We live in a time of unprecedented opportunity for the gospel. The history of the church in the world is at a crossroads due to globalization and technological advancements in communication. The world is in a constant dialogue and the church has a voice in it. The frustration and anger in our society due to political and financial struggles is more than palpable in the current presidential election year. At the root are troubles and hardships common to all of us. We are surrounded by people who need the gospel truth of Christ.
As I sat in my study this week with my window open I could hear a man yelling obscenities and venting his frustration at someone on his cell phone. My prayers are now being shaped by what I’m seeing in the election debates and hearing on the street. I’m asking, “Lord give the church an audience with people such as these. They are everywhere. What can I say to them Lord?” What are we to do in such unprecedented times?
To the church at Philippi Paul wrote, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life…” (Phil. 2:14-16a). Several things in these verses deserve our attention.
First, Paul encourages the church to pursue a harmonious existence within the body. The world is in disarray and people have forgotten how to disagree with respect and courteousness. Self-love and discontent is the order of the day. But Christian contentment (a theme Paul takes up later in this epistle) is a breath of fresh air in a selfish, whining and complaining world. We have so much to be thankful for even in our disagreements.
Our world is divided into ever-smaller tribes due to the concept of “personal preference” as a most important defining principle wrongly derived from “individual rights.” Like the many warring tribes struggling for power in Egypt, Iraq and now Libya, our society is collapsing into special interest groups each advocating for their interest. The church’s ability to unite people of diverse backgrounds, socio-economic status, color, race and language in a single loving and harmonious community is starkly different. This is just ONE simple area of the church’s life in Christ that is contrasted to the world. Think of how many other aspects of our life together can potentially stand out against the darkness.
Second, it is this sort of practical Christ-like, Spirit-produced behavior that proves or demonstrates that Christians are “children of God.” Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:35). Elsewhere, Jesus also said that when we love our enemies then we are “sons of our Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:45). The grumbling people of the wilderness generation, by contrast, were repudiated as “no longer his children (Dt. 32:5). Love, said Francis Schaeffer, is the “final apologetic” and it is the believer’s “badge.” It is one thing to confess the faith and be listed on the roster of a local church; it is another to display love—the fruit of the Spirit.
Third, though this Christian community is contrasted to the world it is “in the midst” of a “crooked and perverse” generation that this excellent life is lived out. The church cannot be so separate as to not be “in the midst.” This is a reflection of the old adage to live “in the world but not of it.” The church family and the individual believers that comprise it are to be distinguished by its behavior yet there can be no distinction without proximity. This may take place in the work place, neighborhood associations, schools and other normal intersections of life. The church is distinctive in its handling of things such as money, sexuality, opportunity, difficulties, family, power and influence and this distinctiveness is noticed in our interactions with the lost.
Fourth, the result of being “in but not of” is that “you appear as lights in the world.” The word Paul uses means “luminaries” (Greek phosteres). The term is used in the Greek version of the Old Testament in Genesis 1:14-19 of the sun, moon, and stars. As F. F. Bruce notes, “these luminaries do not shine for their own sake; they shine to provide light for all the world.” You and I possess what the frustrated masses need – the light of the truth. God’s truth informs and shapes all of life. Hence, His light can be seen in all aspects of our behavior and speech. It is recognized as HIS light when we verbalize the fact that the source of our insight or reason for living the way we do is the Lord Jesus. If we leave people to supply their own explanation they might reason that we live the way we do because we are “religious” or “moral” or perhaps we are Mormons or practice yoga and are very “centered.” What gives glory to God is our verbalizing the reason for our behavior as rooted in the gospel and our relationship with Jesus Christ. This is “confessing” Him before men.
How are some believers doing this? How are some encouraging others to do this? What does this look like in my field? These are good and helpful questions. My own pastoral suggestion is to live in community with other believers in order to discuss these matters and pray together. This is one of the benefits of our small groups. The testimonies of God’s grace in other people who face similar circumstances can be tremendously encouraging and challenging. This can take shape along the lines of our existing community groups or I can imagine forming small groups based upon scheduling or geographical challenges.
For example, I have read of churches in city centers forming “vocation groups” in order to meet other Christians in their profession and talk about the challenges and opportunities they share and how they are building bridges for the gospel in their specific field. This might provide not only examples and insight but prayer partners that really “get” what you face. To this end I can imagine student groups, public servants, teachers, homemakers and others meeting for a handful of times. These are but a few suggestions.
We live in a time of unprecedented opportunity for the gospel. The world is listening and watching. Sit for just a few hours on a park bench or a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station or a town center and you will see the pain, confusion and turmoil of those “wandering in the darkness” as Jesus spoke in John 8. This is a great time to appear as lights in the world. Let’s find ways to do this together and individually by the grace of God.