When the Church and the world can jog comfortably together, you may be sure there is something wrong. The world has not altered. Its spirit is exactly the same as it ever was, and if Christians were equally faithful and devoted to the Lord, and separated from the world, living so that their lives were a reproof to all ungodliness, the world would hate them as much as it ever did.
— Catherine Booth
The August sun beat down mercilessly as thousands of giddy teenagers hurried to find the best patch of grass in the huge field-turned-outdoor-amphitheater. The atmosphere was frenzied as people shouted to be heard over the ear-splitting music that surged out of the enormous speakers surrounding the concert area. Nearly 100,000 people — mostly teens — had gathered for the outdoor Christian festival. That week, they had spent their evenings camping out in an enormous open space — Woodstock style — and their days flitting from one outdoor concert to the next, eating junk food, getting t-shirts signed by their favorite artists, and spraying each other with squirt guns for a bit of relief from the sweltering heat. Tonight was the final evening of the festival. The entire crowd had congregated in the main concert area, anticipating a “grand finale” where several of the most popular Christian bands and artists would perform.
It was primarily a music festival, but a handful of Christian speakers — including Eric and me — had been invited to share messages. We’d spoken a couple of times that day, and now we were eating dinner in a back-stage trailer reserved for artists and speakers. It was the only air-conditioned facility in the whole vicinity, and was a welcome relief from the relentless heat and humidity we’d stood in all day. As I nibbled a turkey sandwich, a young girl — about fourteen or fifteen — entered the trailer. She was surrounded by an entourage of people who were fussing with her clothes and hair and/or speaking rapidly into walkie-talkies. She wore cat-like eyeliner, neon lipstick, and had on a glittering, form-fitting outfit with dazzling embellishments. I realized she was the next music artist who was about to perform on the main stage. As the MC introduced her, the crowd went wild. Within minutes, she was belting out a pop-style tune and dancing around on the stage, with her back-up singers swaying and crooning behind her.
I could see the performance quite well from my prime backstage seat. Though we were at a Christian festival, there was nothing noticeably “Christian” about the singing and dancing. In fact, it seemed mostly sensual and self-promoting. The lyrics of her songs might have been saying something about God — but it was impossible to hear the words over the booming bass and drums pounding out of the speakers.
A middle-aged woman sat down beside me and watched the show with a serious, slightly troubled expression on her face. Just then, someone in the room remarked, “Boy, if that young girl was my daughter, I’d sure be scared!”
The woman shifted uncomfortably. “She’s my daughter,” she admitted quietly. “True, I don’t really like how they make her dress and act for these shows. Especially because she’s only fourteen, but it’s all part of being an artist, I guess.”
Later Eric and I found out from the girl’s music producer that the record company had been developing her into a “Christian Britney Spears” to appeal to the many church-going teens whose parents wanted them to follow a more “Christian version” of a young female pop star.
After the young girl exited the stage — amid thunderous applause — the MC introduced the next band. This time, it was a group of teenage boys, dressed in trendy white t-shirts and ripped jeans, with plenty of elaborate piercings, large tattoos, and bleached hair. Presumably, this was the “Christian version” of the boy-bands that had become so popular among teen girls around that time. They swivel-hipped their way around the stage, wailing out their songs and catering to the hundreds of young girls in the first couple of rows, who in turn screamed wildly and reached out their hands in star-struck adoration.
As the boys wrapped up their first song, their faces were drenched in sweat. Three of the boys grabbed small towels that had been placed on stage for the artists. They wiped their sweaty faces and hair, and then, one-by-one, dramatically tossed their towels to the cheering crowd. The teen girls clawed and grabbed to be the first to touch the sweat-drenched towels, fighting over who would get to keep the precious treasures.
My stomach was tight as I watched the scene. Over the stage hung a large sign that boldly proclaimed adoration of Jesus Christ, yet what I saw taking place on the stage was certainly not honoring to Him. Instead, it was blatant display of idol worship, sensuality, and worldliness — all under a Christian banner. I had heard from some of the festival staff that whenever they had a well-known Christian artist perform, they had to use a “decoy” of the artist when the concert ended, so that the real artist wouldn’t be mobbed by hysterical fans as he or she was trying to leave.
No one seemed to notice the irony of the situation. This was a gathering of professing Christ-followers, supposedly meeting together to worship their King. And yet, there was not much different about this music festival than a secular one. Most of the young people attending weren’t even thinking about God. They just wanted to hang out with their friends, flirt, have fun, act crazy, and worship their favorite performers. And the majority of the “Christian” artists I had observed there exuded the same self-promoting haughtiness as any of their secular counterparts, both on and off the stage.
Becoming Like the World to Reach the World
That festival wasn’t the only place Eric and I saw Christians exalting the world’s value system and attitudes. It seemed almost everywhere we traveled, we encountered Christian leaders who seemed to think it was a positive thing to become as “accepted by the world” as possible. We met pastors who encouraged their congregations to watch several hours of prime-time television each week in order to stay in touch with the culture. We saw Christian leaders who proudly adorned their office walls with photos of themselves standing arm-in-arm with famous worldly celebrities. We heard Christian radio stations boasting about Christian artists who had finally “crossed over” and been accepted by the secular music scene, and saw Christian publishers who scrambled to sign book deals with any reality TV star who happened to profess Christianity. The list of examples went on and on.
As we talked with church leaders and Christian influencers about this trend, we began to pick up on a common mindset that has pervaded much of modern Christianity — that being like the world can help us reach the world for Jesus Christ.
This was the same mentality I adopted during high school. I convinced myself that the best way to “witness” to my unsaved friends was to become as much like them as possible — with a few “Christian” morals tagged on to my worldly, secular lifestyle. That way, I reasoned, they wouldn’t be turned-off by Christianity. They would see that Christians could be just as trendy, cool, and fun as anyone else, and that being a Christian didn’t have to interfere with life too much.
The problem was that my “worldly witnessing strategy” didn’t actually win anyone to Christ. In fact, most of my unsaved friends didn’t even realize I was a Christian. I watched the same movies, listened to the same music, wore the same clothes, went to the same parties, and pursued the same frivolous activities as they did. (I just happened to go to church on Sundays.)
I told myself that I was giving Christianity a “good name” by living a pleasure-filled life like everyone else and not acting like a stodgy, legalistic stick-in-the-mud. But whenever I was willing to be honest with myself, I had to admit that I felt like a hypocrite. There was nothing about my life that would cause anyone to say “I want what she has!” Yes, I had slightly higher standards than some in a few key areas, but for the most part I was just like everyone else.
A turning point came when God challenged me with the words, “Leslie, don’t just try to fit Me into your life. Instead, build your life around Me.” As He gently called me away from the trivial, meaningless, worldly path I had been walking, I began to understand that being set apart for Christ would not be a hindrance to my Christian witness. Being set apart for Him was my Christian witness.
Of course, this did not mean adopting a set of legalistic rules for my life and walking around with a self-righteous attitude. Instead, He was asking me to set aside my pursuit of worldly pleasures and pursue Him with all of my heart, soul, mind, and strength. As I began to find my joy, delight, and satisfaction in Him, I no longer craved the earthly pursuits and pastimes that had once been the center of my life. I found myself withdrawing from certain influences and activities, not from a sense of duty or obligation, but out of a genuine love for my King and a desire to honor Him above all else. As my love for Him began to affect my daily choices and lifestyle, people began to notice something different about me. They saw fulfillment, radiance, and peace that hadn’t been there before. And some began to ask me about it. Becoming set apart for my King made it possible for me to lead others to Him.
Our Truest Witnessing Tool
As modern believers, we must wake up to the fact that the world isn’t rejecting Christianity today because we aren’t enough like the culture. Rather, it’s because we are too much like it. All too often, there is nothing different about our lives, nothing that proves we have found something bigger to live for than temporary pleasure, and certainly nothing that says we have found something worth dying for. We are pining after the same empty pursuits as nonbelievers are, enamored with the same celebrities, preoccupied with the same reality TV shows, and obsessed with the same pro-sports teams. Why should they want what we have when our lives are no different from theirs, except for a few moral boundaries here and there?
It won’t be the example of lukewarm believers trying to “be in touch with the culture” and somehow make Christianity seem trendy and cool that will reach the world for Christ. Nonbelievers will only be drawn when they see something real, something powerful, something far beyond what pop culture could ever hope to offer. True Christianity has always been, and will always be, convicting to the soul and offensive to the culture. And only when we no longer care what we look like to this world can we truly impact them for Jesus Christ. (See John 15:18-19.)
Christ said, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself” (Jn. 12:32). When Jesus Christ and His Cross is truly lifted up among us, our numbers will increase exponentially without us needing to imitate the world in order to get them there. (See Acts 2:47.)
When we stop being enamored by the world and start being captivated by our King, the world will stand back in wonder. Yes, nonbelievers may mock and revile us, but in the end they will be unable to deny the unshakable, unstoppable power of true Christianity, and many will be forever changed by what they see in our lives.