Discerning Church Learning to discern the movement of God's Spirit

Attractional or Counter-Cultural

I have been preaching this year from the lectionary texts. It has been a new and challenging exercise for me. I have not given up on expository preaching; I teach the lectionary text in an expository fashion. We have been in Matthew 5 for the last few Sundays. I’ve heard these passages many times; yet they are fresh this season. The values of the Kingdom challenge me beyond measure. I also like how the lectionary provides complementary texts. Last week, the text from the Epistles was 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, 13-16. As I meditated on this text, I found myself questioning my approach to ministry. Having served as a youth pastor for fifteen years, my approach to ministry has been an attractional approach. How can we get teens interested in spiritual matters? How can we get them to come to church? Through youth ministry conferences and training materials, I have been schooled to make church relevant to teens.

And then I come to Matthew 5 and 1 Corinthians 2. Jesus and Paul’s words seem to contradict the attractional approach to ministry. Jesus tells his followers that they will be persecuted if they are living the Kingdom way. He does not plead with his followers to relate to culture. In fact, his message is counter-cultural. As Paul describes relating to the surrounding culture, he warns the early Christians that their message will be offensive, foolish to those living in the world.

As I read these passages, I realized that the gospel does not morph based on cultural values. It is above culture, beyond culture. Only the Spirit of God can relate it to those living in the thick of culture. Much energy goes into making the gospel accessible to a dying world each week. I understand the heart of this approach. It is based on a concern for those who are far from Christ. I respect the motive of this approach; yet the energy is in the wrong place. As I read Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, I am struck by words that do not mesh with the American mindset.

When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2) For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3) I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. (1 Corinthians 2:1–3 NIV)

Weakness, fear, trembling; this is not attractive. But Paul has good reason for this approach.

My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5) so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power. (1 Corinthians 2:4–5 NIV)

Paul knew if it was about his skill, then the power of the Spirit would be forgotten. Yet, many churches work really hard to make the music relate, the preaching pop, and the ambiance of worship attractive. I admit, I love attractive worship. Who doesn’t love music that is powerful, preaching that is persuasive, and lighting that touches the emotion. But Paul’s focus in on neither of these.

We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. 13) This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. (1 Corinthians 2:12–13 NIV)

This is worth reading two or three times. Paul speaks of the spiritual over and over (four times in these two verses). It is less about what we do, more about what the Spirit does. It is less about or efforts to relate to culture, more about our efforts to seek the Spirit. The kicker is how Paul describes the one who does not have the Spirit (the unchurched).

The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14 NIV)

Why do we think that we can make him understand through our efforts to be relevant? Maybe our efforts should be spent asking God to reveal His truth to the unchurched. This is a broad discussion and has been taking place throughout the country for many years. I just wonder if too much energy is going into relevancy and too little into discerning the Spirit. I know that I have spent much energy trying to figure out how to make God accessible to people. Maybe I have been misguided.

Jesus’ message is really opposed to our cultural values; we value (as a culture) quite the opposite of what he tells us to value. Have we diluted the gospel in an effort to make it accessible? Can we be popular in the world and obedient to the call of Jesus? Matthew 5 certainly does not describe it this way.

These are the issues that I am grappling with as we study Matthew 5 together as a church. I would love to hear your thoughts.