The final episode of the television sitcom Friends aired on this day in 2004. It was watched by more than fifty-two million viewers.
I was not one of them.
I don’t think I saw ten minutes of any of the 236 episodes. In honor of today’s anniversary, I took a trivia quiz about the show, but I didn’t know the answer to a single question. You might do better.
This is not an unusual experience for me. When Janet and I order salads at restaurants, I always give her my cucumbers. I would much rather drive a 1965 Mustang fastback than a 2020 Ferrari (not that I own either one). I’ll take an episode of Hogan’s Heroes over Modern Family any day.
Fortunately, as Indira Gandhi noted, “Popularity is not a guarantee of quality.” Abraham Lincoln added, “Avoid popularity if you would have peace.”
The true measure of success
Jesus warned his disciples, “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets” (Luke 6:26). Paul testified, “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10). Scripture states, “Friendship with the world is enmity with God” (James 4:4).
At the same time, we are called to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Paul said of himself, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:22–23).
We are clearly called to reach the multitudes with God’s word and love. At the same time, we are not to measure success by popularity. How do we balance these two facts?
Richard Niebuhr’s classic Christ and Culture defines various ways Christians have historically related to society. One of them, “Christ of culture,” is the unbiblical attempt to modify our beliefs to suit the times. If the culture changes its mind on same-sex marriage, we change our theology accordingly, for example.
The opposite position on the spectrum is “Christ against culture.” Here we retreat from popular society into a Christian subculture. We refuse to watch popular television or go to popular movies. We want nothing to do with secular society. But this can keep our salt in the saltshaker, our light under its basket (Matthew 5:13–16).
The most biblical of Niebuhr’s options is “Christ transforming culture.” Here, we engage popular society for the sake of the gospel. We go to the woman at the well (John 4), seeking to lead her from water to living water. We connect with people where they are so we can lead them where they need to go.
You may be a Friends fan, or you may not know any more about the show than I do. But God has given you a kingdom assignment, a subset of society that is your mission field. He will lead you, empower you, and use you to the degree that you are willing to be used.
Will you measure success by popularity or by obedience today?