For the past three or four decades the evangelical movement has been at the forefront of the "culture wars" in Western society, and especially in the U.S. Issues come and go in their prominence but have included school prayer, evolutionary theory, the content of entertainment, abortion, same-sex marriage and numerous others. The forum for these wars has been just as diverse: the media, the courtroom, the legislature, and the marketplace as well as the church and school. One consequence of this engagement is that the word "evangelical" has taken on more of a political significance than its original theological emphasis. This has had the related effect of branding our movement by what we are against, rather than things for which we stand. While that oft-quoted phrase is of concern to me, as I shared in my sermon this past Sunday, I am more concerned about the impact these developments have had on our understanding of the mission of the gospel.
One way to think about this is to ask "What is the greatest threat to the church?" If we adopt a "culture war" mentality, then the greatest threat would be something like a liberal legislative agenda or the curtailing of "religious freedoms". Behind those threats would be the people advancing those programs who then become opponents or adversaries. We then dutifully take up arms to defeat those people in order to save the church. In adopting this mentality and approach, we forget the heart of the gospel, miss the nature of the true threat to the church, and ensure the failure of the mission of the gospel (in our lives or congregations anyway, not absolutely, as there is always a faithful remnant). The heart of the gospel is that Jesus put himself in the power of his enemies so they could kill him, so that he could save them from their hatred of God. As his followers, we are called to lead lives of willing sacrifice for the good of those who oppose us. This is what Jesus meant by saying we are salt and light right after saying that we are blessed when we are persecuted for His sake. The gospel way is a radically different way of bringing about change in our world. The world can form institutions that fight for their rights and advance an agenda through the powerful tools of media, education and politics. The impacts produced by those means are always temporary and are regularly incomplete. Only the church, through the foolishness of the proclaimed Word, matched by truly selfless acts of love, can bring about eternal blessing through changed hearts as the Spirit is unleashed in and through us.
I was recently made aware of a tangible expression of what this looks like in the real world. Kevin Palau, the son of renowned evangelist Luis Palau, has been ministering in the city of Portland, Oregon for many years now with his father's evangelistic ministry. In his book, "Unlikely", he chronicles the impact they have had in the city of Portland. I have just started reading the book and have been struck already by the nature of the story. What grabbed me more than the story itself, is the fact that Sam Adams wrote the foreword for it. He was the mayor of Portland when Kevin began his initiative in the city and was notable for being the first openly gay mayor of a top-25 U.S. city. You can sense the immediate pressure of the "business-as-usual" approach of the culture wars calling Kevin to arms. However, in his foreward to the book, Sam Adams chronicles how, without abandoning their convictions on which they differ, they were able to partner together for the good of the city. He was able to see people whom he expected would regard him as an enemy demonstrate genuine (not self-interested) love and concern for him and for the things he cared about (the well-being of his city). Far from being a denial of the gospel, it was the fullest imaginable expression of it. For it is precisely in loving those who are enemies of God that we live out the drama that God loves us, who were his enemies, to the point of sacrificing Himself for them.
All of this serves to remind us that the true enemy is never a person, group, or institution. It is the forces of sin and death that capture human hearts and drive us to hate God and others. If we can be yielded to God's Spirit, he will convert us to be lovers of the self-sarcrificing God and of all people, especially those who have no love lost for us. May we be devoted to fighting the real enemies and gain many friends of the gospel as a result.