The Christian message is in trouble. From a public relations point of view, our brand is hurting. Non-Christians find us to be hypocritical, judgmental, arrogant, and constantly telling other people how to live. Our own young people are leaving the church in surprising numbers. Christian influence in American culture is probably at an all-time low.
For Christians who believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the solution to the poverty, pain, and brokenness in our world, this is very bad news. The question is, what can we do about it?
During my career as a CEO, I have led companies that were on the rise as well as on the decline. There was a time in the early ‘80s when the electronic gaming industry hit a rough patch. Sales were down, and my shareholders wanted to see a turnaround. Times were tough.
In this situation, a leader has two basic options. You can retreat to your “core competencies.” That is, you focus on what you do best, and stick to it while riding out the storm. You batten down the hatches. This is what a bank might do during a market crash, focus on the core business of collecting deposits and making loans and avoid the fancy market speculation that can produce big payoffs as well as losses.
The other strategy is to take some risks, get aggressive, and step into what might be unfamiliar territory. You use the difficult situation to find an edge when the market changes. This is what a technology giant might do when new, nimble startups fundamentally change the nature of the industry.
I believe this is what the church needs to do today.
For the last century, Christians have largely focused on the first strategy. We have sought to clarify our doctrines and purify our congregations. We stuck to the basics of the faith: believe and be baptized, and you’ll go to heaven.
That strategy had its moment and saw its share of successes. When the basic truths of Christianity were being questioned—but Christianity was still widely accepted and followed—it was important to stick to our core beliefs. However, there are times when that strategy is no longer effective.
Today, Christianity is not only questioned but even disliked. The situation is fundamentally changing, and we need to look outward, not inward. It isn’t good enough to ride out the storm if the wind and waves are likely to break the ship to pieces.
Having traveled to dozens of countries, I have seen the church succeed wildly when it takes the gospel message boldly into new arenas, but it requires us to be willing to break out of our ghetto. It means we will have to engage in the messy reality of our world.
I’ve seen Christians earn a fresh hearing for the gospel as they worked alongside Muslims and Buddhists providing a day care for the children of prostitutes. In Africa I’ve seen Christians and Muslims learn to respect each other’s faith as they work to stop the AIDS crisis. I have seen Christians working on behalf of the poor but doing so alongside governments accused of human rights abuses. What I get to see in the arena of international development, the church must also do in the arenas of culture, politics, business, art, science and entertainment.
In each situation, Christians must earn the right to offer the whole gospel—one that moves from belief to action—as the solution to the brokenness and pain in our world.
The fact is, we have to get into the messiness of the world—and get messy ourselves—if we’re going to impact it. Instead of judging those outside the church, we must engage them. We have to risk offending other Christians who want to stick to our “core competencies” and avoid the gray areas in the world.
In 1 Corinthians 5, the Apostle Paul advises the church not to associate with immoral people, but he offers this clarification. “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world.” I think Paul is saying that while we are to be holy ourselves, we must also live with and love all the swindlers and misfits in our world.
We can no longer bar our doors and close our windows seeking a refuge from the turmoil outside. We can’t expect people to come to us looking for salvation. We have to find new ways, outside the walls of the church, to demonstrate to a hurting world the good news of the gospel. We need to show people a different and authentic faith. And we have to be willing to make mistakes, get dirty, and take risks. The times are changing, and we need a new strategy.