In 2005, my young family moved from Philadelphia, PA (where I had been working towards a Ph.D. in apologetics) to Wyoming, MI. We set up camp in a shoebox house on Hubal Ave. In fact, believe it or not, the day we moved in, Kevin Harney and his sons showed up and helped us unload our moving van! I’ll never forget helping them transport box-after-box of books into my basement.
Over the next few days, we spent time meeting our neighbors. Across the street from us was another young family we would come to know and love. The wife was very young in her faith, and the husband was a committed, militant atheist.
When I first met Matt, he made something very clear: Christians are dangerous people. They are either deluded fools whose influence needs to be diminished, or they are devious puppet masters who want money and power. Then he found out I was a pastor. That was fun.
Matt was smart.
He was also uninformed.
Matt only knew what he knew and didn’t know what he didn’t know. The truth was, he knew very few actual Christians. He was a highly invested news junkie who was exposed to a constant barrage of anti-Christian media.
That made it easy for him to believe that all Christians are haters.
In a world where Christians are increasingly portrayed as haters, we must become bridge builders. Only face-to-face relationships will help people with a media-saturated mindset open their hearts to actual Christ-followers. Over the next few newsletters, I look forward to sharing about how we can build bridges in an increasingly post-Christian culture.
Thankfully, we are not the first people in the history of the Church to face a challenging cultural situation.
The rise and spread of Christianity in the first century is truly stunning. Without weapons—except the truth—and without an agenda of domination—except to proclaim a heavenly King—these early believers peacefully spread the news that the Prince of Peace had died, risen, ascended and would come again to judge the living and the dead. By the fifth century, churches were established from Jerusalem to Gibraltar, Syria to Scotland and Galilee to Germany.
As impressive as the geographical expansion of our faith might seem, it is nothing compared to the cultural distance that was covered by these early believers. In fact, the real miracle of these early evangelists is how they were able to cross cultural barriers, communicate the Good News, and speak a message that everyone could understand.
Initially, the early Church targeted an audience that viewed the world in essentially the same way—their fellow Jews. They believed in the same God. They affirmed the same ethical framework. They even read the same Bible (sharing the Old Testament, since the New Testament had not yet been written). Words like “sin,” “God,” “Creation,” and “truth” had the very same meaning for the Christians and their target audience.
As Christian missionaries went out, they increasingly entered the Greco-Roman world. Here, nothing could be taken for granted. They moved from a shared culture of monotheism to polytheism, from holiness to hedonism, from common history to foreign mythology. The literature, values, morality and entire life-structure of this world stood in opposition to the Good News.
In fact, many uninformed Roman citizens would have considered Christianity a hateful set of beliefs, running contrary to respectable society. We can gauge ancient attitudes towards Christianity by looking at what some of their historians and politicians wrote about it within the first century. The Roman historian Suetonius called Christianity a “novel and mischievous religion.” Tacitus called it a “pernicious superstition.” The Roman governor Pliny described his approach to Christians in a letter to Emperor Trajan:
…the method I have observed towards those who have been denounced to me as Christians is this: I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed. For whatever the nature of their creed might be, I could at least feel no doubt that contumacy and inflexible obstinacy deserved punishment.
To reach this world, our fathers and mothers in the faith had to become bridge-builders! They not only had to cross bridges of space and time. They had to build bridges of understanding to reach people with very different worldviews. Those target populations, without clear communication, would not really have the framework even to understand the Gospel, much less embrace it.
Increasingly, our situation is similar. More on this next time.
Adam T. Barr (MDiv, ThM) serves as senior pastor at Peace Church near Grand Rapids Michigan. In addition to his work in the local church, Adam speaks and writes on Christianity and culture, helping followers of Jesus understand and apply God’s Word in an increasingly post-Christian society. His most recent book, Compassion Without Compromise, is available through Bethany House. Adam is also a contributing writer and adjunct teacher on the Organic Outreach International team.