Why Faithful Ministry Must be Counter-Cultural

One of the most pernicious tendencies in the church today is an obsessive hankering for applause, academic stature, political clout, large crowds, personal celebrity, and all the other badges of social standing and earthly esteem. Evangelicals seem to have forgotten that we are forbidden be conformed to this world (Rom 12:2). Our minds are supposed to be set “on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col 3:2). We are not to crave accolades—especially from a world that is filled with hatred for our Master (John 15:18–20).

But if you read popular blogs and bestselling books on church growth and ministry philosophy, you might get a different impression. It seems evangelicals no longer believe that worldliness is a sin. The movement’s main trendsetters relentlessly pressure pastors to contextualize their ministry and message so that the church can stay in step with these postmodern times. The result is an army of young ecclesiastical entrepreneurs and would-be megachurch moguls desperately trying to be as inclusive, pluralistic, and broad-minded as possible, in order to accommodate the new values of a postmodern culture. If we appeal to the world that way, they suggest, we can find favor in the eyes of unbelievers and thereby win them for Christ.

But the unbelieving world will never be won by entertainment, public relations campaigns, or a toned-down message that caters to people’s felt needs. God’s plan for evangelism in every age is the same: the church must proclaim the unadulterated gospel with clarity and conviction—and without change or compromise. “It is the power of God for salvation” (Rom 1:16), and “God [is] well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor 1:21).

Missional strategies that truncate the gospel or overshadow it with gimmickry and entertainment are not going to win the culture in this or any other age (Rom 10). In fact, the quest for the world’s approval is nothing less than spiritual harlotry. That is precisely the imagery the apostle James used. He wrote: “[Adulterers and] adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4).

There is and always has been a fundamental, irreconcilable incompatibility between the church and the world. The Bible’s message of sin and redemption is inherently counter-cultural in a fallen world. Christian thought is out of harmony with all the world’s philosophies. Genuine faith in Christ entails a denial of every worldly value. Biblical truth contradicts all the world’s religions. Above all, we believe in the exclusivity of Christ—the truth that Christ alone is “the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through [Him]” (John 14:6). That runs counter to every popular value of this age. Christianity itself is therefore antithetical to virtually everything this world admires. “Do not be surprised, brethren, if the world hates you” (1 John 3:13).
It is impossible to be faithful to Christ while currying the world’s favor. In fact, Jesus expressly repudiated the notion that worldly popularity is a measure of effectiveness in ministry: “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for their fathers used to treat the false prophets in the same way” (Luke 6:26).

He further explained: “The world . . . hates Me because I testify of it, that its deeds are evil” (John 7:7). In other words, the world’s contempt for Christianity stems from moral, not intellectual, motives: “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed” (John 3:19–20). No matter how dramatically worldly opinion may vary, Christian truth will never be popular with the world.

Yet, in virtually every era of church history there have been people in the church who are convinced that the best way to win the world is by catering to worldly tastes. Such an approach has always been to the detriment of the gospel message. The church has only made any significant impact on the world when the people of God have stood firm, refused to compromise, and boldly proclaimed the truth despite the world’s hostility. When Christians have shrunk away from the task of confronting popular worldly delusions with unpopular biblical truths, the church has invariably lost influence and impotently blended into the world. Both Scripture and history attest to that fact.

And the Christian message simply cannot be twisted to conform to the vicissitudes of worldly opinion. Biblical truth is fixed and constant, not subject to change or adaptation. Worldly opinion, on the other hand, is in constant flux. The various fads and philosophies that dominate the world change radically and regularly from generation to generation. The only thing that remains constant is the world’s hatred of Christ and His gospel.

In all likelihood, the world will not long embrace whatever ideology is in vogue this year. If the pattern of history is any indicator, by the time our great-grandchildren become adults, worldly opinion will be dominated by a completely new system of belief and a whole different set of values. Tomorrow’s generation will renounce all of today’s fads and philosophies. But one thing will remain unchanged: until the Lord Himself returns and establishes His kingdom on earth, whatever ideology gains popularity in the world will be as hostile to biblical truth as all its predecessors have been.

Consider the record of the past century, for example. A hundred years ago, the church was beset by modernism. Modernism was a worldview based on the notion that only science could explain reality. Modernism stems from the presupposition that nothing supernatural is real.

It ought to have been instantly obvious that modernism and Christianity were incompatible at the most fundamental level. If nothing supernatural is real, then much of the Bible is untrue and has no authority; the incarnation of Christ is a myth (this nullifies Christ’s authority as well); and all the supernatural elements of Christianity—including God Himself—must be utterly redefined in naturalistic terms. Modernism was anti-Christian at its core.

Nonetheless, the visible church at the beginning of the twentieth century was filled with people who were convinced modernism and Christianity could and should be reconciled. They insisted that if the church did not keep in step with the times by embracing modernism, Christianity would not survive the twentieth century. The church would become increasingly irrelevant to modern people, they said, and soon it would die. So they devised a “social gospel,” devoid of any message about personal sin, salvation, or substitutionary atonement.

Of course, biblical Christianity survived the twentieth century just fine. Wherever Christians remained committed to the truthfulness and authority of Scripture, the church flourished. But ironically, those churches and denominations that embraced modernism were the ones that became irrelevant and all but died out before the century was over. Many grandiose but nearly empty stone buildings offer mute testimony to the deadliness of compromise with modernism.

Modernism is now regarded as yesterday’s way of thinking. The dominant worldview in secular and academic circles today is called postmodernism.

Postmodernists have repudiated modernism’s absolute confidence in science as the only pathway to the truth. In fact, postmodernism has completely lost interest in “the truth,” insisting that it is impossible to be certain of any absolute, objective, or universal truth.

Modernism was indeed folly and needed to be abandoned. But postmodernism is a tragic step in the wrong direction. Unlike modernism, which was still concerned with whether basic convictions, beliefs, and ideologies are objectively true or false, postmodernism simply denies the possibility of settled knowledge.

To the postmodernist, reality is whatever the individual imagines it to be. This means that what is “true” is determined subjectively, as a social construct, and it is therefore subject to change. According to the postmodern way of thinking, there can be no such thing as objective, authoritative truth that governs or applies to all humanity universally.

The postmodernist naturally believes it is pointless to argue whether opinion A is superior to opinion B. Having given up on knowing objective truth, the postmodernist occupies himself instead with the quest for “understanding” the other person’s point of view. Seen in this light, the words truth and understanding take on radical new meanings. Ironically, “understanding” requires that we first of all disavow the possibility of knowing any truth at all. And “truth” becomes nothing more than a personal opinion, usually best kept to oneself.

That is the one essential, non-negotiable demand postmodernism makes of everyone: we are not supposed to think we know any objective truth. Postmodernists often suggest that every opinion should be shown equal respect. And therefore, on the surface, postmodernism seems driven by a broad-minded concern for harmony and tolerance. It all sounds very charitable and altruistic. But what really underlies the postmodernist belief system is an utter intolerance for every worldview that makes any universal truth-claims—particularly biblical Christianity.

In other words, postmodernism begins with a presupposition that is irreconcilable with the objective, divinely-revealed truth of Scripture. Like modernism, postmodernism is fundamentally and diametrically opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Postmodernism and the Church
Nonetheless, the church today is filled with people who are advocating postmodern ideas. Some of them do it self-consciously and deliberately, but most do it unwittingly. (Having imbibed too much of the spirit of the age, they are simply regurgitating worldly opinion.) The evangelical movement as a whole, still recovering from its long battle with modernism, is not prepared for a new and different adversary. Many Christians have therefore not yet recognized the extreme danger posed by postmodernist thought.

Postmodernism’s influence has clearly infected the church already. It’s the very reason so many churches want to tone down their message so that the gospel’s stark truth claims don’t sound so jarring to the postmodern ear. It’s why evangelicals now shy away from stating unequivocally that the Bible is true and all other religious systems and worldviews are false. It’s why some who call themselves Christians have gone even further, purposefully denying the exclusivity of Christ and openly questioning His claim that He is the only way to God.

The biblical message is clear. The apostle Peter proclaimed to a hostile audience, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” The apostle John wrote, “He who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36). Again and again, Scripture stresses that Jesus Christ is the only hope of salvation for the world. “There is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). Only Christ can atone for sin, and therefore only Christ can provide salvation. “And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life” (1 John 5:11–12).

Those truths are antithetical to the central tenet of postmodernism. They make exclusive, universal truth claims declaring that Christ is the only true way to heaven and that all other belief-systems are erroneous. This is what Scripture teaches. It is what the true church has proclaimed throughout her history. It is the message of Christianity. And it simply cannot be adjusted to accommodate postmodern sensitivities.

Instead, many Christians simply pass over the exclusive claims of Christ in embarrassed silence. Even worse, some in the church—including a few of evangelicalism’s best-known leaders—have begun to suggest that perhaps people can be saved apart from knowing Christ.

Christians cannot capitulate to postmodernism without sacrificing the very essence of our faith. The Bible’s claim that Christ is the only way of salvation is certainly out of harmony with the postmodern notion of “tolerance.” But it is, after all, just what the Bible plainly teaches. And the Bible—not postmodern opinion—is the supreme authority for the Christian. The Bible alone should determine what we believe and proclaim to the world. We cannot waver on this, no matter how much this postmodern world complains that our beliefs make us “intolerant.”

Tolerant Intolerance
Postmodernism’s veneration of tolerance is its most obvious feature. But the version of “tolerance” peddled by postmodernists is actually a twisted and dangerous corruption of true virtue.

Incidentally, tolerance is never mentioned in the Bible as a virtue, except in the sense of patience, forbearance, and longsuffering (cf. Eph 4:2). In fact, the contemporary notion of tolerance is a pathetically feeble concept compared to the love Scripture commands Christians to show even to their enemies. Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27–28; cf. vv. 29–36).

When our grandparents spoke of tolerance as a virtue, they had something like that in mind. The word used to mean respecting people and treating them kindly even when we believe they are wrong. But the postmodern notion of tolerance means we must never regard anyone else’s opinions as “wrong.” Biblical tolerance is for people; postmodern tolerance is for ideas.

Accepting every belief as equally valid is hardly a real virtue, but it is about the kind of only “virtue” postmodernism knows anything about. Traditional virtues (including humility, self-control, and chastity) are openly scorned—and even regarded as transgressions—in the world of postmodern thought.

Predictably, the beatification of postmodern tolerance has had a disastrous effect on real virtue in our society. In this age of tolerance, what was once forbidden is now encouraged. What was once universally deemed immoral is now celebrated. Marital infidelity and divorce have been normalized. Profanity is commonplace. Abortion, homosexuality, and moral perversions of all kinds are championed by large advocacy groups and enthusiastically promoted by the popular media. The postmodern notion of “tolerance” is systematically turning genuine virtue on its head.

Why does authentic biblical Christianity find such ferocious opposition from people who think they are paragons of tolerance? It is because the truth claims of Scripture—and particularly Jesus’ claim to be the only way to God—are diametrically opposed to the fundamental presuppositions of the postmodern mind. The Christian message represents a death blow to the postmodernist worldview.

But as long as Christians are being duped or intimidated into softening the bold claims of Christ and widening the narrow road, the church will make no headway against postmodernism. We need to recover the distinctiveness of the gospel. We need to regain our confidence in the power of God’s truth. And we need to proclaim boldly that Christ is the only true hope for the people of this world.

That may not be what people want to hear in this pseudo-tolerant age of postmodernism. But it is true nonetheless. And precisely because it is true and the gospel of Christ is the only hope for a lost world, it is all the more urgent that we rise above all the voices of confusion in the world and say so.