New Testament culture

Recently I attended a conference where an old-fashioned camp meeting-style preacher brought the keynote sermon. He rattled the rafters with his raised voice. There was no question about his commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture, his sincerity in seeking to bring people to Jesus or his ability to communicate an expositional message. I must admit I enjoyed his message and reminisced about some of the good ole’ days.

On the way to the conference, I read a book about church planting that calls for contextualized missions. I am a firm believer in contexualized missions. In recent years my mind has been stretched a little to use terms like “missional” and “incarnational” but those are good terms, if they mean what I think they mean. We must reach people where they are and seek to bring them to a love relationship with Jesus that results in eternal life. With our postmodern culture, Christianity has become less “come and see” and more “go and live.” Some are saying that the culture is now beyond postmodern. There are calls for radical restructuring of our forms and ministries in the church.

These two experiences converged on me as a clash within our Baptist work. One example was when the preacher said, “God called me to preach. Not to sit on a stool in flip-flops and give a talk.” Ten years ago I might have amen-ed him; instead I cringed. It wasn’t long ago I visited a church where the guy sat on a stool in hip attire. I must admit he did modulate his voice so it was more than a talk. He gave a faithful exposition of the Word of God. His church is ministering to 20-somethings that the camp-meeting preacher probably would never reach.

Which approach is right? They both are. Obviously, the unfortunate criticism by the camp-meeting preacher was out of line. Sometimes the unkind remarks come from the other direction. It is time for us to realize that contexualized missions means reaching people in their culture to bring them to a New Testament culture. Perhaps the real debate is what is a New Testament culture?

“I have become all things to all men that I might by all means save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22, NKJV) Does this mean I have to mutilate myself, wear make-up and girl clothes in order to witness to the “emo” crowd? Where does “identifying” end and immersion with the culture begin?

New Testament culture ought to be a spiritual journey. We are being conformed to the image of Jesus. When we meet people where they are we should not leave them there. We should seek to help new Christians transition to a positive lifestyle. It does not mean they have to wear a suit and tie to worship, but it does mean that lifestyle choices ought to be based on Scripture.

If we are too specific about a certain code of conduct it could become legalism. Even a simple little test I used 30 years ago about activities seems restrictive.

The Five Point Test of Spiritual Conduct.

1. What kind of company do I keep? (1 Corinthians 15:33)

2. What type of environment am I in? (1 Thessalonians 5:22)

3. Will it bring more glory to God if I engage in it? (1 Corinthians 10:31)

4. Could it have power over me? (1 Corinthians 6:12)

5. Can I cause others to stumble by my involvement? (Romans 14:21)

Perhaps this is a separatist position. Pulling away from the culture causes us to lose some ability to witness effectively. Immersing ourselves in the culture causes us to lose our witness altogether, though. There are no hard-and-fast answers. On a personal level we need to be as non-controversial as possible. When we share Jesus, it ought to be Jesus first, Jesus only and Jesus always. Lost people need to hear about Jesus. On a congregational level we need to teach Jesus first, but also follow what Paul said about “declaring the whole counsel of God.” New Testament culture runs contrary to 21st-century American culture. This is true whether we are snuff-dipping Cowboy Church members or too cool metrosexuals in the Happening Church.

When it comes to living holy and believing rightly, there are plenty of warnings about identifying with the world, John 17: 15, 16; 1 John 2:15. I am going to err on the side of caution. It has everything to do with a New Testament culture. We are to help people move from being “worldly” to being spiritual.

Executive Director Emeritus
Jim Richards
Southern Baptists of Texas Convention

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