In terms of Christian engagement with secular culture, the media commonly portrays one example – the extreme adversarial approach, which we see modelled in Israel Folau’s example and, up until recently, by Destiny Church (at least as it's portrayed in the media).
The media laps these examples up as they play right into their need for sensationalism. But is it really the way of the kingdom? Let’s have a look. First, a couple of key principles.
You create what you embody
Robert Fritz, an American author who is famous for his work on creativity makes this confronting comment: “Those who ‘fight for peace’ do not embody peace, but rather embody fighting. Those who worry about their health do not embody health, but rather fear. Those who lust for power and affluence embody neither.”
In short, “what you embody tends to be created.”
As disciples of Jesus we are to embody love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). If you find yourself tempted to adopt an adversarial stance towards the world around you, a good first step is to pause a moment and question whose character you are beginning to embody.
The difference between force and power
Another big idea here is this: there is a difference between force and power. When you have real power you do not need to use force.
As Margaret Thatcher once said, “Being powerful is like being a lady – if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”
It seems to me that so much of our engagement with the world is extremely forceful but, ironically, seldom powerful. We see this with Folau’s blogs and the surrounding commentary – as well as much of the response from New Zealand churches following the nation’s outpouring of sympathy for our Muslim neighbours.
Full of force but without transforming power. That is not the way of Christ and it would be abhorrent to the early church.
The power of patience
When I was in Singapore last year, Gerald Chester recommended Alan Kreider’s book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire. It’s quite a read with a couple of core ideas that relate to this theme.
Kreider writes, “sources rarely indicate that the early Christians grew in number because they won arguments; instead they grew because their habitual behaviour (rooted in patience) was distinctive and intriguing. God does not compel belief, but by his patience he hopes to draw [people] to himself.”
What does this mean for our evangelism and for our attempt to follow Paul’s instruction to ‘demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God’? And how do we do so in a way that embodies love not hate, peace not war?
Kreider argues that a Christian’s lifestyle should be rooted in hope and our motivation must be out of love not fear. So much of what we see of the church’s engagement with the world seems to be reactions of our fear – we despair of what might come should the opposing agendas gain an upper hand and we react with great force rather than patiently waiting for God to show us how he wants to draw others.
We are too susceptible to fear and impatience. Impatience reveals an underlying hopelessness. Kreider summarises, “The Christians’ lifestyle is rooted in hope. In contrast, impatience is hopeless.”
Our chief pursuit should be knowing Christ and being transformed into His character
Kreider highlights the early church’s emphasis on pursuing Christ’s character above all else – it was their transformation into his likeness, not their beliefs, their dogma or their creeds that gave them power.
Kreider explains, “It didn’t take people out of the world. It formed people who made a difference in the world, including the business world, and they attracted people to the faith because their patience made them different enough to be intriguing, and because they held out hope. The church’s growth was the product, not of the Christians’ persuasive powers, but of their convincing lifestyle.”
The witness of peace
So how do we engage the culture around us? Ultimately through a lifestyle that embodies the infinitely powerful character of Christ.
This should lead us way beyond whining in the media and on our facebook pages. We’ve become so conformed to our own culture that we unwittingly limit ourselves to using its toolkit in our exchanges with them, when we have a much more powerful arsenal at our disposal.
The majority of our warfare should be through prayer. Our engagement with others should be ruled by love – patiently enduring and waiting for opportunities to intervene when they recognise something different about us and invite us into their pain. You see Jesus doing this over and over again in the Gospels.
I’ve had the privilege of being asked to explain my relationship with God by bosses and colleagues, hoodlums and dealers, so-called white-witches and my heavily tattooed, buffed-up brothers in the world of fighting sports. Those opportunities came about not because of clever arguments but because they saw a dimension of peace in me and felt loved enough to take the risk of inviting me into their needs. 1 Peter 3:15 tells us to expect these conversations and have an answer ready when people ask us for the reason for the hope we have – but also urges us to do so with gentleness and respect.
What about the prophetic call to change?
One last thing to cover off – what about confronting our authorities and seeking to influence righteous decision-making?
The prophets of old certainly confronted the kings and rulers of their day – but it appears they did so face-to-face. It was in person, in relationship, not through a publicity campaign or series of social media broadcasts.
The greatest examples we have in scripture of influencing the policy of their nation are Daniel, Joseph, Moses, Esther and David. Yet in every case, God sent them out to serve not to rule. He typically gave them an extremely humble entry point, from which their difference in character was noticed by those in power and, gaining their trust, they were able to act as advisors to those who rule.
There isn’t a single exception to this pattern in scripture. Christ himself follows the same template. We should expect to do so too.
Manners, and character, opens doors
I was recently invited to help co-ordinate a policy paper with an organisation that contributes to Pacific Health and Education. The paper is designed to highlight the desperate need for tailored services for our Pacific peoples and help influence the Ministry of Health’s approach to these issues. I didn’t write the paper, I just co-ordinated the process with the researchers and academics and then managed the layout and final presentation. It’s a powerful document that, if listened to, could really improve the health experience of Pacific families, especially in the South Auckland region.
What’s fascinating about this is the reason I got the opportunity to be involved is because the business manager for the think tank used to be a personal assistant to a manager in an organization I was employed in 8 years ago. When they needed some help with media and communication (my field), she remembered that when she was in a junior role, there was this comms guy who treated her like someone important, not an invisible servant. That’s the guy they should ask to give them a hand.
So many of you do the same and create more impact than you probably realise just by virtue of your natural humility, kindness and manners - but we don't often pause to see the principles behind those moments and how they actually glorify our King.
We gain influence through character not force.
Find ways to share your character with the world.