By Greg Swinney
As a chubby little Sunday schooler, I used to sit in the musty basement classroom of the church on Main Street. I sang with my friends, “O be careful little feet where you go
. . . little ears what you hear . . . little eyes what you see . . . little hands what you do.” I smiled as I sang, but I had no idea how much of my life on this earth would be about wrestling over what my eyes would see, what my ears would hear, where my feet would go, what my hands would do.
The corruption of the culture around us has always troubled Christians seeking to live out faithfully the New Testament’s counsel to be in—but not of—the world (1 John 2:15-17). To be honest, I enjoy the world around me. Music and movies, art and theater, all seem to surround me from week to week. Some Saturday afternoons in the autumn months you are likely to find me watching a Nebraska Cornhuskers football game on television as I snack on a handful of potato chips. This world is a great place to live, and with so much to offer, I don’t want to miss out. Still, I often remind myself, it’s not my home, I’m just passing through. There are subtle influences that, if I’m not careful, change the way I think and behave.
Researcher and cultural forecaster George Barna wrote a thought provoking book some years ago and I’ve never forgotten the title: The Frog in the Kettle. The book describes how a frog, placed into a kettle of boiling water, immediately jumps out. But if the frog is placed into a kettle that is filled with cool, pleasant water, and the water is gradually heated to a boil, the frog will not become aware of the threat until it is too late. Barna cautions his readers to be attentive to negative cultural influences and their eternal consequences. He often asks the tough questions that arise at the intersection of faith and culture.
Sitting in this kettle of 21st-century Western culture brings up some hot issues for the thinking Christian. Where should we stand? Inside the culture? Outside? Ignore it? Isolate ourselves from it? Embrace it? Should we try to transform it?
Living in the crossroads of Christ and culture is challenging, risky, messy, and often frustrating. But for the first-century Christians, culture shaping came naturally. Yes, they made their share of mistakes; Paul and Barnabas couldn’t agree on whether to invite John Mark on a second mission trip. But the Lord used even their mistakes to reform society (Acts 15:39-41). It would have been much easier for them (and us) to remain sequestered within a safe religious world. Easier, yes. Faithful to Jesus Christ, no. After all, it was Jesus who said, “What else is the Kingdom of God like? It is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough” (Luke 13:20, 21, New Living Translation).
A First-Century Revolution
In the first century, the penetrating message of the gospel found its way into the marketplace, the economy, politics, marital roles and relationships, gender equities, and morality. A quick glance at the book of Acts reveals the counter-cultural ideas that permeated the society through the Christlike influence of these early Christians. Acts is a real page turner when you read it as a story of dedicated disciples loving people near them so much that it transformed the society. In just a few short pages in my Bible I see dramatic stories of cultural penetration.
Paul and his traveling companions went from one city to the next by land and by sea. One day they are seen near a riverbank looking for a place to pray. Historians suggest this could have been a busy place where women were washing their clothes and others were selling goods. No wonder a woman named Lydia, a seller of purple cloth, was there along with her household. As Lydia overheard the singing and praying, the Lord opened her heart. She surrendered her life to Jesus and was baptized in the very water where the women were washing clothes. In the margin of my Bible I’ve scribbled next to this story, “The gospel enters the marketplace.”
Later, we find Paul entering Ephesus and heading directly to the synagogue to share the good news. After a few short months, opposition broke out and people not only rejected the message, but spoke publicly against “the Way.” The Lecture hall of Tyrannus served as another venue in Ephesus. This amphitheater of ideas was not unlike a modern university campus. Discussions and dialogue took place in this arena for more than two years—right where the gospel needed to be. Gently and faithfully Paul shared the gospel and the results were nothing less than staggering. “People throughout the province of Asia—both Jews and Greeks—heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10).
Earlier we find a snapshot of Paul and Silas imprisoned in Philippi. Not to be discouraged by their unjust arrest, they prayed and sang hymns to God. An earthquake shook more than the prison; it shook the heart of the jailer to respond to the invitation to follow Jesus. The subtle influence of these joyful inmates had penetrated the prison. Later in the book of Philippians we read Paul’s comments on another imprisonment: “It has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ” (Philippians 1:13, New International Version).
Romans 16 records a list of 34 people who were greeted or commended. Bible scholars believe some of these may have been key leaders in their cities. Historians suggest the Aristobulus mentioned in Romans 16:10 lived in Rome all of his life. He may have been the grandson of Herod the Great (who killed the babies of Bethlehem). Unlike his brothers, Aristobulus chose to leave his homeland, never to return and involve himself in the political intrigues of Judea. He was a close friend of the emperor Claudius. Many in the household of Aristobulus were Christians. Erastus is described as “the city’s director of public works.” This is further evidence that the gospel was reaching into the political arena as early as the first century.
Paul reminded the believers in Corinth, one of the most immoral, secular cities of the day, “For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life” (2 Corinthians 2:15, 16, NIV, 1984).
Peter wrote to the church, “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12).
Slowly but surely their culture was changed. Values evolved. Attitudes altered. Habits changed. Social structures shifted. In ways large and small, the world realigned. Christians became known as the people who turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6).
It Started with an Attitude
For these first century culture shapers, influencing the world didn’t start in society; it started in their hearts. It wasn’t so much about where they went; it was about who they were. They had been with Jesus and their lives would never be the same. Others couldn’t miss seeing the life-transforming power of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:13). Like the popular song, “I’m starting with the man in the mirror, I’m asking him to make a change,” we too must begin with ourselves.
These first century light bearers shined into the dark recesses of their culture. Their gentle but faithful influence was felt throughout the known world. Now it’s our turn. The baton has been passed to our generation. The challenge to shine the light, be a fragrant aroma, and live good lives is before us in our workplaces, our schools, and our neighborhoods.
Where do you go? With whom can you share the transformation Jesus made in your life? What deeds can you do that might move people to praise your Father in Heaven?
Can one Christian living faithfully make any dent in the world? Two? Fifty? A thousand? What might happen at the boundaries of our lives as we interact with waitresses, rude drivers, crying secretaries, and wounded neighbors? How might things be different if you and I took seriously the call to be salt and light? Would there be any disruptive and penetrating yeast at work? Would such behavior start a revolution in the small things that collectively have power to change a world? Let’s find out.
Greg Swinney is a freelance writer in Kearney, Nebraska.
A Simple Way to Make a Difference
My sister Cindy worked in an office a few years ago and noticed people sitting all alone over their lunch hour. Some would flip through the daily newspaper or turn the pages of slick sale advertisements. She asked her supervisor for permission to organize a small group Bible study during the lunch hour. He consented, and several people responded enthusiastically. Quietly and gently, lives were being transformed over peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and chicken noodle soup.