Jon Tyson | posted 6/13/2011
As a Christian leader, I am grieved by statistics indicating that believers and non-believers live almost identical lives: similar sexual ethics, spending patterns, and lifestyle choices. Despite spending millions of dollars on transformation campaigns, conferences, books, curricula, worship music, small groups, multimedia, Internet churches, and all forms of relevance and engagement, Christians are remarkably like the world.
This is compounded by real confusion about how to healthily engage the culture around us. So we end up, sadly, "of the world but not in it." Why do our best efforts seem to make so little difference? And how can we help our people grow into actual Christ-likeness?
I agree with James Wilhoit, author of Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered: "Spiritual formation is the task of the church. Period. Spiritual formation is at the heart of its whole purpose for existence. The church was formed to form. Our charge, given by Jesus himself, is to make disciples, baptize them, and teach these new disciples to obey his commands."
The apostle Paul addressed this issue in a letter to a young church in one of the worldliest cities in history: Rome in the first century. After describing the human condition and the character of God, the power of the gospel, sin, law, grace, election, and love, Paul calls for a response: "Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." (Rom. 12:1-2).
Paul knew, and I am coming to realize, that before we see real gospel transformation, we must be aware that the world in which we live is not neutral. We live in heavily contested space: The enemy of our souls is seeking to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10; 1 Pet. 5:8).
On a human level, corporations compete for brand loyalty, educational institutions compete for worldview, and we are continually marketed to, mocked, rewarded, seduced, and compelled by the things around us.
Maybe Paul was trying to rouse the Romans to see that until we identify and confront the forces that seek to conform us, our attempts at transformation will be continually undermined. It's like trying to bail water out of a sinking ship, while ignoring the work of plugging the holes that are causing the ship to sink.
We are trying to offer a solution to people, when they don't really see that there is a problem.
How exactly does the world shape us into its image? I recently asked my eight-year-old daughter a question, and she replied, "Whatever." I asked her where she learned to respond to others' questions in this way. Her response: "Everywhere."
It's this "everywhere" that shapes our lives.
Paul was asking the Romans to consider the larger forces that formed people into Romans. Then he wanted them to consider how Jesus transformed Romans into Christians.
For us, rather than simply asking how to make Americans Christian, we first need to ask what makes Americans American, and then decipher how Jesus can transform Americans into Christians. That allows us to see substantive progress in spiritual formation.
Pastoring in New York, not unlike the city of Rome, I've struggled to decipher these forces of cultural formation, and to open our people's eyes to them.
The French philosopher Michel Foucault called this shaping of people into a worldly mold "the normalization of the individual." Think about how these forces press us into the world's view of "normal."
• Education: Almost all education is secular, even at a kindergarten level. At the college or graduate school level, belief in God is often seen as childish at best, and a serious intellectual impediment.
• Media: Media is pervasive, pouring story after story into our lives, most of them contradictory to the way of Jesus. What was once held sacred has been transformed into entertainment. In most media, truth has been reduced to sound bites, and the sensational drowns out the substantive.
• Marketing: One commentator estimates that we see more advertisements in a single year of our lives than someone 50 years ago saw in an entire lifetime. We ourselves have been branded.
• Economics: We learn from our earliest years that more is better, and better is not enough. We spend much of lives trying to keep up acquire things and experiences in order to feel good about ourselves. The supreme value of life is how much we can acquire. Success is defined by one word: more.
• Sexuality: The message of our culture is that sex is purely physical, and that as long as no one is hurt, people can determine their own sexual practices. The rise of pornography has taken sex out of the bedroom and turned it into a form of entertainment.
• Religion: All religions are seen as equal and valid, and to claim that one is true and the others are not is cultural treason. The only belief you can hold with conviction is that there isn't any true-for-everybody belief.
Growing up in a culture like this, we quickly find that a sermon on Sunday, or a weekly youth group talk, can hardly give us the tools to renew our minds and be transformed into the image of our Creator.
The most popular story in the world is the story of the American Dream. America is a place where you can start with nothing, and, by your own hard work and determination, rise out of poverty and obscurity to become a successful person whom others admire.
Our major institutions—education, business, even family—distribute this story to us in various forms. We are taught to be hardworking and competitive, to win, to get ahead. We are pushed to succeed and accumulate, and we feel like failures if we don't.
The media take this story and then distribute it with alarming effectiveness to every component of our lives. From carefully composed Facebook profiles that show how well we are doing to the onslaught of reality TV shows always designed with a competitive edge to generate winners and losers, we absorb a message: to strive and succeed as an individual.
The result holds massive sway over the actual practices of our lives. Afraid of being left behind or missing out, we shop, browse, sit, watch, work, and slave, all in pursuit of the American dream.
These practices set the pace for what we actually value, and these values often determine the major choices and habits that define our lifestyle.
Here lies the tension we all feel. Our theology is defined by Jesus, but our lives are defined by some other lord.
Instead of believing (Phil. 1:21) that "to live is Christ" (the purpose and mission of our lives) and "to die is gain" (in his glorious presence), we end up reversing the great mission of the Christian faith.
The American version says, "To live is gain, to die is Christ"—live now and accumulate all you can in terms of wealth, pleasure, sexual experience, luxury, privilege, and fun, and when you die, you get to go to heaven, too, and do it all over again, except better. Our story has been co-opted.
The gospel in contested space
Imagine yourself in first-century Rome, walking to attend one of the local house-church gatherings. You walk past the Palatine Hill, where the elites of Rome watch over the world's most powerful city and where Christian martyrs had been set on fire in order to light up Nero's drunken parties. You walk past the local theater, and hear the crowds roar at the retelling of the stories of Rome's history. You pass a group of Roman soldiers, taking a break from enforcing peace in the world—the kind of peace that had crucified a Jewish rabbi named Jesus about 25 years earlier. You continue on past the Circus Maximus, a giant chariot-racing stadium and gladiatorial complex, and you realize other believers had been martyred there for disloyalty to the empire.
You walk past dozens of temples to Roman gods, houses of prostitution, images of the emperor on buildings, temples, coins, and benches, and then enter a house where believers are meeting to worship Jesus as Lord and seek first his kingdom. There one of the elders announces that Paul has written a letter to your church. Then he reads: "Do not be conformed to the image of the world, but be transformed through the renewing of your mind."
You, a first-century Christian, would not have thought of one immediate social or political issue when hearing these words. Instead, you would have been overwhelmed with the reality that everything in your life—the story, institutions, practices, values, and lifestyle of the empire—was working in unity to conform you into a good Roman citizen.
It was not one thing in particular, but everything in general, that was pressing you into its mold. The goal of a good Roman citizen was to embody Rome's values, to be an icon (a small image) of the empire as a whole.
Rome was forming people to believe that Caesar was Lord. Jesus was renewing people's minds to see that he was Lord.
Rome was forming people politically to believe that peace was made though power and domination. Jesus was renewing people's minds to believe that peace came through servanthood.
Rome was forming people through entertainment to be attracted to sexuality and violence. Jesus was renewing people's minds to see that art is what's good and true and beautiful in his world.
Rome was forming people economically to believe that the rich got more, and that the poor were commodities. Jesus was renewing people's minds to see that the poor and the rich were equal in the kingdom, and that it was better to give than to receive.
Now, imagine walking home through the streets of Rome and trying to make sense of how to live out this verse. To love your spouse, raise your children, earn a living, interact with neighbors and friends, and fulfill civic duties. My guess is that your mind would be swirling.
What sort of deep and ongoing work of the Spirit would it take to transform you from the image of Rome into the image of Jesus? You would have to surrender your whole life to this pursuit. You would have to present yourself as a living sacrifice, an offering to God himself. Anything less than offering the whole of your life to God in response to his invitation would be both futile and laughable.
Every day as a pastor I glimpse how those first Romans must have felt upon hearing these words about "being conformed to the image of the world." New York City is arguably the fashion capital of the world, the finance capital of the world, the international relations capital of the world, the entertainment capital of the world, the media capital of the world—you get the point.
A person walking to our church through the city could walk down Madison Ave., through Times Square past the MTV studios, past the United Nations Headquarters, through the Fashion District, through the arts neighborhoods, through the heart of the gay community, past Wall Street, to sit in a church and hear me expound the apostle Paul's words about not conforming to the world.
Many of the people in this congregation work in the institutions that define what worldliness is for our time. Any serious pastoral work here has to take into account, not just the sinful nature and tendencies of the flesh, but the realities of the world that powerfully pull us into their story and mode.
As C.S Lewis put it, "You and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness."
Breaking the spell
Saint Peter wrote to the Church in exile:
"Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us" (1 Pet. 2:11).
We are pushed to succeed and accumulate, and We feel like failures if we don't.
I often hear people say that the need of the hour is being a "relevant church." Some people argue that the world's attitude toward the church (indifferent at best, and hostile at worst) is because they don't understand what we are trying to do, or that we don't connect with them, or that we aren't relevant.
I would humbly disagree. Though I'm not opposed to being relevant, in practice we often end up mirroring the world rather than engaging it.
Jesus didn't tell his parables so that people could "connect with his points." Jesus told his parables to awaken their imaginations to the new reality of the kingdom of God that was breaking in around them. I believe that the real need of the hour is a robust discipleship that engages the whole of our lives with the Lordship of Jesus, the resurrected head of the church.
Our church is not far from Times Square, so rather than entertaining people in church (as if they need any more entertainment), we need to equip them with a gospel that has the power to transform them into a movement of grace, working its way through the whole of our culture like salt and light, for the common good.
Rather than simply consuming the story of the world, we need theologians and thinkers, pastors and authors, screenwriters and songwriters to tell an alternative story to the American dream. We need the biblical story, the overarching, overwhelming epic of the creation, fall, restoration, and renewal of the kingdom of God and its beautiful king.
We don't need to withdraw from secular institutions but to engage them with the truths of the gospel. We need our best leaders in education, politics, media, arts, and international relations salting the world with the truth of Jesus and his heart for us all.
We need to help reshape the systems that we have condemned, unleashing systemic good rather than the systemic evil that is so prevalent today.
We also need to help people living as radical individuals discover the beauty of covenant community, and renew their commitment to the local church.
Rather than just following consumeristic practices, we need to create and cultivate alternative practices, birthed not out of planned obsolescence, but from excellence and discernment. These practices, based in generosity and goodness and selflessness and sustainability, confront our greed and desire for more, and teach us to live in God's world in God's way.
We also need to rediscover the ancient spiritual practices that help us grow in the image of Jesus. Reading, fasting, resting and celebrating help us encounter the grace and goodness of God.
The great work of being a pastor is not entertaining the saints, but transforming them.
This then leads to a real impact being made on our values. Our lives begin to reflect God's heart and concerns, and our choice to live for Jesus begins to make sense and fit into God's overarching plan for the whole of our lives. We then become living sacrifices, and our minds are transformed. Instead of the mold of the world, we can begin to see the good, pleasing and perfect will of our loving God. This is articulated beautifully by Stassen and Gushee in Kingdom Ethics:
"Where Christian faith is functioning as it should, it serves as the governing paradigm for life. Life is governed by the narrative of God's coming reign in Christ and the way of life appropriate to it. Ultimately, in a growing Christian life, this process becomes second nature. One is so absorbed into kingdom living and one's identity as Christ's disciple that it essentially becomes impossible to respond to the circumstances of life from any other frame of reference."
Labor pains in New York
Paul referred to the Galatian church as "my dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth, until Christ is formed in you."
This is definitely more than theory for me. I pastor a network of congregations in some of the most godless neighborhoods in America, and in spite of the odds, sprouts from the seeds of the gospel have broken through the secular concrete of Manhattan.
We have Wall Street traders, steering their careers away from greed into radical generosity. We have people in the fashion industry who get behind the veneer of beauty with restorative and creative projects for victims of sex trafficking and battered women.
We have families living in proximity and sharing resources and valuing community above convenience as they live as the people of God. We have media executives working on new stories and programming that highlight the good, the true, and the beautiful. We have artists creating out of a renewed imagination, offering compelling works of hope in a culture of cynicism. The list goes on.
The great work of being a pastor is not entertaining the saints, but transforming them. Helping them to be a compelling preview of the world to come, as the kingdom of God comes near.
Then, as our people live lives of true and proper worship, they will find God's good, pleasing, and perfect will.
Jon Tyson is pastor of Trinity Grace Church in Manhattan, New York.