Living in Troubled Times
Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, I seem to recall some Christians who saw engaging the culture more like fighting a “culture war” for Jesus. But things have changed over the past few decades. Today, we find ourselves in the position of a cultural minority in our country. The question is, “How should we engage with a culture that’s getting more and more hostile to Christianity?”
In this post, I’ll share three lessons from the New Testament about being an ambassador of Christ in troubled times. The big idea is that we need to honor the Lord though our message and tone as Christian ambassadors and apologists–even in a world that pushes back against the gospel. I learned these lessons directly from Darrell Bock, who pointed me to the examples of the early church, Peter and Paul.
The Early Church’s Example
Did you realize the early church grew up in a skeptical context? Check out their example in Acts 4:24-32. Here, the Apostles Peter and John were just jailed and threatened by the Jewish authorities after healing a crippled person and preaching in Jesus’ name. Was the church caught off guard or surprised when they heard about this kind of persecution? Nope. They realized Jesus said this kind of thing would happen.
The church’s response is a good example for us: They didn’t freak out and act like the sky was falling. They didn’t withdraw from the world and hide in a hole somewhere. Instead, these early Christians prayed that they’d keep speaking with boldness and keep ministering to the very people who were opposing them.
Check out Luke’s account of their prayer (NET):
24 When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. 25 You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:
“‘Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
26 The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord
and against his anointed one.
27 Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. 28 They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. 29 Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. 30 Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.
What about us? How do we respond to insults, hostility and persecution? Let’s stay faithful in proclaiming Jesus, defending the faith and showing God’s grace by loving our neighbors and ministering in the community. Let’s show our neighbors God cares about them.
Why? Because when our message comes alongside loving service, it tends to give people pause. Your apologetic arguments are never heard in a vacuum. They come in a wrapper that is your life. Doing this enhances the credibility of our apologetics and gospel message.
Second, Peter was all about speaking the truth with gentleness and respect. This is another thing we’ve got to do, even as we challenge certain parts of the prevailing culture. In 1 Peter 3:15, the apostle wrote,
“But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.”
This is that great “apologetics memory verse” that many apologists love to quote. But let’s never forget the last part of his command. Let’s engage the culture, make our case and defend the faith with a demeanor of kindness. Let’s be generous in spiritual conversations as we explain our faith to our skeptical friends and even those who challenge it in less than generous ways.
Third, the Apostle Paul used the picture of an ambassador when he talked about evangelism. In 2 Corinthians 5:20, he said, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (ESV).
Think about this: Just like ambassadors travel around the country where they’re assignment; just like they represent their home country to those they meet, we as Christian ambassadors shouldn’t just hang out in the church.
We shouldn’t just expect skeptics and seekers to come to us. Apologists like you and me were never designed to be shut off from the world, but we are called to engage the culture as representatives of Jesus. And when we do engage, we need to do it with a humble attitude.
Paul knew truth matters. But he knew tone matters, too. And his message balanced challenge with invitation. [See my post on 3 Cultural Engagement Tips from Paul’s encounter in Acts 17]
Truth in Love
In the end, people tend to get that God loves them more easily when they see us loving them. As apologists, our arguments and evidence are never heard in isolation. They are heard in the context of your life–how people see you at work, school and in your community. it’s no surprise that people tend to be more open to deep spiritual conversations when they know you have their best in mind. Indeed, our character says a lot about our credibility. So let Christ’s love shine through you.
Instead perpetuating the old tendency to view engagement as fighting a “culture war,” let’s focus on our diplomatic mission of reconciliation. Let’s ask the Lord to help us minister generously. Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to help us speak boldly while balancing invitation and challenge—even in a world that opposes us. After all, our goal isn’t to beat down everyone who disagrees with us, but to invite them into a relationship with Jesus.
May we honor the Lord as his ambassadors in troubled times.
Video: Christianity as a Cultural Minority
If you like this post, you might be interested in hearing from my mentor, Darrell Bock, and his guest, John Dickson (founding Director of the Centre for Public Christianity in Sydney, Australia) at a chapel session we hosted at Dallas Theological Seminary on engaging the culture when Christians have become cultural minorities.