Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 1:3)
We hear a lot of talk about diversity today. We are a diverse society in the United States, with people from every conceivable ethnic, social, economic, and religious group there is, making us the nation of e pluibus unum, or “from out of many, one.” The same and more can be said of the Church. Not only do we have all the ethnic and socio-economic diversity that exists in our society, we also have enormous diversity in the myriad of churches, congregations, and their various styles of worship. This is not merely a “denominational” thing, for even within the same denominations there is great diversity. Some are more traditional while others are very contemporary. Some are more high church, while others much more “relevant” (to use a hugely over-used word). Worship services themselves may range from being very loud and youth-oriented in style to the very traditional grinding out of hymns from the organ. Some churches have pews and stained glass while others hold services in commercial developments and renovated warehouses.
For the most part, all of these varieties of style and methodology are completely negotiable. Now, you may not hear that being said from many segments of the Church. There are those who feel that to depart from the old hymns of the Church, for example, is nigh unto blasphemy. The hymns of Charles Wesley (brother of John, the great eighteenth-century revivalist) have been staples in the Church for centuries and communicate deep, theological truths. To some, they are simply more “holy” than something put out by Hillsong United, Elevation Church, or Housefires. The irony of this perspective would not have been lost on John or Charles. The sacred lyrics they wrote were put to the tavern tunes of the day to make them readily learnable and relevant to the worshipers. Just imagine Darlene Zchech putting words to something from Lady Gaga and you get the idea.
As far as I’m concerned, the volume of the worship service, the style of music used, or the liturgy of the service are of little consequence, so long as they do justice to the message and the purpose of the meeting. Methods are not sacred. They never have been, and if you don’t like what one church is doing, walk down the street to the next church house and there is a good chance they are doing something entirely different. Again, methods and styles are not sacred. The gospel and God’s objective truth, however, are sacred. Sacred and non-negotiable.
However, this is the question: is our ability to reach our world with the gospel really about mechanics? Is it our style, technology (or lack thereof), or methods that are really at issue when it comes to making an impact on our society? I don’t think so. If, for example, reaching the crowds with the gospel were dependent upon an up-to-date media presentation or lights and smoke during worship, men like the Wesley’s would have been a failure, since no such technology was available to them. George Whitefield is unparalleled in history as an effective evangelist, and yet he was able to command crowds of 30,000 in a single meeting when neither PA systems or electric guitars existed. What about your personal witness at work? Are you rendered ineffective as a witness for Christ because you don’t have the right lighting or “mood” music playing in the background?
Don’t get me wrong. I love all of those things! In fact, much of my ministry today is geared toward using technology to reach as many people as possible. Yea, internet! However, as powerful as these tools are, what makes the gospel truly credible, or “sellable” to use a marketing term, is not the style (modern or antiquated) through which it is communicated. It recently occurred to me that the things that truly create a platform for the Church must be as timeless as the message itself, since they too are true. What are those non-negotiables that must be a part of our lives to enable us to give a credible witness for the gospel. While there may be a number of such necessary qualities, I will major on three that I believe are truly essential.
AUTHENTICITY. To me, this is the number one essential in creating a platform for a credible witness of faith. To be one thing and say something else, or to be a hollow form of the message and be absent the substance, is a fatal flaw that will cost us our witness. It is not just the world that despises a hypocrite. Jesus was not overly fond of hypocrisy when He found it either.
This does NOT mean that we have to be flawless. We simply have to be genuine, which means we are endeavoring to mirror the truth in our lives and are accountable for our missteps when we fail. Authenticity, to me, is number one. God hates pretense. He wants us to worship Him in spirit and in truth, or sincerity (see John 4:24).
DISTINCTION. By this I mean sanctification, or holy living. When the concept of relevance goes too far and costs us our distinction, we’ve lost what it is that makes us a light in the darkness. Someone has well said that the Church has had her greatest impact on the world when she was least like the world. Paul DOES talk about the importance of identifying with and relating to our audience (see 1 Corinthians 9:19-23), but finding a point of connection does not mean conformity or joining in with their way of life. The gospel is not anti-cultural, but it is counter-cultural. The Kingdom of God is a DIFFERENT way, and without our distinction we lose our witness completely. In fact, we become a reproach.
It is a sad thing that today many are emphasizing the message of grace to the exclusion of works in any context. We are justified by grace through faith apart from works, but works are the fruit, or evidence, of our faith. Without works, the evidence is missing. Works are not about being justified before God but about demonstrating the reality of the gospel in our lives to a watching world. Again, without a distinction born out of a sincere devotion to God, we are a cheap replica of the real thing.
THE TRUTH. By this I mean the standard of objective truth, both in our lives and our message. If you haven’t noticed, the world is really, really confused. When a society doesn’t understand that gender is not something you can choose, like the color of the paint on your house, confusion has won the day. More astonishing to me than this is the timidity of our culture in refusing to recognize and speak out on this issue. We have young children in danger of being violated by pedophiles because we won’t put our foot down and demand that men use a man’s restroom. When exactly did the inmates take over the asylum? This is pure madness, but when objective truth has been jettisoned to accommodates mankind’s carnal appetites, the practices of culture will lose touch with reality.
Truth is under assault in the West. In fact, post-truth was named the “word of the year” by Oxford Dictionary in 2016. We have come to the place where truth is considered passé and antiquated. While this concept may be appealing to those wanting to live on their own terms rather than God’s, it simply won’t work. The universe does not realign simply because modern society has decided they don’t like reality that way. In fact, the very definition of truth is “that which corresponds with reality.” So, we have people whose lives are broken because they have a poor relationship with the truth and are out of touch with reality: people whose north star is their feelings rather than God’s objective truth. Why is this so essential? Because repentance proceeds conversion, and if we are not calling sin what it is, there will be nothing to spark conviction in those who hear our message. What many are calling tolerance is a veiled form of indifference and callousness to the lost condition of man. Until we see we’ve fallen short of God’s righteous standard, we will not repent or call upon God for His saving mercies which are available in Christ.
However, preaching the truth is not sufficient alone. We are called by God to model His way of life that the world might see that only the Biblical worldview is both coherent and holds the answers for mankind. Frankly, much of the Church is not ready for the challenge. In fact, I would go so far as to say that much of the church is NOT the Church. In recent times of relative ease, the tares silently grew alongside the wheat. Now that real consecration demands that we take an unpopular stand for truth, we will see (and are already seeing) a major defection from the ranks. Many who professed to be believers are now found to be make-believers, and I expect that in some segments of the Church it will get worse before it gets better. However, I am encouraged because Jesus said that He would build His Church, and THAT Church will not suffer defeat at the hands of the enemy! It will be the testimony of THAT Church that will once again turn the world upside down!
Dr. Randy Bunch is the pastor of West Kern Christian Center, located at 1000 6th Street in Taft, California, as well as a graduate advisor and adjunct professor at Summit Bible College in Bakersfield, California. He is the author of several books, including his new devotional, Immutable: Changeless Truth for a Changing World. For more information, or to purchase your copy, go to randylanebunch.org. For more information on the ministries of WKCC, you can go the ministry’s website at wkcconnect.org.