Create a Contrast Culture in Your Church
Church leaders who stop by our little house of worship in Washington sometimes ask what we have done to produce all the discipling, evangelism, and hospitality they see. What programs are we using?
It's a 20th-century American way of asking the question. Church growth has been viewed in business terms for at least half a century, so the questioner assumes some program has birthed these activities.
But our answer points in a different direction. We say we want to develop a culture of discipling, and a culture of evangelism, and a culture of hospitality. And so we offer tools, not programs.
What do we mean by a "culture" of these things, and how do we cultivate such culture?
Church as a Distinct Culture
Think about the local church as an embassy from the future. It's a formally constituted gathering of Spirit-indwelt kingdom citizens who proclaim and display Christ's end-time rule. They gather to declare their king's warnings and promises, and they gather to formally affirm one another as kingdom citizens through the keys given by their king, which they do with baptism and the Lord's Supper. Here are the laws, and here are the passport holders.
What's more, these eschatological embassies on earth, spread out like pins on a map, should be characterized by an unworldly culture. It's not a culture imported from another place, but from a future age. It's not defined by sushi, cricket, or burqas, but by the habits of holiness and love and the ambassadorial work of discipling, evangelism, hospitality, and caring for the needy.
Citizenship, mind you, is an office. And activities like discipling, evangelism, and hospitality constitute a Christian's basic office responsibilities. "Go and make disciples," Jesus says. "Share with God's people who are in need. Practice hospitality," Paul says. These are what Christians do by virtue of being citizens of Christ's kingdom. We "live as citizens worthy of the gospel," which means "striving side by side for the faith of the gospel" (Phil. 1:27, my translation; cf. 3:20).
The local church, in short, is the embassy where we show up for work, where we learn to be ambassadors who evangelize and disciple, and where we display an otherworldly culture that shines like stars in the dark night sky (Phil. 2:15).
12 Ways to Cultivate Such a Culture
So how do these embassies of Christ's rule cultivate a culture of discipling, of evangelism, of mutual care and hospitality?
1. Train and equip one another for being Christians. The British drink tea. The Brazilians love Carnival. Christ's gospel citizens share the gospel and encourage one another in the faith. Tuesday night programs, perhaps, can help facilitate such activity. But in the bigger picture, the entire teaching ministry of the church equips the saints for such work (Eph. 4:11ff). Christians gather on the Lord's Day to be trained to disciple and evangelize on Monday to Saturday.
2. Center the church's weekly gathering around the gospel. If a culture of kingdom citizenship depends on the gospel, then the church's weekly gathering should be centered on the gospel. Every text should be preached with a view to the canonical and Christocentric horizon. Songs should point to the gospel. Sins should be confessed in corporate prayer, and thanks given for forgiveness.
3. Preach all of Scripture. It's all the word of our King. As citizens, we need to hear all of it (see Acts 20:27).
4. Apply sermons and small group lessons corporately. Bible teachers instinctively apply biblical texts to individuals. But most of us could get better at applying texts corporately. For instance, if you're teaching a passage about holiness, encourage people to help one another fight sin, to practice church discipline, to take care in whom they receive as a member (see Matt. 18:1-14). Holiness and love are a group project, and lead to a group witness.
5. Encourage church members to build their lives into one another's. Yes, we want friendships outside of our churches. But Christians should also prioritize relationships within their churches, where they can leverage the same ministry of the Word in one another's lives.
6. De-clutter the church calendar. It can be hard to build relationships with other members and non-Christians when the week is occupied with official church activities. Cancelling some of those programs might give the saints more time for discipling and evangelism.
7. Provide tools for evangelism and discipleship. In addition to the weekly sermon, you might offer adult Sunday school classes devoted to these topics. You might recommend good books from the front, and then provide those books at a discount in your church bookstore. And advertise good evangelism material when reporting testimonies of grace.
8. Pray together about evangelism and good works. Many churches have abandoned the old practice of the prayer meeting, relegating it—maybe—to small groups. I understand why. Too often, they're unregulated, and you spend 50 minutes praying for Aunt Suzie's ankle surgery. Such relegation, however, means the whole church doesn't have the chance to pray for one another's needs as a whole church. Churches do well, I believe, to look for ways to share kingdom concerns with the whole body and then pray about them. Our church does this in a highly regulated Sunday night prayer meeting. About two-thirds of the members come.
9. Highlight the saints by practicing church membership and fencing the table. Churches certainly should make visitors and non-Christians feel welcome, and they should address them in the sermon. Still, the borders of the church—who is bound and loosed by the keys of the kingdom—should be bright and clear. This is a crucial part of the evangelism and discipleship process. Relatedly . . .
10. Practice church discipline. If your church doesn't practice discipline, its culture will soon become indistinct from the world's. An embassy might as well knock down its walls and leave stacks of passports on the front sidewalk for anyone to grab.
11. Live near the church. We are embodied beings and geography counts. If you can, live near the church. It gives you greater opportunity to disciple one another, do hospitality, and do evangelism together.
12. Commit for the long-term. Whether you're a church leader or member, committing to stay in a place for the long term gives you the chance to shape a culture.
Churches often work hard at contextualizing and showing the world around them that Christians are like them. And there is a place for this.
But part of contextualizing is knowing how to counter-contextualize: how to be culturally distinct embassies of Christ's future rule. What good is salt that loses its saltiness, or a light hidden under a bowl?
Through preaching, praying, loving, and staying, we can help the church become such a contrast culture.