How to Influence Your World


Christians respond to today’s culture in a variety of ways. Some withdraw into a protective cocoon, circling the wagons to keep the “good guys” in and the “bad guys” out.

Other Christians are combative with culture, often justifying their hostile “us vs. them” attitudes and vocabulary as “the way it is” in the rough-and-tumble trenches of a culture war. (Dean Merrill describes this combativeness in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Church.) In the extreme, we’ve seen Fred Phelps traveling from Topeka, Kansas, to the graveside service of murdered gay student Matthew Shepard, carrying with him signs announcing “God hates fags” and posting on his web site a picture of Shepard burning in hell.

Still other Christians take a less hostile but equally dangerous approach to culture by blending in, conforming like chameleons. George Barna reports that 76 percent of Americans don’t believe in absolute truth, and 67 percent of self-identified “born again” Christians share the same view.

All three responses to culture are inconsistent with the life and teachings of Jesus. He commanded His disciples to “go into the world” (no cocooning); love the world, including our enemies (no combativeness); and to transform the world by making disciples (no conforming).

A Nation of Seekers

Our failure to engage our culture as Jesus did is particularly troubling in light of the opportunities presented by a society engaged in vigorous spiritual seeking. Gallup reports that 82 percent of Americans are on a spiritual search, and 51 percent say they’ve talked about it in the previous 24 hours. In film, music, and literature we hear themes of spiritual longings for the transcendent, for meaning, and for community.

Today’s spiritual journey is taking place largely outside of organized religion, especially among the younger generation. The University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center reports that in 1998, only 16 percent of 18- to 22-year-olds said they had any contact with organized religion in the percent of them were asking spiritual questions such as “What happens when I die?”

True disciples can engage the culture in compelling ways by taking a place at the table in the ongoing dialogue about spirituality. Such an engagement will require a return to our radical roots in Jesus, who went into the world as a loving and transforming presence. His disciples, according to Edward Gibbon, prevailed in pagan culture because they outlived, outthought, and out-died their pagan counterparts. What did these disciples learn from Jesus that we need to recapture in our attempts to engage culture?

If there ever was a day when disciples could expect seekers to come to them, that day is over. To engage the culture constructively, we must enter the world in the ways Jesus modeled and commanded. The
first thing Jesus called the disciples to do was follow Him; His final commandment was to go into the world to make disciples.

From the outset Jesus is described as one sent into the world because God so loved the world an. 3:16). Once in the world, it became apparent, in the words of the old hymn, that Jesus was a friend of sinners. Jesus’ intention was to seek and save the lost, but He genuinely loved pagans even though they often “received him not” an. 1:11, KJV). .

Today’s society desperately needs genuine, unconditional love. A recent cartoon shows a patient being moved from one room of a hospital to another. The caption reads: “Don’t worry, Mr. Herbst, we’re moving you from intensive care to indifferent care.” In his book Connect, Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Edward M. Hallowell describes America as a wired community, connected electronically and economically but not personally and spiritually. Today’s disciple has a tremendous opportunity to form genuine friendships with people hungry for a deeply personal connection and for love. But it is an opportunity we often miss.

We make the classic error of thinking that ministry happens at church but not at parties. Yet Jesus went where sinners were. Jesus “partied” with pagans. Early in His ministry, Jesus attended a dinner party where “many tax collectors end ‘sinners’ came and ate with him and his disciples” (Mt. 9:10). The edginess of these parties is hinted at by the criticisms Jesus received for being there: “The Son of Man
came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and ‘sinners””‘ (Mt. 11:19, emphasis mine).

Why did Jesus party with pagans?

Jesus answered that question when the Pharisees criticized Him for participating in these parties. He said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Mt. 9:12). Jesus was at the party because
that is where the pagans are, and that is where we need to be.

Should you choose to follow Jesus into the world, you will end up seeming too pagan to some of your religious friends. Just as the Pharisees questioned Jesus’ presence at the parties, you will be questioned as you enter the world. But if you desire to follow Jesus, you must leave your comfort zone in the Christian subculture and venture out as Jesus did.

Jesus was moved with compassion.

Jesus was a compassionate presence in the world. When He saw the crowds, He was moved with compassion. Isaiah described Jesus as “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (Is. 53:3). Jesus’ sorrow moved Him into the muddle of people’s pain. When expansive crowds of dirty, sweaty, diseased, despised, forsaken villagers thronged to meet Him, Jesus “had compassion on them” because these bedraggled, confused, marginalized men and women, boys and girls, were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt. 9:36). When the hungry crowd longed for food (Mt.15:32), when the lame hobbled toward Him for healing (Mt. 14:14), when two blind men begged for their sight (Mt. 20:32), when a lonely widow’s only son had died (Lk. 7:1215)–in each of these cases we are told that Jesus took action–not just to verify His Messiahship, but because He was moved by deep compassion.

Behind the facade of today’s seeker is a hurting person who needs the love and compassion we can deliver. The presence and compassion of Christians actively engaged with pagan friends in the world could have the same effect today that it did in Jesus’ time.

Many years ago I attended a birthday party for my gay friend and coworker, Julian. Sixty gay men and four straight women had gathered to celebrate in a high-rise penthouse with a dramatic, sweeping view of San Francisco Bay. Greeting me warmly, Julian exuberantly kissed me on both cheeks (something that never happened at the office, I assure you). I took a deep breath and ventured into a scene that was well
outside my comfort zone. I chuckled quietly, asking myself a familiar question: “What in the world am I doing here?”

Actually, I knew exactly why I was there. I had prayed with some friends about this occasion just a few hours earlier. I’ve always thought of events like Julian’s party as “wedding feast of Cana” situations. As so often happens when I follow Jesus into the world, opportunities appeared. Because I listened as the partygoers told me about their journeys, by 2:00 A.M. five of them were gathered with me in a corner talking about spiritual things.

Jesus was a transforming presence.

Jesus calls those who are cocooned or have become combative with culture to go into the world. For those who are already in the world, the call is to make a difference there.

In The Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle described what it takes to be persuasive. Not surprisingly, his three-part formula describes Jesus’ ministry.

Pathos (Passion). Aristotle said the first mark of a persuader is emotion, or pathos, the etymological root for our words passion and compassion. Simply put, love is an essential element of our persuasiveness. Since the Greeks, communicators have known that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. As we will see, effective disciplemaking does require knowledge, but it doesn’t begin there. It begins with caring relationships with seekers.

Ethos (Integrity). Aristotle said that our teaching and arguments need to be backed up with a life consistent with what we say. Few seekers turn to Christians for answers, because they haven’t seen
anything in their lives that compels them to aspire to know Jesus.

I am reminded of a famous story of Gandhi. On a trip to England in 1930, he disembarked in Southhampton. While still on the gangway he was overwhelmed by journalists asking questions. One of them asked, “Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of Western civilization?” He replied, “I think it would be a good idea.” Many people have heard of Jesus but think Christianity is only an idea or set of beliefs because they have never seen it in action. Yet the single most credible argument on behalf of Christianity is its demonstration in the life of an individual follower of Jesus.

The consistently compelling Christian life is almost irresistible. That is why Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” Henry Morton Stanley visited missionary David Livingston in central Africa. After having spent time with him, he said: “If I had been with him any longer, I would have been compelled to be a Christian, and he never spoke to me about it at all.”

Logos (Reason). Aristotle believed reason could be effective only after a communicator displayed emotion and integrity. However, without reason, pathos and ethos alone will fail to persuade.

The Apostle Peter describes the progression this way. First, you conduct yourself in an exemplary manner (1 Pet. 2: 12). Peter says some people will be won over without a word, simply by watching your
behavior (3:1). Second, always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is within you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence (3:15).

People need to hear a reasonable faith. Today we communicate and defend the gospel in an age dominated by scientific naturalism, intellectual and moral relativism, and theological pluralism. A
thoughtful approach to each of these is essential if you desire to influence intellectually curious seekers or even to parent your children. Thirty years ago, Francis Schaeffer observed what happens when this work goes undone.

I find that everywhere I go, children of Christians are being lost to historic Christianity…. They are being lost because their parents are unable to understand their children and therefore cannot help them in their time of need…. We have left the next generation naked in the face of twentieth-century thought by which they are surrounded.

Presenting a credible and reasonable case for our beliefs is essential in this age.

However, while reason is important, A. W. Tozer rightly pointed out that we should not “convince” people into the kingdom, because all it will take to change their minds is someone smarter to convince them “back out” of the kingdom. He was not diminishing the importance of appealing to people’s minds, but was rather identifying the importance of the Holy Spirit in convicting people.

There are people all around us just waiting for us to engage them for the gospel. This year I received an e-mail from an acquaintance I knew in high school more than 30 years ago. One day he heard me on the
radio mentioning Fullerton High School and wondered if I was the same Dick Staub he remembered from those days. Here is his email.

Just thinking about you today. Got caught in a nostalgic flow of our youth. I know you are busy, but if you get some time, I have a few questions. You got saved while we were yet in high school, right? What
were the wild “turn on, tune in, and drop out” days like as a Christian? Seen from the spiritual side of things, it must have blown your mind to see the major deception that was going on. I, unfortunately, was still very lost, therefore consumed in the humanistic thinking of the day. (Surf, sun, and sex; or sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.) Did it seem like Sodom and Gomorrah? What was going on in the church? Was the Word being preached, or was it just formalized Christianity? Did you pray for us in those days? Did you expect God to really answer? Did He give you hope for your generation? Did you find a great deal of discouragement?

I didn’t even hear about Jesus until around ’71, and I was so consumed with self, I rejected Him. I know now there were prayers being made for us raunchy characters. I don’t really remember you saying anything to me in the ’60s, but I do remember you being a clean-cut kid one with a noncursing mouth. You may have tried to witness to me, but I was dead and didn’t hear you.

These may be some hard questions to answer, because so much time has passed. I am ashamed of my wasted youth but am now greatly and gloriously filled with joy because Jesus is my Lord.

If you have opportunity, please answer these questions. I would like to know what I missed out on.

I committed my life to Jesus between my junior and senior years of high school, so I undoubtedly had opportunities to share Jesus with Eric. But I’m ashamed to say, I doubt that I did. I was one of those
“don’t ask, don’t tell” Christians. Since receiving this e-mail, I’ve wondered whether I’ve progressed as a disciple. Are there “Erics” in my life now?

Moved with compassion for people like Eric, Jesus said:

The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. –Mt. 9:37-38

I believe you and I are the answer to Jesus’ prayer for workers in today’s harvest. Your faithfulness in obeying Jesus’ commandment to go into the world, your compassion and intentionality to make disciples
while there, your witness through a credible life and reasonable word, and your reliance on God through His Spirit to give the increase–these will make you a compelling and transforming presence in your culture as Jesus and the disciples were in theirs.

DICK STAUB is a president of the Center for Faith and Culture and publisher of His book Too Christian, Too Pagan (Zondervan) chronicles his experiences in following Jesus into the
world. Dick dreams of one day traveling the world with his wife and four children (he’s already done it alone).