What arm-wrestling can teach us about church and culture
To this day, my friend Neil reflects upon his decision as an unwise one. Neil is a bodybuilder, a big, muscular guy. As it turns out, he is not nearly as big or strong as the lineman from a Big Ten football team who he agreed to arm-wrestle several years ago. Neil lost. Badly! In fact, Neil didn’t just lose. He sustained a severely torn bicep injury that took several months to heal.
Neil clearly believed that he was up to the challenge or he surely would never have agreed to take on this linebacker. When all was said and done, though, he proved to be woefully outmatched by his oversized competitor. As he thinks back on this experience, he wonders if maybe he let his confidence get the best of him. Was it merely a moment of foolishness that led him to believe that he could do this? Needless to say, this is not a mistake that Neil intends to make twice.
I think that Neil’s experience bears striking similarity to the source of anxiety that sometimes plagues the church as we strive to minister faithfully within a changing culture. A memory from my childhood might help me to explain this connection more clearly.
Many years ago, I had the opportunity to attend an arm-wrestling tournament. I still have vivid memories of that experience. Dozens of onlookers gathered around to watch as pairs of competitors with bulging biceps planted their elbows on the table and clasped one another’s hands. The whole point was for one contestant to exert enough force to cause the other’s hand to touch the tabletop.
The air was filled with energy and excitement as these muscular men and women, grimacing, grunting and clenching their teeth, strained against one another to determine who was strongest. The most exciting matches were those in which two opponents were deadlocked for some time, neither managing to overcome the other, neither willing to yield even an inch. In the really great matches, the wrestlers’ hands remained gripped together at the table’s center and at a perfect 90-degree angle from its surface.
Two crucial objectives
I’m convinced that as the church strives to carry out its mission faithfully within contemporary society, it is faced with a challenge that is much like one of these outstanding arm-wrestling matches. In every era and in every location, the church is called to maintain a tension between two distinct but equally crucial objectives: biblical faithfulness and cultural relevance.
The message of Scripture remains true and unchanging throughout the ages. Yet the church is called by God to translate this message into the particularities of every culture. As a result, biblical faithfulness and cultural relevance function in relation to one another much like the hands of two great arm-wrestlers. They press in upon one another. They must be held in tension. Neither can exert a greater amount of force upon the other without a loss taking place.
What happens if the objective of cultural relevance is permitted to strong-arm our concern for biblical faithfulness? The result would be precisely the thing that many Christians fear so much: compromise of biblical truth. On the other hand, what is likely to happen if our concern to preserve biblical faithfulness is permitted to overpower the need for cultural relevance? We are likely to cling to an expression of biblical faithfulness that makes sense to us because it is relevant to our native time or place, the one that is most native or that seems most natural to us.
However, if we are striving to minister in a cultural setting other than the one with which we are most familiar, this expression of the gospel may very well be unintelligible to the people we’re trying to reach. This is the difficult lesson that past generations of missionaries had to learn as they sought to bring the gospel to distant lands. The church must be willing to maintain this tension of expressing scriptural faithfulness in a way that is relevant to the time and place in which it finds itself.
For many of us, this is a difficult prospect to consider within our current time and place. Our culture seems to present an imposing challenge. In recent decades, our world has changed rapidly and dramatically. Our society has become increasingly complex and confusing. Understandably, this can cause us at times to feel uneasy, anxious, vulnerable and even angry. Returning to the familiarity of simpler times can sound rather appealing. We may even be tempted to look for ready-made answers or quick fixes to help us restore a sense of normalcy or equilibrium.
In a world like this, a term like “cultural relevance” may sound questionable. We may suspect that the inevitable outcome of our efforts to be “relevant” will be much like what Neil experienced. We are destined to be overwhelmed by the big burly bicep of contemporary culture. All the more, the integrity of our witness is sure to be severely wounded. It will be ugly and tragic.
For a number of years, I have been part of a network of Christian leaders who are committed to a vision of the missional church. For me, this commitment has grown out of the conviction that the mission of God must be at the center of everything we’re about. In my early 20s, I took a course called Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. This course helped me see in a very compelling way that God’s mission lies at the heart of the storyline of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation. This had a powerful effect on my life as a follower of Christ. It captured my heart and imagination.
A traditional notion has been that missionaries overseas do one kind of thing while we “at home” do another kind of thing. Perhaps this dichotomy made sense within past eras. Now, however, the vast changes that have occurred within our society challenge this notion. The church is not altogether “at home” anywhere anymore. In fact, the mission field now lies right outside the doorsteps of our church buildings.
Serving as missionaries
Essentially, we find ourselves in a missionary setting. I'm convinced that this situation provides us the opportunity to come to terms with the reality that God never actually intended for "mission" to be left up to specialists laboring in distant lands in the first place. He has called and empowered his church everywhere to live and serve as his missionary people. This is an integral part of the church's true identity and calling.
The missional church is an effort to rethink the life of the church from God’s mission outward. How will the way that we think and live be transformed if we truly take seriously our identity as a missionary community? A growing number of congregations are grappling honestly and earnestly with this question.
Some “emerging” faith communities are striving to embody the good news within a postmodern culture. Many of these churches identify a missional commitment as a key part of what is driving them. This is why the terms “missional” church and “emerging” church are sometimes assumed to mean the same thing. However, this is not exactly a one-to-one correlation.
Many established congregations also have been exploring the significance of the concept of the missional church for themselves. These churches have been awakened to a sense that God is inviting them to join in his mission within their communities. Such churches can be found in both large cities and rural communities. Many of them aren’t all that much different from the Mennonite Brethren churches that you and I attend. In fact, some of them actually are Mennonite Brethren churches.
Living for the mission
What these congregations share in common is a commitment to grapple with what it will mean for them to live and proclaim the good news within their own contexts. They are endeavoring to be relevant to their communities in the best sense of the term, while also striving to remain faithful to God’s Word.
This is a great need of our time: churches that are willing to live, not for themselves or the past, but out of a passionate commitment to express God’s mission within a changing culture. Is it overconfidence that causes us to see this as possible? Is it mere foolishness? Shouldn’t we be afraid that we will be overwhelmed by an oversized foe? The fact of the matter is that God’s Spirit has empowered us for this task. The One who has sent forth missionaries throughout the ages to form biblically faithful churches in all sorts of cultural contexts is able to do this through us as well.
Furthermore, the gospel of Christ is plenty resilient. In fact, the gospel is actually meant by God to be “transculturated” into every culture. Certainly the gospel will challenge the members of the emerging culture to be changed. However, as we seek to bring the gospel to new generations, we might be surprised to discover how much it challenges us to change as well. Indeed, throughout history this process of communicating the gospel into new cultural forms actually has contributed powerfully to the church’s renewal.
This is not easy. Nonetheless, it is life-giving. God invites us to join in his mission in a changing culture. May we truly reach out and take hold of the opportunity that this moment presents.
Cory Seibel began serving this semester as assistant professor of pastoral ministry at MB Biblical Seminary and is based on the Fresno, Calif., campus. He came to MBBS from Sioux Falls (SD) Seminary. In addition to teaching, Seibel is directing pastoral ministry education, including supervised ministry experience.