A brief perusal of current events or pop culture will make one acutely aware that Christians are not home in this world. As the author of Hebrews stated it, “They seek a city that is come” (Heb. 13:14).
While a new city is coming (Rev. 21:1-27), Christians still live in a context and culture that is becoming more averse to their convictions. How can Christians maintain hope and remain steadfast in a culture that does not share their vision for human flourishing? I believe the book of 1 Thessalonians can provide Christians with a helpful example of how to navigate life in an unholy culture.
In 1 Thessalonians 2:10-12, the apostle Paul wrote, “You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”
The church in Thessalonica had seen the fruit of holy living in the lives of Paul, Silas, and Timothy. They lived and worked among the people. They were a part of the community. They didn’t hang out in some holy huddle, but instead, they lived holy, hope-filled lives.
The early church’s context
Faithful people took God seriously, lived holy lives, and shared the gospel
I believe that it’s important for Christians to realize the context in which Paul was ministering. The culture was not influenced by Christianity. Instead, it was a pagan culture that was full of sexual immorality, greed, envy, anger, theft, and violence. And yet, the gospel of Jesus Christ flourished there! Tens of thousands of people came to Christ in a context where to do so could cost them their lives. And this happened without big, ornate church buildings, contemporary and traditional services, pulpits, hymnbooks, electric guitars, drums, choirs, gyms, organs, smoke machines, speakers, pianos, suits and ties, skinny jeans, fedoras, websites, or social media. There were no elaborate marketing strategies, no cool t-shirts or church signs, and no clichés on bumper stickers.
How did the early church do it? How did they reach the people in their culture without all the things that present-day churches often insist are vital to engaging the culture? First Thessalonians tells us: faithful people took God seriously, lived holy lives, and shared the gospel. The Spirit of God honored their ministry, and thousands of people came to Christ.
The church in today’s culture
So, here we are as Christians in 2018. Biblical convictions seem to be declining more every day, and Christians seem to be subject to more disdain and public ridicule. As a result, some have wondered if the church can survive these circumstances. Such thoughts, however, fail to remember that the cultural context that we are entering is very similar to the one that Christianity emerged from 2,000 years ago. In other words, the gospel is no stranger to unholy cultures. The early church flourished in the type of culture that we see dawning upon us. Godlessness is no threat to the gospel of God.
We must remember that it’s not as if the past few generations invented sin. Sin has always been the problem, and it has always been more convenient to sin than pursue holiness. Holiness has never been the easier decision in this life. It will always be more natural for us to want to satisfy our lusts than to put them to death. Yet, if we desire to minister effectively and fruitfully in this culture, we must resolve to pursue a holiness that is marked by radical concepts like love for one’s enemy, a willingness to suffer for Christ, and a hope that all the brokenness in this world will eventually be restored when Christ returns.
Our holy calling
Christians must “walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls us into his own kingdom and glory.” We must pursue holiness instead of convenience. He has called us to be “blameless in our conduct.” Of course, it’s not possible to be blameless in our own flesh, but 2 Peter 1:3 tells us that we have “been granted, by the divine power of Christ, all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence.” Paul himself tells us in Romans 8:12-13, “We are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” The Holy Spirit has granted us the power through union with Christ to be conformed to his image in holiness.
How now should Christians live in an unholy culture? With a joyful holiness that attracts and provokes questions “about the hope that is within [us]” (1 Pet. 3:15).