Get Out of the Christian Ghetto
It can be tempting to fill the week with church activities and avoid any influences from the world. But this causes a problem when it comes to evangelism.
Is your preaching and teaching ministry doing enough to prepare your church for the task of evangelism? In this series, Andy Paterson offers biblical encouragement that every Christian has a role to play, free from false guilt.
This is part 10 in the series.
My parents were some of the greatest and godliest people I have known. It was an immense privilege growing up in that Christian home. But there were some rules, designed (or at least that’s how it seemed to me) to keep us hermetically sealed off from “the world” and the “contamination” that could bring.
We didn’t play cards, go to the cinema, visit the theatre, play outside on a Sunday, dance, eat at restaurants or drink alcohol. I did however attend five church services on a Sunday wearing my ‘Sunday best’. Music was okay, as long as it was pre-1950. We were about the last family in the district to get a stereo record player, and then the only records we borrowed from the library were from the classical music section.
And as my sense of puzzlement and rebellion grew, along with my hair, I remember buying my first-ever album, the prog-rockers, Emerson Lake and Palmer with their Pictures at an Exhibition, and explaining to my mother that it was based on Mussorgsky's wonderful classical suite. Although I don't think my dad ever worked out how Nut Rocker (the final track) fitted into that musical genre.
Sport was all right. In fact, it was positively encouraged. But I remember when the coach carrying the school team stopped at a pub, I saw it as my Christian duty to stay in the coach and not venture into such a worldly domain.
I understand now, looking back, why we were raised in such a fashion and the love and care that went into these ‘regulations’. But its effect was to build into my psyche a suspicion of anything ‘worldly’. There was a distinction that needed to be retained. We weren’t of the world: we needed to remain apart and separate.
It seems to be this very division that Paul is at pains to counter when he writes to the church in Corinth.
“Not at all”
It seems that some believers misunderstood what he had written in an earlier letter when he was giving instructions about church discipline, as it would appear he had counselled them not to associate with a sexually immoral church member.
“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-10)
And Paul’s expression – “not at all” – carries with it a sense of astonishment that the Christians in Corinth should ever think of withdrawing from social contact with outsiders. In fact, the implication is that Paul expected them to maintain such associations.
This is borne out in later passages from 1 Corinthians where Paul talks to them about using social meals that they would have attended:
“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God – even as I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1)
That example of Christ had horrified the religious leaders of the day: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them”. In his gospel, Luke records so many meals at which Jesus is present that Robert Karris states: “In Luke’s gospel Jesus is either going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal.”1
Meals were the natural means for social interaction, and Paul wanted the Corinthian believers to use those opportunities wisely. Some of these meals were primarily religious, and their close connection to idolatrous practices meant he issued words of warning (1 Corinthians 10:14-22), but with other meals in Corinth Paul hoped that the believers would intentionally engage with their pagan neighbours, in the hope that their distinctive and godly lifestyle would win them a hearing (1 Corinthians 8, 10:27-11:1).
The ‘contamination’ that Paul encouraged was not that of ‘the world’ infecting holy living, but rather the loving integrity of the Christian community challenging pagan suppositions.
Where to witness?
For some of us today this interaction can indeed be over a meal, wherein in a relaxed context we are able to share our lives as well as our food. But let’s not forget that dining rooms and dining tables are the preserve of only certain sections of society. Many would feel deeply uncomfortable to come to a meal and talk around a table when their own background is that of eating food in front of a television and certainly not having a conversation in the process.
We need to be sensitive to our contexts and discover natural ways to interact with our neighbourhood. It may be the local pub or club; it may mean getting involved in community issues or sporting clubs; it might be a reading group or with an am-dram society. Whatever it is, there are many good and legitimate ways we can naturally interact with others and celebrate with them God’s common grace (although they may not initially see it in that way!)
The danger is that we can fall into the Christian ghetto mentality. We prefer our own less challenging and ‘uncontaminated’ Christian space. We look to our own comforts. We fill our week with Christian meeting after Christian meeting. We take a perverse pride that we are so busy in the Lord’s work. We manage to live life in the bubble and avoid any of the messy realities that come with a sin-stained world.
I still remember the moment. It burnt into my pastor’s conscience like hydrofluoric acid. We’d hired a boat in the city centre and engaged a winsome evangelist to speak. But as the day drew nearer the tickets weren’t being taken up and we had to cancel. Why?
I launched an investigation and the answer came back: “we don’t have unbelieving friends”.
We had great training programmes; our small groups were running well and a variety of committees kept the church operating efficiently. In fact, I almost felt guilty as a pastor if we hadn’t laid on one activity or another throughout the week. But many of the church members had no meaningful contact with unsaved people. We’d built the ghetto without realising.
And so began the process of re-shaping church life so that it no longer revolved around us – the Christians – but around our friends, neighbours and colleagues who were being robbed of life without Christ. We cleared days in the week when no meetings were to be held; set them aside for meeting others. We re-focused our attention on those outside the Christian community, not those within. We ran fewer big, set-piece events, and encouraged more one-to-one relationship building.
Get out of church
May I ask how you’re doing in this area?
If I asked you to list half a dozen unchurched friends, could you? And what about community activities? Where are you meeting others outside of your church life?
The lie many of us have fallen into is that evangelism is done in a church building by professional staff. Whereas repeated statistical evidence reveals that the overwhelming majority of people who come to faith from outside a Christian family do so not as a result of a church meeting, but because of getting to know a real Christian.
It’s time we learnt this lesson - it’s biblical after all!
1 Eating Your Way Through Luke's Gospel (2006), Robert J. Karris
Next time: being deliciously distinctive.