The work of practical Christian missions begins with understanding the culture of the people group one is working to reach. I have been blessed to be called to minister to the people in the River Valley of Arkansas. In many ways, I have an advantage in understanding the culture that I am ministering to because it is the very culture in which I was raised (even though there are some different leanings in Northwest Arkansas, most of what we embrace is the same). On the other hand, living in a culture that is identical to my own is as much a disadvantage to me as it is an advantage. See, the same cultural bias that a missionary would work to direct people back to the Biblical authority in a country or people group that hasn’t been influenced by popular Christianity over the past several centuries are my own biases in my current context. How then am I able to recognize and avoid the pitfalls of a culture that is not Christian?
The dichotomy of having an advantage and a disadvantage when ministering to your own culture is relevant to the majority of Christians who are not called to uproot their entire lives to move across continents to bring the Gospel to other nations themselves. In fact, we can rest in the instructions of Jesus in the first chapter of Acts to “be [his] witness in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8, ESV), that we are called to deal with this issue of cultural identity within our context with priority in missions. That is, those cultural blinders that could potentially keep people from seeing biblical truth for its reality are issues that individuals must confront in themselves before being effective to as a witness in their communities. After personally confronting personal preferences, the saints will be able to lead those around them to embracing pure biblical truth. Afterall, in addition to Jesus’ instructions, He modeled ministering to his own people first. So then, the emphasis of cultural biases and self-blindness to them is not intended to degrade the many saints who effectively minister within their own communities; rather, to encourage them to cautiously walk circumspectly in the world they are in (Eph. 5:15).
What in American culture stands out as deserving our attention as churches then? For consideration, the era of social media and the expansion and embracing of amateur journalism has both reinforced some cultural elements that already existed and created new societal trends, namely, consumerism, the fear-of-missing-out (FOMO), and personal branding.
While FOMO, and an obsession with branding are relatively new and unique to the emergence of the internet and social media in our culture, both, seem to be sprouts from the fertile soil of consumerism tilled by the free-market commerce ingrained into our society. Consumerism is the cultural trend to view all things as a product. Every entity in the world exists to provide a product, something tangible. Every entity depends upon the support of consumers. In fact, consumerism lays the foundation for “cancel culture” which takes advantage of the relationship between entities that provide a product in exchange for the support of the consumer. Through massive coordination and social agreement, consumers can band together to boycott entities.
The same mechanism that has made “cancel culture” as effective as it has been in the past decade has undoubtedly been the breadth of reach available to people through social forums that exist independent of physical meeting places. In a world without social media, in order for boycotting to be as effective as it has would require a larger majority of the consumer population to have any effect. The simple fact is, that a minority opinion represented across multiple localities would not be able to be organized without a massive undertaking. Because of social forums on the internet though, groups who share common ground on minority opinions are able to meet each other with greater ease, organize across larger space, and as a consequence, leverage a minority lead effort to affect the world around them.
Fear of Missing Out
This same mechanism, social media and internet communities, has created an overwhelming number of options for the mass public. The younger generations have more options than has ever been present regarding what they are going to give their time to, what issues will claim their attention, what passions they will pursue, among every other decision that exist in life. This has created a society that is indecisive. People, in a general sense, do not want to make commitments that could result in them missing out on an alternative plan, hobby, or passion. As someone looking out into the world that we are called to minister to as Christians, it is a burden to see how this fear-of-missing-out has caused a loss of general satisfaction in our world. Everything joyful event in life seems to come with an even more cumbersome mourning for what might have been more joyful.
What happens when consumerism infiltrates even friendships and acquaintances? You develop and give birth to a community of people who are either polarized by their unique factions of opinion or paralyzed to pursue any genuine passion in life. Rather than experiencing life, enjoying the beauty of relationships, people focus on their personal brand. This concept moves full circle both because of consumerism and a privatization of it. It is terrifying to consider the potential of friends and individuals being absorbed into cancel culture as viciously as corporations and public entities; but that is the reality in the world that we live in. Rather than sharing their perspective, and unique contribution, people allow themselves to be absorbed into factions of society with differing opinions. This is what has produced a trend of polarization in opinions. Rather than contributing unique variances, people must identify with a group wholly and completely so that they are not “canceled” by both those who disagree with them and those who agree with them but in part still find their perspective flawed. The term “branding” at one time was unique to secular branding. Now however, it is simply a part of life. Individuals consider the brand that they are projecting to the world around them and the need to protect that brand as a valuable commodity. They are a commodity that can be rejected or accepted by consumerism. Is it any surprise that the world is undergoing a self-worth crisis? The new consequence of this, is a lack of authenticity from people, an unwillingness and extreme hesitation to share the struggles and burdens of life with their communities.
Cause and Effect of culturally secular infiltration within the church and spiritual decayed congregations.
While cultural issues have always been an obstacle to living for the Kingdom of God, the progression of reach, and personal integration of western culture has been harmful to the spiritual condition of many churches. Instead of the church impacting Western culture, modernity has seen culture influence the church.This type of cultural exegesis isn’t intended to give rise to an alarmist nature; rather, to understand the unique circumstances that face the American church’s mission to fulfil Jesus’ command for the church. When God became flesh, he ministered in a specific region, to a specific people, with a specific set of cultural biases. Many of the trappings laid by the religious elite of Jesus’ day found their footing in the cultural expectations and trajectory. Jesus’ message to reject the kingdom of men to live in the kingdom of God and as those who belong to that kingdom is ultimately what made his message combative to the social structure of his day. This call to come to the Kingdom of Heaven is the same message that the Gospel proclaims. Today, we face the same opposing forces that Jesus’ earthly ministry did even though our culture is different.
The unfortunate reality for the church in a western culture is that these obstacles to embracing the gospel have become ingrained into the very entity that is supposed to proclaim opposition to them. The church has become an entity that provides a commodity exactly like every other entity in a consumerist society. In consequence, the church has become an entity that must bend to the demands of “cancel culture” even if such a population represents a minority opinion. Church leaders have contributed to this problem by mistakenly placing all of their means of measuring success or failure upon attendance and giving metrics.To make sure their church was “growing” in breadth, they simplified the gospel. They watered down the ordinances of God. They trivialized the weight of God’s Word.
In an effort to reach an indecisive and uncommitting generation, the significance of church membership has nearly been lost in even the most conservative of congregations. Instead of approaching the culture and realizing that the Gospel is counter-cultural, the church has in many senses integrated the culture into its own polity. How far have we moved away from the message that Jesus taught?
In the same way that individuals have guarded their public perception, the church has become weak in adopting a “seeker-sensitive” approach to ministry. Instead of diving into the depths of God’s wisdom revealed in Scripture and being challenged by truth that comes from an infinite Creator the church models what the society has created, a spineless anyone is welcome, non-offensive, façade.
Of course, such a turn and change of pace didn’t begin with the birth of the internet. In the same way that consumerism laid the groundwork for cancel culture and individualized branding through the birth of the internet, the foundation for doctrinal trivialization in the church was laid with the revival focused ministries of the 1820’s. Most notably, with Charles Grandison Finney’s (1792-1875) shift away from preaching the doctrines of the Bible which was later picked up by Sam Jones (1847-1906) and Billy Sunday (1862-1935). This revival movement was remarkably different than what was seen in the Great Awakening. Arguably, the revivals the 19th century were the beginning of the church’s movement to acquiesce to cultural standards. Reductionism began to saturate the method of preaching in churches and the saints began to place more emphasis on growing congregations by breadth instead of by depth.
A Potential Solution
There is of course a potential solution that is easy to see. Return to Biblical Authority. Lead churches to making church membership mean something again. Accept the fact that swarms of people will not come to be a part of such a movement unless it is the Spirit leading them. Pursue Spirit-lead revivals over man-lead reductionism. I imagine now that every pastor that I spend time with is saying, “Amen.” Note though that our unity in this vision begs the question of how to practically lead such a change. The most important and crucial element to returning to a biblically revealed model is to recognize that there is no vehicle except the local church that can accomplish this. The church is God’s plan. The church is God’s plan to “bring to light for everyone what is the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things. . .” it is “through the church [that] the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known,” (Eph. 3:9,10).
As such, adopting this solution is not a message that needs to be preached to church leaders. It isn’t a message that pastors, and elders exclusivelyneed to. It is a message that every member of a New Testament congregation needs to take to heart by realizing that the church must be a part of this return to biblical authority, to concern for quality doctrine. When churches meet to accomplish associational work through independent assemblies, formal associations, or conventions, it is common to only see pastors and elders gathering for such events. Such meetings aren’t designed to be “pastor’s clubs”. The work of the great commission which is the motivation for such meetings belongs to the saints. For such a solution to work, we need churches, the whole church, to take seriously the oracles of God. To become like the Bereans of Acts 17 who would leave their homes to go and read from the scriptures to understand all that God had revealed to them.
With that said, it is necessary for elders to lead their congregations to getting their strength back. The simple application is to aim at making church membership meaningful, church doctrine approachable, and church missions personal. It is as good a time as any to mention that I do not have all of the answers. I am still working to implement these applications in my own life and ministry context. I am confident, though, in the power of God and His willingness to respond when his people are obedient to do what pleases him.
The first matter that arises that needs to be rectified is restoring church membership to a meaningful part of Christian Life. If a non-church member asked any church member in your local church, would you feel confident, they would be able to explain why membership matters? When is the last time you had a conversation with a potential church member about membership because they had been attending for a long time, professed to be a believer, but didn’t understand how church membership affected their spiritual life? If you haven’t had a conversation like that recently, is it truthfully because there is no need for it or because you have been guilty of making light of church membership yourself?
What privilege comes with church membership to make it attractive? Cautiously preceding to answer this question, one finds that the Bible does provide some clear advantages to being involved in a local church. While we should avoid pragmatism and a consumerist perspective, the benefits of church membership are best seen through the lens of the Bible. While it would be easy to write at great length on many of these benefits, I will summarize each quickly below.
- Accountability – church memberships are to keep a watch on the walk of others as to protect them from falling into sin. While the focus of many conversations on church discipline has pivoted around the need to maintain holiness within the congregation, a biblical inspection of church discipline purpose is the protection and care of the souls of the saints. Anyone who takes their spiritual walk seriously would be eager to have this in their life.
- Participation – church membership provides an avenue for saints to serve in a local setting. While many contemporary churches do not limit service to church members, it would be good for congregations to evaluate the way that they practice electing those who have leadership roles particularly in education ministries of the church. Every born-again believer should be eager to participate in the ministries of the church. How reckless are churches who allow people who have not submitted to the authority of the church to teach and represent her?
- The Ordinances – Baptism, without controversy, we understand beyond identifying with Christ, is a way to identify with his body. It is an ordinance given to the church. However, like service, the church has moved away from limiting participation to the Lord’s Supper to members. Historically, Baptists have always seen the ordinances as given to the church. The 1689 London Confession, Philadelphia Confession, and New Hampshire Confession all make this clear. How do churches protect the Lord’s table by allowing those who have not submitted to the authority of that church to participate? By allowing this, congregations have placed the emphasis on individual worship. Let’s be clear, individual worship has an integral part into taking ordinances seriously; but the ordinances are not them. The ordinances are given to the church and therefore corporate worship.
- Covenants – have been a part of congregational life as long as I am aware. It seems that today they’ve simply become a formality though. How many church members take to heart a commitment made to practice secret and private devotions within their home? Youth ministry and college ministry would not be in the crisis that they are in if this were the case.
In short, church membership doesn’t need to be made into something. It already is valuable. The Bible says so. Church membership is obedience to God’s Word, provides individuals with direction and accountability for living out their faith. What can be more valuable to an individual than membership in a New Testament Church? Church leaders simply need to return to what the Bible has already said by practicing biblical church discipline, limiting leadership service in the church, practicing biblical protection of the ordinances, and returning to the practice of making covenants among church members to establish themselves as a visible body.
Moving on to the issue of doctrine, I admit that there are few among even pastors who share my nerdy streak for dissecting the oracles of God. The goal with mentioning this is not to paint a picture of every church resembling an academic institution like seminaries. Rather, it is a return to local assemblies becoming self-expressing bodies. For many denominations and groups of Christians the theologically authoritative entity has become some group above or beyond the local church. We do not find any model of church structure that resembles this in the Bible. The local church is supposed to be the place where doctrine is created and studied. To get there then, it requires that church members commit themselves to the study of the Word.
Pastor’s must realize how essential it is that they lead by example in this. An easy way to do this is to ensure that you take time every day to study the Bible with no ambition to teach or preach what you are studying. In fact, commit yourself to not teaching what you study for your own benefit. It will still impact your teaching. The same way it will impact the life of your congregants (if you believe that) if you commit to reading God’s inspired Word. If you believe it is important, practice it. Provide reading plans for your church. Asking and modeling a discipline of reading the Bible will help people to hold each other accountable. It will also help them to see how obtainable it is.
Finally, church leaders should work earnestly to make the work of missions personal again. There is nothing wrong with cooperating with other churches to send missionaries around the world and locally. In fact, the model for associating is seen among the early churches in Acts. When we teach church members that their contribution to missions is in the election of missionaries that you support, we rob them of the burden for missions that every Christian should feel. In truth, it means little to the kingdom of God if my only contribution to missions is signing a check. We must teach church members that when we partner with missionaries, we make a commitment to them that they don’t have to worry about our local community. When we sign our contribution to their work fund, we promise them that our local context is our own mission field. We must view mission work as a partnership.
With that said, churches must model this for their congregations. Make your local missions a priority for your church. Don’t leave out of your annual budget your own mission project fund. Your community needs you to be the hands and feet of Jesus. For that matter, raise up faithful men who are qualified for ministry within your church so that they can lead out and be sent by your church. Demonstrate as much eagerness to train future missionaries as you do to support them.
A Vision for the Future.
If we would be faithful to make church membership meaningful, doctrine essential, and missions personal, the church would be on solid footing for the future. Of course, nothing will happen outside of the will of God. He has promised to preserve his church and I am sure there are many faithful remnants among us. For that I am thankful. To add my opinion (not that much of this hasn’t already been that), if the church were able to implement all of these things, the church, counter-intuitively, would be much more attractive to the world around us. Instead of being a reflection of a society that doesn’t resemble God’s goodness, righteousness, or holiness, we would be what we were designed to be. The goal is God’s glory. That should only be difficult to obtain if we are trying to fit our own glory along side His.
Derrick Bremer serves as pastor of Denver Street Baptist Church (BMA) in Greenwood, AR. A native Arkansan, Derrick is blessed to raise his two Irish twins with his wife Michelle. The Bremer’s relocated to Greenwood from Northwest Arkansas in 2020 after feeling burdened for churches without pastors during the pandemic in 2020. In addition to caring for his family, pastoring a congregation, and continuing his education at BMA Theological Seminary, Derrick currently serves as on the Board of Trustees for the Baptist Publishing House (https://www.baptistpublishinghouse.com) and as Moderator for the United Association of Baptists (a 148 associative work of like minded Baptist churches).
Good thoughts. Impressive to see how it all connects and humbling to see how far we stray when we don’t pay attention