Outreach or Holiness?

I’ve been having conversations with a friend about what we in the church should be doing. Should we take our faith into the marketplace to transform the culture around us or should we turn inward to Christ to draw closer to him? It’s the age-old question of outreach versus holiness for believers. We are, after all called to be set apart from the world while we are simultaneously called to be salt and light in the world. There is an inevitable tension between those two callings.

In the midst of one of these conversations, I was referencing Dr. Francis Schaeffer’s book, “How Should We Then Live?”, notably the chapter titled “Our Society” in which Schaeffer predicted that the values of middle class America would become the twin idols of personal peace and affluence.  Back in 1977, he described these values this way.

  • Personal Peace: “I want to be left alone; and I don’t care what happens to the man across the street or across the world. I want my own lifestyle undisturbed, even regardless of what that will mean for my own children and grandchildren.”
  • Affluence: “Things, things, things. Always more things, and success is seen as the abundance of things.”

As I was reading Schaeffer’s arguments, I realized that the Church has been infected by this same philosophy, and I’m not talking about prosperity teachings or any of the predictable warnings against materialism. I’m talking about the idol of “spiritual affluence” illustrated by the many evangelicals who talk about “pressing in”, “seeking God’s face”, “pursuing holiness”, and “perfecting their walk”. A segment of church people want to shield themselves from the outside world and focus completely on the blessings of their relationship with Christ. They obviously care about their children and grandchildren, but the lure of personal peace by separating from the ungodly culture seems to offer security enough. They live for personal peace and spiritual affluence.

What I have often observed is the Church retreating from outreach and turning inward. The positive aspect of this trend is the commitment to a true relationship with the Lord, a commitment necessary for all believers. I also see in it an equally positive passion for marriage, family, and discipling the next generation. Unfortunately, the trend is accompanied also by a spirit of retreat and withdrawal from the increasing darkness of our culture. Dr. Marshall Foster asks this question,

“How did a nation of men who have fought so bravely for liberty, their families, and private property so passively give over these great blessings to the control and regulation of a seemingly all-powerful, out of control government?”

It appears that Christians have decided to separate themselves from mainstream society. Rather than shape the culture, they intend to keep it at arms length. They don’t want to touch its moral filth or engage with the trauma of changing its institutions. The experience of doing that seems too unholy, too carnal. Christians have the option to secure themselves in the peace and safety of the parallel society of Christian entertainment, church fellowship, and spirituality.

What’s wrong with riding along inside the Christian culture? It’s simply not what the one we call “Lord” told us to do. Jesus’ last words recorded in the Gospel of Matthew were, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you even to the end of the age.” He was ordering us to subdue the creation and transform lives. Jesus himself was very much in the world as a preacher, a teacher, a healer, and one who confronted the authorities of his day. His apostle Paul traveled the known world doing what he saw his Master had done. Neither of our New Testament role models withdrew from the culture and retreated to a safe haven. They were world changers, because the world needed changing.

Is there really any controversy? Believers are called to do what Jesus said and model themselves after what Jesus did. We are to seek holiness for our preparation and spiritual wellness, and then go out into the world to accomplish what Christ has for us to do.