The Challenge of A Gospel Culture | Forming a Gospel Culture (Part II)
Ray Ortlund, in his helpful little primer The Gospel says “It is striking that Jesus began his first extended sermon by emphasizing a gospel culture.” (pg. 71.) By this, he refers to the Beatitudes which open the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5. Let’s read them:
Matt. 5:1 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. 5:2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
5:6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
5:11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
We could of course go on. The whole sermon on the Mount played a major role in the training (catechesis) of the earliest Christians in the Matthean Christian Community (probably Syrian Antioch)
What Does Authentic Christian Community Look Like?
What is this little chain of wisdom sayings expressing? It is expressing the attitude, ethos, and ethic of what Christian community is supposed to look like. What comes through is an emphasis on gentleness, hopefulness, kindness, mercy, compassion, peacemaking, and so on.
The question that faces us today is this: Do the Beatitudes tend to describe the average Christian Church today? I will leave you to think about that for yourself. We do not need to point at one Church or another. All we need to do is ruminate on how we reflect that personally or not, and what kind of life change needs to happen to deepen the ethos and ethic of the Gospel.
I will say this though if our immediate answer to the question of whether our churches today reflect this comes out something like, “well… kind of…” I personally would take that answer as a “No!”
Why Creating a Gospel Culture is So Elusive
Now I want to put forth a more radical idea for us to consider as to why it is so hard for our Churches in general today struggle with creating the kind of Gospel culture we find represented on the pages of the New Testament. The simple answer to that question is this:
The reason we fail to have Gospel cultures in our Churches is that we allow our church cultures to not be Gospel cultures!
Now that answer may sound patently obvious right? But there is more horsepower under that hood than it seems at first pass. When I say “allow” I mean something more on the lines of “get away with” or to permit. Or more poignantly, we permit the behavior of Christians that Jesus does not.
Plenty of articles and books have been penned on the question of non-Christians who call themselves Christians. We do not need to belabor that here. Moreover, false conversion is always a challenge of the visible Church. You cannot eradicate it completely. As Paul says, “Let God be true, and every man found to be a liar.” We lie even to ourselves—and quite habitually. In today’s Church environment, this is expressly problematic. Perhaps never has the bar to be called a Christian been lowered so much. When in the early Church one typically went through months or even years of instruction before baptism, today, if you will so much as raise your hand, or pray a two lin prayer, you can be called a Christian without question. That itself is not the biggest part of the problem as much as what is expected thereafter. I believe many sincere conversions are adversely affected by simply never being trained and shown what is truly expected of the follower of Jesus.
Here is the issue though. For a Gospel culture to thrive, it must uphold the very same expectations that God and his Gospel do. People normally rise to the standard you expect of them, however imperfectly. But if a Christian community is lax or permissive in its expectations, its culture will reflect that. If it expects Christians to live as Christians, with very clear biblical precedent, then Spiritual formation can take place.
Culture Change for Life Change
Where then does true spiritual formation take place? It takes place in the context of a Gospel shaped culture. This is the point we have been leading up to from the beginning of this discussion; People shape culture, and culture shapes people. Culture is a natural byproduct of humans living in proximity. Nevertheless, we have the power to determine the nature, ethos, and ethic of our culture by the choices we make. Even unintentional and poorly thought out choices, create a culture, and rarely for the good of all.
When we encounter the Gospel of Jesus, as we observed above in the Beatitudes, we see that the Gospel gives us that ethos and ethic by which to live and create a culture in our churches and homes that reflect the grace and peace of God. it is imperative then for the local Church and its leaders to understand that (1) a Gospel culture is a choice, one that can only be obtained intentionally with a clear focus and hard work. (2) A Gospel culture while formed by our choices forms the Church. This is key to creating Churches with powerful witness socially and evangelistically.
Creating a Gospel culture is engineered through obedience to the Scripture through the power of the Spirit. Perhaps the best analogy is to compare a Gospel culture to an engineer creating a manufacturing mold. It must first be intentionally conceived and designed; then it must be formed. Afterward, it is now the mold that does the shaping of the raw material poured into it. Granted this process is far more dynamic and gradual in the Church. It takes time to form a Gospel culture, and it takes more time for a Gospel culture to form people.
So is it with creating Gospel cultures for our Churches? We must take the key elements we find in Scripture that comprise the Christian way of life and gently press them into the warp and woof of our Churches. This again takes time. It is more like carving a sculpture rather than just popping a product out of a mold. But as we build this ethos and ethic into our Churches, the nature and tone of the community positively change. Subsequently, the people inside the system change too—all for the better. And here is the really good news about a Gospel culture: Once a Gospel culture is formed, it can’t NOT change people! That is critical. A healthy Gospel formed culture in fact does the heavy lifting, not only in sanctification, but in all stages of the Christian process, from pre-evangelism to evangelism, to conversion, discipleship, and onto growing levels of maturity.
So what are these elements of a Gospel culture that are so critical to both forming Church culture and Christians? Those are the topics of discussion for our next installment.
Gospel + Safety + Time (Ortlund The Gospel pg. 72)