Seven Habits of Highly Effective Churches, #4

Responds to Its Time and Place

August 3, 1997

In her newspaper cartoon space, Nancy was jumping rope in rhythm to this: "One, two, Velcro my shoe; three four, automatic door; five, six, computer chip." Her playmate interrupted her and said, "Nancy, thatís not the way the rhyme goes." "I know," she said, "but these things have to be updated from time to time."

Many churches in America are either dead or dying because they donít know what Nancy knows. They either arenít aware that we have undergone radical change in the United States that is only now picking up a full head of steam or want to pretend they arenít affected by them. The changes in my parentsí lifetimes from simple Model-T carburetors to computerized fuel-injection systems or from crude medical treatment without antibiotics to organ-replacement surgeries will seem incredibly slow when compared to what is ahead for us in the next ten years.

Many churches appear to have slept through the changes of the twentieth century. For those Rip Van Winkle churches, there may not be a twenty-first century. The hair is getting grayer in those churches, the numbers are getting smaller, and the future is non-existent. Christís church will survive, but many local congregations and some whole denominations will not.

Some church leaders are less like Nancy than Calvin. Do you remember the "Calvin and Hobbs" strip? It was my wifeís favorite. It usually consisted of conversations between a little boy named Calvin and his stuffed tiger, Hobbs. As they were barreling down a hill in one frame, Calvin told his imaginary playmate, "Nothing is permanent. Everything changes. That the one thing we know for sure in this world." Then, with their backs to us in the second frame, he continued, "But Iím still going to gripe about it."

The church that survives, thrives, and changes lives will be the church that knows how to respond to its time and place. It will understand its culture and respond appropriately to it. It will not adopt its culture, but it will comprehend it and engage it. It will not conform to its culture, but it will enable its members to respond to it with the compassionate heart and perceptive mind of Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 9:19-22

A plausible case could be made for the following thesis: To the degree that Christians allow ourselves to be out of touch with the books, magazines, movies, music, videos, Internet, and other media of our time, we are either too timid with the gospel (i.e., afraid it cannot withstand and answer the spirit of our age) or blatantly unfaithful with it (i.e., unaware of the issues that must be confronted by the message of Jesus Christ). Perhaps the truth is not so severe, however, and we have just thoughtlessly cocooned ourselves from the world to the degree that we have assumed that the old methods of communicating the gospel are sufficient for this time and place.

Whether the true analysis is positively sinister or carelessly naive, we have to wake up quickly to the biblical mandate about engaging our world. God did not tell us to build edifices and wait for lost people to come to us. He told us to figure out ways and means of going to the lost in order to establish credibility, teach the gospel, and offer them the opportunity of eternal life.

The clearest place in Scripture where this mandate is articulated is in the writings of Paul. He is a living model of the process in which we must be engaged.

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from Godís law but am under Christís law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings (1 Cor. 9:19-23).

Paul never compromised or watered down the demands of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet this text makes it clear that he was committed to the removal of every unnecessary obstacle to its communication. And he saw his most likely "unnecessary obstacle" as himself. He was bright enough to know that his tendency would be to so insulate himself from cultures that were foreign to him that he would be completely ineffective in breaking through to them with the gospel.

I remember some horrible days from my past life when I was involved in what we called "outreach" with the gospel. It really wasnít, Iíve since decided. We were attempting to offer an out-of-touch church to a world we knew nothing about and whose needs we didnít understand. It made us feel good that we had gone on those mugging missions into enemy territory, done our duty to the Lord, and won (we were convinced) every argument we had had with the people we encountered.

I call those events "horrible days" because of my motive. I was attempting to acquit my own conscience more than honor Christ or save the lost. Know why Iím reasonably sure of that? There was no greater relief for me on those door-to-door crusades than for nobody to be home.

I call them "horrible days" because of my message. I didnít know how to offer people the gospel, so I offered them the church. But I knew full well that the church I was offering them was one where they would not be comfortable, were unlikely to be accepted very warmly, and would likely be confused by much of what happened. For example, I once invited a lady to attend our church and ó to my surprise ó she did. For her trouble, she was asked not to come back dressed in slacks as opposed to a skirt. Needless to say, she didnít.

I call them "horrible days" because of my manner. I didnít have a clue as to what I should do when I met a "prospect" in those days. I assumed he knew the content of the Bible and wanted to debate the meaning of certain critical passages on the fate of the heathen, the nature of baptism, or the correct name of the church. It always startled me that we couldnít get those conversations going naturally and easily, for I had been trained how to bring them to their knees on those issues.

Those really were horrible days, for I was messing things up at every turn. I didnít know what I was doing and wound up doing more harm than good. I wish someone had taught me the things Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9.

A Time to Be Like Other People

First, Paul wanted people to know Christ so badly that he took the initiative to know and be like others as much as possible. He didnít set up shop and wait for them to come to him. He went where they were and talked to them in language they could understand. "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some," he said. Just what does that mean?

Paul was Jewish by birth but cosmopolitan in lifestyle by virtue of education and travel. As he moved freely in the Mediterranean world and contacted Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, he respected and acknowledged everything he encountered that was either holy or redeemable to the Lord. Things that might not have been to his taste or liking, he nevertheless affirmed for the sake of having something in common with them in order to reach them with the gospel.

What practical forms might this have taken for Paul? I suspect he went to barbecue socials with Gentiles, though he had been trained to be kosher all his life. And I know he worshiped with and even participated in ritual purifications with Jews long after he had left all that personally (Phil. 3:4b-9; cf. Acts 21:20-26).

The same principle could lead some of us to be a bit less inflexible with some of our unbelieving friends. We may have left behind some things from our pre-Christian life that we now even despise. But before we treat with contempt people who still dress, talk, or act as we did before we knew Christ, we should be careful lest we abandon the principle Paul has set forth here.

Some of you are particularly sensitive, for example, about the music of our time that you feel degrades people and sounds an anti-Christian note. So you arenít into music. You reject the cheatiní, drinkiní, and fooliní around that you hear glamorized in country music, so you donít like country music. Youíve heard some of the lyrics of Marilyn Mansonís songs and read about the bizarre antics at his concerts, so you donít like rock music either. You agree with Jesse Jacksonís attack on Ice-T and the Geto Boys, so you disapprove of rap music.

But, hold on before you go too far. Is the only type of music we can smile to know about or hear the songs we sing at church? I donít think Paul would say that. He would appreciate the spiritual integrity of Marty Rowe in country music. He would applaud the success of Amy Grant and be sympathetic to her because of the jabs sometimes directed toward her Christian beliefs. From the impact theyíve had on some Christian teens I know, I think he would be grateful for DC Talk.

What if we could create a venue on our property for people who appreciate and perform these styles of music? Iíd say, "Hurray!" Paul would say, "Yes!" Itís a way for us to become all things to all people in order to save some. Nothing more. Nothing less. And weíre going to do it here, God being our helper. No, it wonít be in our worship services! But we are exploring the creation of a time and place for music that can range from blue grass to rap, from rock to contemporary Christian in an environment that is wholesome for anyone who wants to participate.

It can be a point of contact with our culture. It will be part of our commitment to obey the biblical commandment to become all things to all people. It will be a point of contact with some who do not know Christ in order to share the Good News with them.

A Time to Be Different from Others

Second, Paul knew where to draw the line and would do so when necessary. Pay particular attention now to verse 21: "To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from Godís law but am under Christís law), so as to win those not having the law."

Granting that he moved among and lived like "those not having the law," Paul always knew that he was "under Christís law." That is, although the Apostle to the Gentiles made every contact possible with people who didnít know the content of biblical revelation and adapted his life to theirs, there were limits beyond which he would not go. His first loyalty was always to Christ, and he never forgot that he was "not free from Godís law." What were some of the things he found among the Gentiles that Paul could not embrace? Here is a partial list he gave to a Gentile church: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, greed, anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language, and lying (Col. 3:5-9).

Some believers let their backgrounds, tastes, and personal experiences keep them from going far enough ó far enough to reach the lost on their own turf. But the danger of going too far is also real ó so far that oneís commitment to Christ is compromised. The challenge is to be relevant without being unfaithful, germane without becoming untrue.

I have a missionary friend who has worked in a country on another continent for more than ten years. He has begun a ministry among the prostitutes of its capital city. Here is an excerpt from an e-mail he sent me a while back:

I have been called more to the urban pagan in my ministry here. I have become the "pastor" of several bars. I'm overwhelmed by the pain and the hurt in the world and how much these people bear without a Savior. But what frustrates me the most is the lack of preparation in my training for anything like this and the impotency of the church to minister to their needs. I can't even find one piece of literature that makes sense to these people. Most of what is written in Christendom is for ourselves in our language and does not make any sense to the urban pagan. I would like to talk with you about that. I'm making a list of their concerns.

We also have got to re-tool our churches to accept the lost and minister to their needs. As a missionary I am devastated that I have planted a church that likes to "do church" and behave like they think a church should behave ó in essence act holy and hypocritical in such a way that the lost are repulsed. We're now working on that problem here. We are really trying to be a church of open arms that welcomes all people to the Lord. But that wall of insulation does not come down easily.

His problem in a far-away place is the same problem I face in Nashville. There are some situations with which we cannot make peace, and neither of us has ever had a conversation with a prostitute that was unholy. Neither of us has any use for a prostituteís "services." But we do have places in our hearts for prostitutes. They are people God loves and for whom Christ died. And we want to grow churches that can receive prostitutes into the kingdom of God.

We are not talking about "walking a fine line" here. We are talking instead about learning to do what we have not been taught to do. We are talking about overcoming the barriers of our ignorance and limited experience in order to deal with people the way Jesus dealt with people. Perhaps the only way for either of us or our churches to learn to deal with prostitutes is for us to walk the same road we walked earlier with homosexuals.

A mutual friend introduced me to Don Dobbins. Don had graduated from the same Christian college I attended and had worked in full-time ministry for eight years. When I first met him in 1992, he had AIDS. When he trusted the Family of God at Woodmont Hills enough to share the pulpit with me on March 28, 1993, he told his story and waited nervously to see how he would be treated. For more than half an hour after the service ended, people stood in long lines down two aisles to greet him, hug him, and shed tears with him. Out of that single experience came not only a ministry to people with HIV-infection and AIDS but an awareness to people in the larger community that a church can indeed love, receive, and nurture homosexuals coming to terms with the claims of God on their lives without being self-righteous.

It must be possible to become all things to all men without compromising the faith. Otherwise God would not hold out that ideal to us. But how deliberately are we moving toward that goal?


The church exists in visible, incarnational form to exhibit Godís glory, power, and righteousness to the world and to reach beyond itself to carry the knowledge of salvation to people facing eternity without Christ. This doesnít change. But the means and methods by which we accomplish that goal have changed repeatedly and drastically. They continue to change before our very eyes.

In todayís postmodern world, our best hope at apologetics is a practical demonstration of the difference Christianity makes to those who embrace it. That means that we must become all things to all people for the sake of saving some. Our timidity in heeding this biblical mandate will continue to keep us from faithfulness to our God. It will also continue to deprive those who could be brought to faith from their opportunity to know Christ.

Our most effective form of outreach for the coming century will not be VBS and a gospel meeting every summer but a systematic plan of compassionate outreach that lets people experience the love of God at our hands and opens their hearts to our telling of the gospel story.

Itís time for us to get past griping about the change that has gone on in our world while we slept and to begin addressing it in the mighty power of Jesus Christ.

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