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A surprising strategy for reaching our culture

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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A businessman walks past a homeless man lying on a bench in Tokyo (Credit: Reuters/Yuriko Nakao)

George Washington Carver was born to slave parents in Missouri.  When he was a week old, he was kidnapped by night raiders from Arkansas.  His owner swapped a racehorse for his return.  As a boy, he began attending a black school in his region.  He was accepted to college, then rejected when they discovered he was an African American.  Eventually he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and taught for 47 years at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee University.

During his teaching and research career, he discovered 300 uses for peanuts and hundreds more for other agricultural items.  After his death, the first national monument dedicated to a non-president was erected in his honor.  He was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans and the National Inventors Hall of Fame.  On his grave was written, “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”

Does the world need more George Washington Carvers?  How can we help produce them?  Why should we?  And how does the answer help us reach an increasingly secular culture?

Serve the poor to obey the Bible

Let’s begin with what you already know: the Bible commands that we serve the poor.  Jesus began his public ministry by quoting Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18; all references from the NIV).  He used a boy’s small lunch to feed 5,000 hungry families (John 6:1-13).  He wants to do the same with our possessions today.
 
When the global economy grows worse, the global need for help becomes greater.  Our Father has entrusted us with resources which are critical to the wellbeing and even the survival of millions.

Biblical injunctions to care for those in poverty are clear and compelling:

  • “Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan.  If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry” (Exodus 22:22-23).
  • “If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother.  Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8).
  • “He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done” (Proverbs 19:17).
  • The Lord said of King Josiah, “He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well.  Is that not what it means to know me?” (Jeremiah 22:16).

Indeed.

Feed the body to feed the soul

First, serve the poor to obey the Bible.  Second, feed the body to feed the soul.  Randel Everett, a longtime pastor and friend, is right: I have no right to preach the gospel to a hungry person.  Jesus met physical need so he could meet spiritual need.  He healed a man’s blind eyes so he could heal his blind soul (John 9).  He cleansed a leper’s body so he could cleanse his spirit (Luke 17:19).

When we feed the hungry, we demonstrate the relevance of our message.  We show them that God’s love is real when our love is real.  For instance, my wife volunteers at a ministry in West Dallas called Brother Bill’s Helping Hand.  As the “neighbors” come each week for food and other assistance, they learn that the volunteers’ love for them is genuine.  They often ask why these people of relative means are giving their time to such a need.  Many respond to the gospel they hear and give themselves to Christ as their Lord.

Ken Medema, the blind singer and composer, says in one of his songs, “Don’t tell me I have a friend in Jesus until you show me I have a friend in you.”

Do good to prove God’s grace

Serve the poor to obey the Bible; feed the body to feed the soul.  Here’s my third assertion: we must do good to prove God’s grace.  To defend it, let’s begin with the good news: more people are coming to Christ today than ever before in Christian history.  According to David Barrett’s World Christian Encyclopedia, more than 82,000 come to Christ every day.  Other scholars put the number as more than a million a week.

South Korea is one-third to one-half born-again Christian.  Yoido Full Gospel Church has nearly a million members.  Hillsong worship is transforming Australia and worship around the world.  Brazil will be one-half evangelical Christian by 2025.  Ninety percent of the people in southern Nigeria were in church last Sunday.  When I was in Beijing, I was told that 100,000 people come to Christ every day in the People’s Republic of China.  More Muslims have come to Christ in the last 15 years than the previous 15 centuries.  I’ve met them in Bangladesh and Cairo and across the Middle East.

Now to the bad news: we are not seeing this awakening in the West.  In fact, the opposite is happening.  Most of us remember when the church was central to our culture.  Stores were closed on Sundays.  Billy Graham was always named to the “most admired” list.  However, in recent decades, we have moved from central to marginal, from significant to irrelevant.

From central to marginal

A recent Harris Poll conducted a large survey of religious beliefs in France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Spain, and the U.S.  The results: 62% in Italy; 48% in Spain; 41% in Germany; 35% in England; and 27% in France believe in any form of a supreme being.

In Great Britain today, there are four times as many Muslims attending mosque on Friday as Christians attending worship on Sunday.  Twenty-five percent of Brussels is Muslim.  Fifty-four million Muslims live in Europe; their numbers will continue to increase due to immigration and high birth rates.  Of David Barrett’s 82,000 conversions a day, only 6,000 are in Western Europe and North America, combined.

John Dickerson is an award-winning journalist and pastor of a fast-growing church in Arizona.  His The Great Evangelical Recession is a wake-up call for evangelicals in America today.

Dickerson defines an “evangelical” as a person who believes the Bible is totally trustworthy and that Jesus is the only way to the Father and heaven.  He cites studies indicating that our numbers in America today total only 7-9 percent of the population, less than one in 10.  If current trends continue, within 30 years we will be one in 25.

He also notes that the oldest generation currently gives 46 percent of the income to Christian ministries and churches in America.  They will pass away in the next ten years, cutting giving in half.  Over the next 30 years, if current trends continue, giving to ministries will decline by 70 percent.

And he notes that two-thirds of church-going young adults are leaving the church by the age of 30; two-thirds of them will never come back.  Among Millennials (ages 18-29), there are four to six times as many atheists, agnostics, and non-religious people as there are evangelicals.  Clearly, our faith has become marginal to our society.

From marginal to dangerous

Now we’re seeing another shift: from marginal to dangerous.  Roman Catholic Cardinal Francis George: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.  His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.”  Why?

Last year, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child issued a stinging rebuke of the Catholic Church over its response to the clergy abuse scandal.  That’s not surprising news.  Here’s what is: the U.N. commission also chastised the Church for its positions on abortion, contraception, and homosexuality.  This is the first time the United Nations has pressured the Church to change its long-held beliefs, claiming that these beliefs are actually dangerous.  They charge that the Church’s positions on these issues harm people and must be altered.

Other examples:

  • A U.S. Army Reserve training presentation recently called evangelical Christians “religious extremists,” listing them alongside al Qaeda, Hamas, and the Ku Klux Klan.  In fact, they topped the list, above the Muslim Brotherhood and five places ahead of al Qaeda.
  • Catholic Charities, because they require that couples be heterosexual to be considered for adoption and foster care, have been driven out of adoption and foster care in locations such as Boston, San Francisco, and the District of Columbia.
  • Barronnelle Stutzman is a florist in Richland, Washington.  She recently chose not to supply flowers for a same-sex wedding, citing her religious beliefs.  Now a state judge has ruled that she can be sued personally.  She could lose her business and retirement savings.
  • Aaron and Melissa Klein were forced to close their Oregon bakery after declining to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage ceremony and now face having to pay $150,000 in damages.

Why is this happening?

Atheist Richard Dawkins is famous for his T-shirt, “Religion: Together we can find the cure.”  He calls religion “the root of all evil” and describes it as “a virus in the software of humanity that must be expunged.”  Lest we miss the point, consider his statement in The God Delusion describing the God of the Old Testament: “a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser, a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

Christopher Hitchens’s international best-seller asserted that “religion poisons everything.”  Atheist Sam Harris states, “Pretending to know things that you do not know is the lifeblood of religion” and claims that “science must destroy religion.”  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently claimed that “right-to-life” Christians “have no place in the state of New York.”

There is a growing movement that views religion as detrimental to humanity.  They claim that we have evolved beyond Christianity, that Jesus must be seen as the Zeus of our day.  They tell us that religious beliefs are irrational and illusory, that religion shelters child abusers, that it created the Crusades, the violence in Northern Ireland, and 9/11.

This movement is especially evident on college campuses.  When university professors were asked if they had negative feelings about various beliefs, three percent reported such feelings for Jews, nine percent for non-evangelical Christians, 22 percent for Muslims, but 53 percent for evangelical Christians.

Conclusion: Do good for God

What should we do in response?  Here is God’s word on our subject:

  • When Peter’s readers were facing increased persecution, he taught them to respond to their adversaries “. . . with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.  For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:16-17).
  • Paul: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
  • John: “Do not be surprised that the world hates you.  Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:13, 18).
  • Jesus: “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16); “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).

When we do good, we show our culture that our faith is good.  We meet felt need to meet spiritual need, earning the right to preach the gospel.  When we come together as the body of Christ, his hands and feet, addressing the needs of our city, our city takes note.  When we address education for children, financial stability, human trafficking, hunger, immigrant care, orphan care, prison re-entry, and other such issues, the culture sees that our faith is relevant to their issues.  And we show them God’s love in ours.

C. S. Lewis: “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.  The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven.  It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.  Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you will get neither.”

To reach our increasingly secular culture, we must serve the poor to obey the Bible; we must feed the body to feed the soul; and we must do good to prove the grace of God.  Then we join God at work in our world.

A man once told his pastor, “I would like to ask God why he doesn’t do something about all the pain and suffering in the world.”  “Why don’t you ask him?” his pastor replied.  The man answered, “Because I’m afraid he’ll ask me the same question.”