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Authenticity helps bridge the cultural gap between secular and Christian

Equipping Christian Leaders Feature Article: Spring 2019


By Dr. A. Ryan,

When Paul famously spoke of the “Unknown God” to the polytheistic Athenians, he faced the fundamental problem of communicating the Gospel from one culture to another. In today’s Western, post-Christian secular world, it is every bit as challenging to touch people who no longer hold to Christian values, presuppositions and worldviews. And the challenge is only growing more problematic. Eddie Gibbs noted that it used to be that though young people were rejecting the church they were at least interested in Jesus, but now “increasing numbers are now in search of transcendent spirituality in which Jesus no longer occupies a central place”.[1] One researcher likewise found that the Danes who live in perhaps the most secular country in the West, nevertheless are very open to spiritualities and “God,” but just not the God of the Bible.[2] How can Bible believers engage a world that seems to have no interest in or awareness of their message? While perhaps difficult, there are still opportunities to interest secular seekers in the Christian faith.

Young man on street looking at the camera

While secularism purports to eliminate God and religion from society, it can’t erase the universal attraction people have to find answers beyond this world. Most people intuitively desire to connect with an “unknown god,” and we can’t help notice that spiritual alternatives have increased even in the midst of a world that has supposedly left God behind. The result is that the secular person often encounters spirituality not in terms of doctrine but in terms of options and individualism. Characteristic of individualist culture, everyone seems to have their own take on spirituality. Anne-Louise Eriksson, head of the Church of Sweden research unit, likens the secularist’s search for spirituality like a walk in the “public park of religion” which provides a framework for belief but in which people are free to pick and choose from the things shared in the public conversation.[3]

It’s often difficult for Christians to address this mindset. We as Christians are often taught to present biblical truth in clear, simple logical presentations. Though this is helpful and even essential at the right time, in the midst of a plethora of competing spiritual views, our proclamations and apologetics often go unheard and unheeded. A standard Gospel presentation or apologetic often misses the target because of the amorphous nature of spiritual beliefs in secular thinking. Secular culture isn’t a monolithic set of beliefs that we can “deal with” but a scattered hybrid collection of individual beliefs taken from different groups and worldviews that a person belongs to. A Christian might give a reasoned response to one argument against the faith, but because of the varied nature of secular belief, it often seems like the person we are talking to has moved on in the park and picked another flower of interest to them. This leaves Christians scrambling to change directions in the conversation.

A second reason why logical arguments fail is because truth isn’t recognized so much by logical weight as much as by the authenticity of the message bearer. Without an authority to guide them to a particular body of belief, the secular person relies on “authenticity” to discern truth. People are open to spiritual ideas, even Christian ones, as long as the Christian is perceived to be authentic. That is, the Christian has genuine personal experiences of God that are not superficial, slavish adherences to tradition and the social games of a particular sect. Christians are particularly suspected as being inauthentic because people outside the church see Christianity as having been domesticated[4] by the self-interests of culture and tradition rather than a sincere seeking of the truth. To outsiders, we care only about our Bibles, outdated morality and bumper stickers.

The progression of secularism has eroded common touchstones between Christians and non-Christians. In some circles, Christians are now a foreign people with a foreign language, foreign lifestyle and foreign God. The average person cannot relate to a professional Christian or even a regular church-going Christian. Christians talk seriously about things that are from another world: hell, sin, judgment, salvation, submission to God, repentance, obedience, Trinity and God’s plan for us. In the meantime, the real world is full of cancer, suffering, school bullies, financial problems, dysfunctional marriages and families, feelings of despair and hopelessness, injustice, deceitful politicians, not to mention the popular forms of escape and entertainment like football, sex, or the latest movie or vacation cruise. A heady sermon on sanctification won’t mean much to someone dealing with the above issues.

Just as Jesus entered the world to live it with us, so Christians need to enter the world of our secular and seeking friends. As Gabe Lyons observes, they are “not likely to be reached by persuasive argument” but by experiencing authentic Christians.[5] How Christians deal with their suffering and every day issues resounds like a thunderclap in a world that most recognize as superficial, uncertain, and without hope. As Christians we often live on the sidelines, not engaging with unbelieving friends. Instead, we need to learn to speak deeply, openly, and respectfully about real issues. We must live the questions non-Christians want answers to. So what does it look like for us and our Jesus to engage this reality?

A friend once told me her journey of faith which started during her participation in the radical left movement of the 60s. While backpacking by herself in Europe, she bumped into some friends on the train. They told her they had just come from a little town in Switzerland where they had found some people at a local bar talking about life and philosophy. They encouraged her to go because they knew she liked to talk deeply about things. Thus, she met Francis and Edith Schaffer, the renowned Christian authors and theologians. In this woman’s eyes, the Schaffers were real people, not simply traditionalists. They were deep thinkers, authentic in their relationships with people and with God. She was able to dialogue with them honestly about issues that bothered her. They discussed the existence of evil, which her leftist ideology could neither answer nor eliminate. She found a community of people who were committed to real answers in a real world. To this day she is still bothered by the superficiality of Christians and churches, but in that little Swiss town she discovered the real Jesus and became a wholly committed follower.

Therefore, rather than preach a dogma which our friends don’t understand, let us practice authenticity and walk alongside them through the “park of religion.” Let’s consider together the mysteries and beauties that we find there for God is wonderfully mysterious indeed. As we do this, we may have the privilege of meeting Jesus with them on the path along the way. It is his own authenticity, shown through the believer, that will capture the longing heart of the post-modern soul.

River running through a village in the mountains


[1] Eddie Gibbs, ChurchNext: Quantum Changes in How We Do Ministry. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

[2] Phil Zuckerman, Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment. (New York: New York University Press, 2010) quoted in Anne Mie Arndt Skak Johanson, When What We Know is Not Enough: Exploring Danish Contemporary Spirituality.(Unpublished doctoral paper, Fuller Graduate University, 2016), 25.

[3] Anne-Louise Eriksson, Goran Gunner, and Niclas Blader, Exploring a Heritage: Evangelical Lutheran Churches in the North. (Pasadena: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2012), 170-187, quoted in Anne Mie Arndt Skak Johanson, When What We Know is Not Enough: Exploring Danish Contemporary Spirituality.(Unpublished doctoral paper, Fuller Graduate University, 2016), 18.

[4] An apt term used by Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, (Grand Rapids, W.B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1989).

[5] Gabe Lyons, The Next Christians: The Good News about the End of Christian America.(New York: Doubleday Religion, 2010),200 quoted in Colin Tuggle, Godly Grit: A Practical, Research-Driven Framework for Strengthening Ministry Perseverance, (Pasadena, Fuller Graduate University, 2019), 29.

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