by Theuns Jacobs (Shofar Cape Town)
When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ. When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law. Even though I am not subject to the law, I did this so I could bring to Christ those who are under the law. When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ. But I do not ignore the law of God; I obey the law of Christ. When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings. 1 Corinthians 9:20-23 (NLT)
Tim Keller, in describing the growth and influence of their ministry in New York, noted that the very key to their fruitfulness was not their programs, events or style of ministry; but that they had “thought long and hard about the character and implications of the gospel and then long and hard about the culture of New York”.
In essence, he is talking about the challenge that the Bible sets before us: We are to be relevant to the world without compromising the gospel. We are to be in the world, but not of it. We are to build bridges between our communities and the gospel without becoming exactly like those communities. And herein lies the tension that every Christian faces. How can we be pure in the gospel, without isolating ourselves from an increasing secular society? (Have you ever felt that you are doing everything you can to be pure in your devotion to Christ but then realise that people around you simply do not care?) How can we live and minister in the brokenness of the world without dirtying our hands? (Have you ever befriended a broken person and felt the urge to retreat to safer spiritual grounds when confronted with the ugliness of the world?)
For some the answer to this problem lies in the purity of the church solely. Church is to be pure above all, but gives an invite to all to join in and practices hospitality for the non-Christians to feel at home. Although appealing, there are some problems with this line of thought. The biggest problem is that in a secular society Christianity is no longer a perceived need. It is one of a range of therapeutic options for personal problems to be tried out at leisure. In a secular society people do not simply come to church despite of invites and hospitality. Or worse yet, when a non-Christian then does come to church, in many cases they feel they cannot relate at all to the people there.
The other line of thought is to be careful to sanitise the church of offensive statements and moral claims. This is done in an effort to build relationship in communities. Friendship with sinners are to be taken as walking in their shoes. The problem with this line of thought is obvious. What does it help if someone completed immersed in the world walks into church and finds it exactly like the world? How does that inspire anyone to find saving grace in the power of the Cross?
Recently Shofar were brought before this challenge again as a movement. As part of a church merger in 2013 in Century City, we inherited carols that were created by the property management of the area. This event was not created as a church service or evangelistic outreach by a church, but by Century City for the dual purpose of community building and family entertainment in the holiday season. For Shofar it is important to build relationship with communities and serve wherever we can. Our role was to set the production of the carols, but the event itself is under the auspices of Century City. The overall attendance has been growing rapidly over the last few years. The official attendance for last year was 2,400 people and by all indications this year was even better attended. Because it’s advertised by Century City as holiday entertainment many of the attendees are not in a church. So by all means this is an excellent opportunity to build bridges to the community with a basic message of the gospel!
But here the challenge then arise around the use of carols and other Christmas symbols, like Santa Claus, in the presence of the basic message of the gospel. For many believers the pagan origin of Christmas and overtly non-Christian symbols like Santa Claus are deeply offensive. How could that have been included in the carols when surely the gospel is the most important element? Should you have found this offensive, we apologise. For the non-Christian, under the impression that this event was merely holiday cheer with sentimental items like Santa Claus and carols, the presentation of the gospel and sermonette after the carols by a church would have run the risk false advertising (and causing offense). Should you have found this offensive, we apologise.
In reality we must realise that the tension between righteousness and relevance will always exist, but that the tension of “getting it right” is not nearly as important as the basic motive itself. What the Bible tells us is that we are “to find common ground with everyone, doing everything we can to save some”. The point of continuing with carols (although seemingly awkward or even offensive to both the Christian and non-Christian) is exactly to keep exploring areas of finding common ground. We must always ask tough questions and have robust debate whether we are both pure and relevant to how we approach communities, and what we must adjust to do it in a more pure and relevant manner. But we should not strain at the gnat of getting it absolutely right, and in the process swallow the camel of not finding common ground.