We’ve always done it that way. It’s the right way to do it.
I heard a pastor say one time…
I was talking with my small group, and we all agreed…
We often accept tradition or opinion as biblical truth. I’d like to believe all Christian churches are firmly founded in biblical truths, but I’d be sticking my head in the sand if I believed everyone in my church or any other church knew the difference between biblical truth and falsehoods in every situation. It’s just not going to happen. We don’t discern by default. We discern because we’re intentionally seeking God (1 Corinthians 1:20-31), inviting him to guide us through the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:9-16), and committing to relationships of accountability with other Jesus-followers (1 Corinthians 12:25; Romans 1:12; Hebrews 10:24-25).
We make choices in what we pursue. We aren’t passive sponges, absorbing the world around us with no regard to the germs we’re soaking up and wringing out on others. However, until we accept our vulnerabilities, we’ll be less-than-is-necessary cautious in what we accept. We’ll accept untruths because they make sense in the context of our cultural norms and traditions and reject biblical truths because they don’t comfortably fit into what we already (think we) know.
How Does the Shift into Culturally-Based Faith Happen?
Our surroundings become the norm. We adopt what we’re taught. If I’m raised in a church which teaches me about God’s harsh judgment of sin but avoids lessons in grace, I’m going to have different assumptions than someone raised in a church focused on God’s love but negligent of his judgment. I pass what I’ve learned to others. I live out the truth I’ve been told. I mimic what I’ve seen.
We look for justifications and ignore exceptions. We don’t naturally want to find discrepancies in what we believe. We don’t strive to be exposed and vulnerable. We read Scriptures and highlight what confirms what we’ve been taught. We use our concordances to search Scriptures by word or topic then choose among the verses that put an exclamation point on what we believe.
We choose comfort. We listen to speakers and choose studies and authors to whom we’re accustomed. We will do whatever it takes as long as whatever it takes fits within our schedules and personal goals.
A Call to Action
I recently spoke with a friend who took a ministry position at the church of her childhood – the same church she viewed as old-fashioned and unwilling the change, the same church that frustrated her with stagnancy, the same church I’d heard her describe as “a passionless institution” more focused on preserving the past than pursuing biblical truths. I wanted to know what changed her mind and why she was returning. She admitted,
“I wouldn’t be returning if God hadn’t insisted. He’s softening my heart. I was once frustrated at the stubbornness to maintain instead of a willingness to grow. Now I see there’s an unfamiliarity with the Bible. I hope to help them learn to discern between what they’ve accepted because of cultural norms or traditions and what has been founded on biblical truth.”
My friend is taking action to help one church shift from a cultural basis to a biblical one. It will be a slow journey as she equips individuals to develop and stretch muscles of discernment. Status quo will no longer be good enough. They’ll question themselves, each other, and leaders along the journey. They’ll even question God. He isn’t intimidated by our questions. He longs for us to ask questions in pursuit for familiarity. God wants us to know him more intimately, so we can recognize the truth among the tradition around us. He wants us to stop living culturally and focus on biblical living both outside and inside the church walls.
Hypocrisy is out. Authenticity is in. That means the more churches carry on without open discussion of the difficult questions, the less engagement they’ll have among people. They might cling to tradition for the sake of status quo, but they won’t keep status quo. All things atrophy when attention to growth is not intentional. In order to grow, churches will need to look for – and call out – the elephants in the room. People within the church need to be taught, challenged and held accountable toward discernment. Without discernment, we’ll have monuments of institution instead of bodies of life-changing believers.
How to Get Started
- Find out what people believe. SurveyMonkey.com is a great site for free surveys to post on your church’s Facebook page or email. Be sure to distribute printed copies as well to reach as many people as possible. Ask questions that help you discover to what extent people are confusing biblical truths with cultural norms. Also include questions that indicate people’s understandings of church traditions. Do they know the biblical basis or do they believe something has to be a certain way because it’s “always” been done that way?
- Find out what leadership believes. Don’t assume just because someone is an elder, ministry leader or staff member, he or she is well-aware of the difference between biblical and cultural influences. Don’t assume someone’s last name or seminary training has gifted him or her with a pure biblical foundation. We all have baggage, and it has to be sorted. Today is a good time to begin.
- Listen to people. Teaching isn’t just telling. Teaching is helping others learn. The learning process requires dialogue. In order to meet people where they are, we have to find out where they are. Ask questions. Listen to concerns, frustrations, experiences and needs. Instead of formulating a sermon series to tell everyone the foundational biblical truths of church and steps to take for improved discernment, discover the baggage people have first. Engage in conversation and help them unpack.
- Make accountability the norm. Maximize learning by building a culture in which everyone supports everyone else. Slipping in and out of worship services is not acceptable. Make connecting with people an expectation of involvement in the community of Christ-followers. The support and encouragement we give one another isn’t about unconditional affirmation. It’s about affirmation of godly behavior, attitude, words and thoughts. Foster a community of transparency. We can’t personally connect with everyone around us, but everyone can invest and be invested in by someone.
As we study God’s Word with a vulnerability that invites the Holy Spirit to guide us in discernment between what we believe because of cultural influences and what God is actually saying through the Word, God will prune us. As we intentionally seek familiarity with God, we will step closer to God. As we step closer to God as a community, we also step closer together. If we seek to get closer as a community without intentionally stepping toward God, who knows where we’ll end up! Let’s not find out!