 2, we will remember that gospel grace comes to us through Jesus’ sacrifice, and therefore we must be a church “not for ourselves” (Romans 15:1-3). We are a church for the city (Jeremiah 29), as part of a movement (1 Peter 2). Unlike past campaigns, this is not about just growing Redeemer but increasing the whole Christian community in center city. Much of the money we raise, the training we give, and the churches we help plant will not be directed to Redeemer’s leaders and churches, but will belong to other congregations in the Body of Christ in the city. To raise money that will flow out to the city like that is unprecedented. But, of course, “in line with the gospel.” 

 

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It’s Time to Rise

This month we enter a season where all of Redeemer will focus on a bold vision that will shape our church and our city for a generation or more. It’s a vision we believe God gave us from the earliest days of Redeemer’s formation, when it seemed to be a great but far-off prospect. Today we are at a wonderful crossroads — we can move toward the actual fulfillment of that calling. 

In 1988 when we began to work towards holding our first service, we asked God not just for one congregation but for a whole movement of churches. At the time less than 1% of the people in center city New York attended what could be called a gospel teaching church — today it’s 5%! Although Redeemer and its partner City to City gave crucial help to many of these new churches, that extraordinary growth can only be attributed to God’s Spirit at work. 

But what if it’s just the beginning? What if, in the next ten years, the number of churches and of people attending those churches tripled, to comprise 15% of center city residents? At that level we could begin to see gospel values — radical generosity, mercy and justice, work as a vocation, racial reconciliation, loving neighbors, and joyful hope — begin to permeate every sector of life here. It would bring positive change not just to individual lives, but could enhance and shape how life is lived in the whole city.

Through the Rise campaign in March and April every Redeemer attendee will be asked to think through how he or she could invest themselves more deeply in the vision God has given us. It entails prayer, and I mean serious prayer. It means being open to being sent out into your neighborhood to reach and serve in new ways. It means giving of your resources.

That’s what Rise is about. It’s about activating everyone in our church community into new areas of service and ministry all across the city. In Isaiah 6:8 we read: Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

Will you take the first step? Rise starts by asking everyone to say: “I’m in.” I’m in to pray, engage, and give as part of a gospel movement for the good of the city and in ways that invest not just my resources, but myself in this movement for our city.

Here’s what we hope to accomplish together: First, we need many new gospel teaching churches rising in neighborhoods without access to the good news all across the city. Church planting is the most strategic way to grow the Body of Christ in our city. 

Second, we need new leaders rising in every sector. Gospel-shaped leaders can serve people at every level of culture, through ministry, the marketplace, arts, medicine, education and every other way that humans serve the common good. I hope many of you will step forward to be trained and sent out. 

Third, we need new buildings rising for all to share. Putting down physical roots in a neighborhood is essential to reach rooted New Yorkers and serve the common good. We have seen how incredible the difference has been for the West Side since opening W83. The building is an asset to the neighborhood; used by schools, community board meetings, film crews, support groups, performing arts, and much more. It greatly enhances the creation of community and friendships among members of the congregation. And we have found it makes us visible and able to reach many New Yorkers with the gospel that were previously inaccessible. 

So how can we do all this? It’s going to take financial resources, yes, but more importantly, people like you. We need YOU to rise. In the past Redeemer has grown by bringing people in, but as we look ahead this movement that God has started will grow by Redeemer sending people out.

There are many ways to get involved and learn more about this vision: attend a Community Group, use the daily Rise devotionals, or sign up to be invited to a Neighborhood Gathering. I hope everyone will take this opportunity to see where God is calling you to Rise and say: “Here am I! Send me!”

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