The USA Today section of my Lansing State Journal has an article in it with the startling title “Multitasking teens pick texting over sleeping.” The article goes on to say how teens spend around 9 hours a day on “entertainment media” which includes social media, music, gaming or online videos, (i.e. time on their smart phones) which is more time than they spend sleeping.
What struck me most about this is the power of culture to mold us and shape us. Every generation has their “When I was your age…” story, to which the younger generation always rolls their eyes. These stories are in response to how culture has molded and shaped the next generation in a way very different, and typically seen negatively, than the older generation experienced.
The more I think about what “culture” actually is, the more I am seeing it as a slave owner. Pretty much anything culture tells us to do, we do. In America, being a Christian typically just means taking a normal-looking cultural life and tacking Jesus on to the end of it. Talking to a Hindu about Jesus is interesting because they worship a million gods and have no problem adding Jesus to this group. It can often feel the same way with American Christians, myself included. Our gods are just must more amorphous.
I just started reading The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen and can already tell it will be a book that changes my life. In it he explores the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the 4th and 5th century men and women who fled to the Egyptian desert to live in solitude with the Lord rather than drown in the “shipwreck” that they saw society as.
I’m not planning to move to the Egyptian desert (yet), but some of the things in the first few pages of the book have really resonated with me, particularly on how frenetically busy our society is. (Also recognizing this was written in 1981, if it was bad then, think how bad it is now!)
“Just look for a moment at our daily routine. In general we are very busy people. We have many meetings to attend, many visits to make, many services to lead. Our calendars are filled with appointments, our days and weeks filled with engagements, and our years filled with plans and projects…We simply go along with the many “musts” and “oughts” that have been handed on to us, and we live with them as if they were authentic translations of the Gospel of our Lord…All this is simply to suggest how horrendously secular our ministerial lives tend to be…Our identity, our sense of self, is at stake.” (pages 21-22)
Here’s what’s hitting me so strong about all of this: the #1 reason people reject Jesus is because of their culture.
I’ve written at length about how most Muslims are cultural Muslims. They don’t believe in the Qur’an, don’t read it, and really don’t even know what’s in it. But they would not accept Jesus even if they were very compelled to because of the incredibly strong pull of their culture: their family has always been Muslim, their wedding and holiday traditions are Muslims, their very identity is in being Muslim, and often their entire economy is based around being Muslim.
I’ve been reading Isaiah and was struck by Isaiah 45, which is referencing King Cyrus, the Persian king who conquered the Babylonians. The Babylonians were the ones who were holding the Jews in exile; after taking out the Babylonians, Cyrus is the one who allows the Jews to return from Babylon to Israel. This is a powerful text of God not only using Cyrus in a mighty way, but revealing his supernatural nature to him in an obvious and personal way. But what seems to be a typo in verses 4 and 5 is that Cyrus is not a follower of God:
Isaiah 45:1 “This is what the LORD says to his anointed,
to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of
to subdue nations before him
and to strip kings of their armor,
to open doors before him
so that gates will not be shut:
2 I will go before you
and will level the mountains;
I will break down gates of bronze
and cut through bars of iron.
3 I will give you hidden treasures,
riches stored in secret places,
so that you may know that I am the LORD,
the God of Israel, who summons you by name.
4 For the sake of Jacob my servant,
of Israel my chosen,
I summon you by name
and bestow on you a title of honor,
though you do not acknowledge me.
5 I am the LORD, and there is no other;
apart from me there is no God.
I will strengthen you,
though you have not acknowledged me,
6 so that from the rising of the sun
to the place of its setting
people may know there is none besides me.
I am the LORD, and there is no other.
I read this and it hits me, why doesn’t Cyrus acknowledge God after God revealed himself to him in such a personal and powerful way? The answer is: because of his culture. Because he was Persian, not Jewish. He grew up Persian with Persian gods and Persian holidays and a Persian family with a Persian economy.
It’s the same reason the Old Testament Israelites always, and I mean always, went back to worshiping Baal. It was popular. It was accepted. It was culture. It was cool.
Fast forward to the New Testament and the 1st century Church, the very first followers of Jesus. We know that these early Christians had to trade in everything to become a follower of Jesus. Jesus warns of this very thing in Matthew 10:
Matthew 10:32-39 “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.
Matt. 10:34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn
“ ‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
Matt. 10:37 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.
Jesus was simply telling it like it was. The sword he was bringing wasn’t on the attacking end, it was on the receiving end. He was preparing his potential followers for what they would face (the literal sword for many martyrs) and to “measure the cost” (Luke 14:28-33) before making the decision if they believed he was God in the flesh and the Savior of the world, or not.
The cost they were to measure was if they would give up their culture or not, in exchange for Jesus. It wasn’t that Jesus required them to give up their culture, like the old fundamentalist who burns cassette tapes of rock music and smashes in TV screens. He wasn’t telling people to go and divorce their families once they chose Jesus. He was telling them that the culture that they knew would reject them once they chose Jesus. Obviously this would only happen if they truly, 100% accepted Jesus. They weren’t adding him to their existing million gods; it’s unlikely culture would would even pause to notice that. Acceptance of Jesus meant living in such a way, and believing such things, that everything and everyone they previously knew would reject them due to contrast Jesus was to their cultural norms.
Jesus was quite possibly the most uncool person to ever live.
This was pre-built in to a Roman and Jewish world. It was automatic.
Nouwen points out that what the Desert Fathers and Mothers discovered in the 4th and 5th centuries was that culture had shifted dramatically. Christianity was now the legal religion of the land. Persecution didn’t exist anymore. As a result, there was no longer an automatic, built-in, clean break from idolatry and Christianity. Instead of measuring the cost, you simply went with the flow.
Cultural idolatry consumed Christianity, blending together a milkshake of sin and Jesus with no chance of dividing the two.
I’ve always understood and taught that Christians are to transform culture. We are to be engaged in culture, have no division of secular vs. sacred art, affirm God’s hand in culture, and draw people to Jesus by our interaction with them in cultural spheres.
Some of these things still hold true and I have more reading to do before I draw any definitive solutions, but here’s a splash of cold water to the face that God just threw at me: transforming culture isn’t working. Christians aren’t the ones doing the transforming, we are the ones being transformed, shaped, molded, and conformed to the sinful world around us. And it’s not just that we are losing the battle, we’ve actually embraced our “We are transforming culture” (i.e. “We are so cool, don’t you want to be cool like us?”) mantra as justification to live in blatant cultural idolatry. We are reaching people for Jesus by using our idolatry, what a great set up! Who says you can’t have your cake and eat it too?
Romans 12:2 begins with, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world…” How many Christians can truly say their lives have not conformed to the pattern of our world?
Patterns that didn’t even exist in cultures previous to us, but we swear by as dogma.
Conformed to the pattern of materialism.
To the pattern that bigger is always better: bigger TV screens, bigger houses, bigger better bolder faster cars, bigger yachts, bigger bank accounts.
More activities. More comfort. More luxury. More technology. More convenience. More money. More productivity.
The pattern that we are to never stop working.
The pattern that technology and entertainment will salve our wounds.
The stress and craziness and hecticness and franticness that almost every single one of us lives under comes from the slavery we submit to from our culture telling us what to value and prioritize and how to revolve our entire lives around that. Slavery that tells us these are the places we will find satisfaction and peace and joy and security and value so go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go go. Even though none of us feel satisfied or joyful or peaceful or secure or valued.
But if we all keep yelling “Chug! Chug! Chug!” and turn the music up even louder, maybe we’ll find what we’re looking for? I haven’t but everyone else sure seems like they have, so I better just play along.
We are such fools.
I am such a fool.
And frankly, I’m tired.
I’m beyond tired.
I’m tired of church and church planting strategies that revolve completely around being cool. Looking cool, dressing cool, having cool music, cool preaching, and a cool vibe. Because we hope that if people like us, they will like Jesus.
Or is it because we are so insecure we can’t stand the thought of someone not liking us?
They can then like Jesus and not have to change anything about their lives, because the utmost goal is being cool, not being like Jesus–which is a very effective way of getting people to like Jesus and join our church.
I’m tired of racist churches staying racist because this is the way to reach racist people in our culture.
I’m tired of greedy churches staying greedy because this is the way to reach greedy people in our culture.
I’m tired of idolatrous churches staying idolatrous because this is the way to reach idolatrous people in our culture.
I’m tired of the “gospel” of Jesus being divorced from the message of Jesus. A “gospel” that says ask Jesus to forgive you of your sins and you’ll go to heaven and now you can live however you want. Oh and try to be nice. And if you send your kids to our children’s ministry, we will teach them how to behave.
A “gospel” that completely ignores the radical, counter-cultural, uncool, sacrificial teachings of Jesus. A “gospel” that completely ignores the Great Commission’s command to “teach them everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:20)
I’m tired of working like a rented mule because it’s all I’ve ever known and it’s the armor I wear every day to protect myself. I’m tired of working like a rented mule because if I stop to rest and enjoy God’s presence, all of the other rented mules around me will judge me.
So we chug along. “Chug! Chug! Chug!”
So if it requires me moving to the Egyptian deserts, it would be worth it.
In the meantime, I plan to allow God to continue to radically speak to me and I plan to radically listen.
But I am done trying to be cool.
I am done doing things because culture tells me to.
I’m done trying to make Jesus cool.
Jesus is not cool. He never has been cool. He never will be cool.
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