The Mission of the Church
The church is called to engage the world for Christ. Jesus commanded us to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; . . .”
Many churches and Christian organizations are doing a wonderful job in fulfilling this call. However, it appears that the majority of the church has responded in one of two ways. First, some churches have chosen to retreat from the world by secluding themselves in their own isolated communities. We see huddles of Christian communities with their own sports leagues, schools, clubs, etc. There is nothing wrong with Christian programs, but if it is created with an isolationist mentality, we create a church that is withdrawn, irrelevant, and unable to relate to the unbelieving world.
I saw a display of this at a funeral once. As an invited guest not knowing anyone, I sat with the non-believers in the audience and observed how the Christians at the funeral interacted with the non-believers. The pastor preached a message using terminology foreign to the non-Christian. After the funeral, at the lunch reception, I saw the Christians huddled together speaking “Christianese,” — a language that sounded totally foreign. What a wasted opportunity! This moment was a small display of the danger that isolating ourselves from the world creates: Christians unable or unwilling to reach the lost world.
Another response is that instead of transforming the world, many churches have been transformed by the world. The popular thinking of the culture has dismantled the foundational truths upon which the church once stood. Major denominations are now in a battle or have given up their position on key tenets regarding truth, moral absolutes, and religious truth.
The result of these two responses has been devastating. George Barna writes,
“[A]s we prepare to enter into a new century of ministry, we must address one inescapable conclusion: despite the activity and chutzpah emanating from thousands of congregations, the Church in America is losing influence and adherents faster than any other major institution in the nation.”1
Charles Colson writes,
“We live in a culture that is at best morally indifferent. A culture in which Judeo-Christian values are mocked and where immorality in high places is not only ignored but even rewarded in the voting booth. A culture in which violence, banality, meanness, and disintegrating personal behavior are destroying civility and endangering the very life of our communities. . . . Small wonder that many people have concluded that the ‘Culture war’ is over and we (the church) have lost.” 2
Let us study some of the key issues facing the church in the 21st century and see how they have affected our witness. And let’s see if we are indeed ready to engage our world.
The Church and Truth
Our current, postmodern culture adheres to the position that universal objective truth does not exist. Truth is relative to each individual and to each culture. Jim Leffel summarizes postmodern relativism this way,
Relativism says the truth isn’t fixed by outside reality, but is decided by a group or individual for themselves. Truth isn’t discovered but manufactured. Truth is everchanging not only in insignificant matters of taste or fashion, but in crucial matters of spirituality, morality and reality itself.3
Leading postmodern thinker John Caputo writes, “The cold, hermeneutic truth, is that there is no truth, no master name which holds things captive.”4 Both men summarize the postmodern belief that objective truth does not exist and therefore, the conclusion is that all truth claims are equal even if they are contradictory.
This understanding of truth permeates every area of our culture. Public schools, government, and the media all promote the view that since there are multiple descriptions of reality, no one view can be true in an ultimate sense.
A survey of the American public revealed that 66 percent agreed with the statement, “There is no such thing as absolute truth.”5 Among the youth, 70 percent believe that there is no such thing as absolute truth; two people could define “truth” in conflicting ways and both be correct.”6
This popular notion stands in opposition to biblical teaching. Truth is rooted in God. It corresponds to the facts of reality. It is embodied in Christ and revealed in God’s revelation, the Bible. In John 17:17 Jesus prays for His disciples saying, “Sanctify them in truth; your word is truth.” Absolute truth is knowable because God has revealed it to us in the Bible. Truth is not a social construct created by a culture, nor is it relative as some postmodernists claim. It is transmitted to us by the God of truth to His creatures who are expected to conform themselves to this truth.
For two millennia the church has been the guardian of truth. However, unbridled postmodern philosophy appears to have influenced the church in a frightful way. The church could be in danger of surrendering her position. According to the latest research, 53 percent of adults in church believe there is no absolute truth. Among the youth in church, 57 percent do not believe an objective standard of truth exists.7
Ephesians 6 exhorts us to engage in spiritual battle with the spiritual armor God provides. An essential component is the “belt of truth.” Without a clear understanding of truth, we cannot hope to successfully engage our culture for Christ. God’s truth is the foundation on which the church’s message stands.
The Church and Ethics
With Americans rejecting the idea of absolute truth, they also naturally will reject the idea of absolute moral truth. George Barna writes, “This transformation has done more to undermine the health and stability of American Society – and perhaps, of the world. . . .”8
The late Dr. Francis Schaeffer wrote,
If there is no absolute moral standard, then one cannot say in a final sense that anything is right or wrong. By absolute we mean that which always applies (to all people), that which provides a final or ultimate standard. There must be an absolute if there are to be morals, and there must be an absolute if there are to be real values. If there is no absolute beyond man’s ideas, then there is no final appeal to judge between individuals and groups whose moral judgments conflict. We are merely left with conflicting opinions.9
Dr. Schaeffer’s conclusion is what we must inevitably come to if we hold to the belief that truth is relative. The danger of rejecting moral absolutes is that we surrender our right to judge anyone’s beliefs or behaviors as right or wrong. We then arrive at the unbiblical position of tolerating all beliefs and lifestyles, whether those involve homosexuality, abortion, misogyny, or other behaviors. The Bible, then, becomes a book of suggestions on how to live and is no longer God’s universal law for mankind.
Barna’s survey shows that most people in our country have come to this conclusion. He records that only 25 percent of adults and 10 percent of teens still believe there is absolute moral truth.10
The biblical position is that there are revealed moral absolutes. God, who is truth, has revealed His truth through His word, the Bible. The moral law revealed in God’s word is universal. In Romans 2, God is just to judge every person according to His law. His law is given in His Word and also He has placed a witness to His law in the moral conscience of men. (Romans 2:14-16) Sadly, Barna’s survey shows that this acceptance of relativism has crept into the church. According to Barna, only 49 percent of born again Christians agreed with the proposition that moral truth is absolute and 51 percent either disagreed or did not know what to think about moral truth.11 57 percent of Christian teens believe that when it comes to morals and ethics, truth means different things to different people; no one can be absolutely positive they have the truth.12
If there are no moral absolutes, we cannot clearly define sin. Teaching on holy living is lost in the absence of clear standards of morality. Without a moral foundation, churches and their members are influenced by the culture more than they are influencing the culture for Christ. That is what we are seeing in churches today. Mainline denominations are adopting the values of the culture and abandoning the biblical stand on several moral issues. Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard warns, “Once the church comes to terms with the world, Christianity is abolished.”13
The Church and Spiritual Truth
If absolute truth does not exist, then moral absolutes do not exist. The same then applies to religious truth. The religion of our culture would be syncretism. Syncretism combines complimentary and often contradictory teachings from different religions to form a new system tailored to each individual’s preferences. Indeed, Barna’s research reveals that 62 percent of Americans agree that “it doesn’t matter what religious faith you follow because all faiths teach similar lessons about life.”14
A brief study of the world’s religions, however, reveals that they are contradictory on their basic truth claims, and therefore, mutually exclusive. Ravi Zacharias writes, “Most people think all religions are essentially the same and only superficially different. Just the opposite is true.”
However, if all religions are true, all religious practices are valid and cannot be judged good or evil. Then are we to tolerate cultures that burn living widows alive at their husband’s funerals because of their religious convictions? How about religions that teach young men to execute acts of terrorism on innocent victims in the name of God? We would have to conclude that we couldn’t say such practices are right or wrong.
Syncretism contradicts biblical teaching. The Bible teaches that the truth is found in Jesus Christ and in Him alone. In John 14:6 Jesus states, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me.” The Apostles repeat this claim. In Acts 4:12 Peter states, “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.”
The Bible teaches that the Bible itself is the source of spiritual truth and that salvation is foundexclusively in Jesus. Not only does the biblical evidence argue against syncretism, logic does as well.
Postmodern ideas have made their impact on the church regarding the belief of absolutes, regarding spiritual truth, and the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ. Jesus made it clear in John 14:6 that He is the source of spiritual truth and the only way to eternal life. However, among born again Christians, 31 percent believe that if a person is good enough they can earn a place in heaven. 26 percent believe it doesn’t matter what faith you follow, because they all teach the same lessons. 24 percent believe that while He lived on earth, Jesus committed sins like other people.15 30 percent believe Jesus died, but never had a physical resurrection.16
These surveys reveal that a growing number of Christians do not understand the basic teachings regarding the unique nature of Christ and His message. If Christianity is not true in its unique claims, the church is preaching a message of religious preference and not one of eternal truth. The power of the gospel is that spiritual truth and salvation is found in no one else but Jesus Christ.
The Church That Will Engage
Our postmodern culture brings some formidable challenges to the church of the 21st century. The church is struggling with foundational issues like the nature of truth, moral absolutes, and spiritual truth. What is required of us if we are to be successful in engaging the world for Christ? It is for Christians to have a courageous faith, committed hearts, a compelling defense, and a compassionate attitude.
1 Peter 3:14b-16 states, “‘Do not fear what they fear, do not be frightened.’ But in your hearts, set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” The world is often hostile to the message of Christ, especially its message of salvation found only in Jesus and its teaching on moral absolutes. That is why courageous faith that overcomes fear is essential.
Second, we are called to engage the world with committed hearts. Peter writes that instead of fear, we are to, “set apart Christ as Lord.” Courageous faith comes from a heart committed to Jesus. When Jesus is Lord of a believer’s heart, he or she responds properly in any situation. The church is the greatest witness for Christ when Jesus is Lord of every member’s life.
Third, to engage the world for Christ, we must have a compelling defense of the faith. Peter writes, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have.” We are exhorted to never be caught unprepared; never unwilling, and never timid about our response. The word “answer” in the Greek is apologia, which was used in connection with a formal public defense often before magistrates and in judicial courts. Every Christian is called to defend the faith.
Unfortunately, much of the church is unable to do this. A recent survey by Josh McDowell showed 84 percent of Christian college freshmen were unable to explain why they believed.17 We can’t expect a skeptical world to believe our message if we can’t give them a compelling reason why they should. For this reason, every Christian is called to the study of apologetics.
Fourth, we must engage with a compassionate attitude. Gentleness refers to the attitude that relies on God to change attitudes and minds. Respect is the same word used in the New Testament for reverence shown towards God. We are not to witness with an arrogant or combative demeanor, but one of gentleness and respect. Without these two qualities, it is dangerous to attempt to evangelize.
Probe Ministries is committed to equipping the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe’s ministries include our Web site, radio program, books, and conferences that will equip you to engage our world with insight and integrity, providing Christians a ready answer for their faith.
Barna, George. Absolute Confusion. Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1993. _______. Boiling Point. Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2001. _______. The Second Coming of the Church. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1998. _______. “Born Again Christians,” Barna Research Online, 19 April 2001. _______. “Americans’ Bible Knowledge is in the Ballpark, But Often Off Base,” Barna Research Online, 12, July 2000. _______. Third Millenium Teens, Ventura, CA: Barna Research Group, 1999. Caputo, John. Radical Hermeneutics: Repetition, Deconstruction, and the Hermeneutic Project. Indiana University Press, 1987. Charles Colson. How Shall We Now Live? Wheaton, IL: Tyndale Publishing, 1999. Groothius, Douglas. Truth Decay. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000. McCallum, Dennis ed., The Death of Truth. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1996, “Our New Challenge: Postmodernism,” by Jim Leffel, p. 31. McDowell, Josh and Bob Hostetler. The New Tolerance. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1998. McDowell, Josh and Bob Hostetler. Right From Wrong. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1994. Schaeffer, Francis. How Should We Then Live? Old Tappan, N.J: Fleming Revell, 1976. Veith, Gene Edward. Postmodern Times. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994
- George Barna, The Second Coming of the Church, (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1998), 1.
- Charles Colson, How Shall We Now Live? (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale Publishing, 1999), ix-x.
- Dennis McCallum ed., The Death of Truth, (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1996), “Our New Challenge: Postmodernism,” by Jim Leffel, 31.
- John Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics: Repetition, Deconstruction, and the Hermeneutic Project(Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987), 192.
- Gene Edward Veith, Postmodern Times, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994), 16.
- Barna, Third Millenium Teens, (Ventura, CA.: Barna Research Group, 1999), 44.
- Josh McDowell and Bob Hostetler, The New Tolerance (Wheaton, IL.: Tyndale House Publishers, 1998)172-173.
- Barna, Boiling Point, (Ventura, CA.: Regal Books, 2001), 78.
- Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming Revell, 1976), 145.
- Barna, Boiling Point, 78.
- Ibid., 80.
- McDowell and Hostetller, 21.
- Quoted by Michael Horton, Beyond Culture Wars (Chicago: Moody, 1994), 37.
- Barna, Absolute Confusion, (Ventura, CA.: Regal Books, 1993), 79-80.
- Barna, “Born Again Christians,” Barna Research Online, 19 April 2001, 2.
- Barna, “Americans’ Bible Knowledge is in the Ballpark, But Often Off Base,” Barna Research Online, 12 July 2000.
- McDowell and Hostetler, 173. (c) 2001 by Probe Ministries International