Oct 29, 2012
neil

The worst of all possible worlds? How is your church doing?

Christians often use the phrase in the world but not of the world (something drawn from Jesus’ own words in John 17:11 and 16}. It encapsulates that difficult responsibility for Christians to be a visible and yet distinctive presence in the midst of our communities.

Tim Keller in his book Center Church describes something of what this might look like:

We will have an impact for the gospel if we are like those around us yet profoundly unlike them at the same time, all the while remaining very visible and engaged.

1. Christians are to be in the world

Tim Keller writes;

So, first of all, Christians must be like their neighbors in the food they eat and clothes they wear, their dialect, general appearance, work life, recreational and cultural activities, and civic engagement. They participate fully in life with their neighbors. Christians should also be like their neighbors with regard to excellence. That is, Christians should be very good at what others want to be good at. They should be skillful, diligent, resourceful, and disciplined. In short, Christians in a particular community should—at first glance—look reassuringly similar to the other people in the neighborhood. This opens up nonbelievers to any discussion of faith, because they recognize the believers as people who live in and understand their world. It also, eventually, gives them a glimpse of what they could look like if they became believers.

Christians are not to be of the world

Keller again;

Second, Christians must be also unlike their neighbors. In key ways, the early Christians were startlingly different from their neighbors; it should be no different for us today. Christians should be marked by integrity. Believers must be known for being scrupulously honest, transparent, and fair. Followers of Christ should also be marked by generosity. If employers, they should take less personal profit so customers and employees have more pay. As citizens, they should be philanthropic and generous with their time and with the money they donate for the needy. They should consider living below their potential lifestyle level. Believers should also be known for their hospitality, welcoming others into their homes, especially neighbors and people with needs. They should be marked by sympathy and avoid being known as self-serving or even ruthless in business or personal dealings. They should be marked by an unusual willingness to forgive and seek reconciliation, not by a vengeful or spiteful spirit.

In addition to these character qualities, Christians should be marked by clear countercultural values and practices. Believers should practice chastity and live consistently in light of the biblical sexual ethic. Those outside the church know this ethic—no sex outside of marriage—and any inconsistency in this area can destroy a believer’s credibility as a Christian. 

That is how Christians are to be in the world and not of the world at one and the same time.

But what if…

Reading Keller on this issue reminded me of a talk I heard a few years ago which highlighted that perhaps the greatest danger is one we hardly ever spot. We spot the danger of Christians being in the world AND of the world (compromise), we are wary of Christians NOT in the world and not of it (retreat) but do we recognise the double-danger of  Christians not in the world and YET of the world!

How does that work?

It is possible for Christians and church communities to cut themselves off from the world and retreat into glorious isolationism and yet at the same time exhibit all of the traits of worldliness behind our locked doors. In such a situation the church is unchanged by the gospel and displays all the characteristics of the world. Maybe that means for some being as individualistic in our disregard for the need of others, as materialistic in our attitude to money, as self-obsessed so that the focus of our lives is not the gospel to the lost but our own sense of well-being and comfort.

What a tragedy when Christians are not in the world and yet undoubtedly of the world.

1 Comment

  • Hi Neil,

    Years ago I did a talk from John 17 actually going through the (logically) four possible combinations – In, but not of / In, but of / Out but not of / Out, but of

    Cheers, John.

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