Freedom, boundaries and the ‘new normal’

When I was 10 years old, we lived in a subdivision bounded by acres of marshland and a busy retail corridor. This was back before cellphones when, outside of school, parents had no idea what their children were up to unless a neighbor happened to observe and report back.

My only restrictions were that I couldn’t go so far into the marsh that I reached the river. Nor could I cross the highway. That meant there were certain schoolmates I couldn’t see and places around town that I couldn’t pedal my bike to. But within those boundaries, I had freedom.

There were woods to explore, friends and neighbors to play with, dirt paths to ride bikes on and plenty of territory for adventures in the marsh, where the only real danger was muddy sneakers. I never felt constrained and can’t recall ever feeling the need to exceed the limits.

Liberty with limits

I look back with appreciation for the great liberty I was given — liberty with constraints that never felt confining. I encountered that concept again a few years ago when I spent time on the campus of a Christian college whose tagline was “freedom within a framework of faith.”

At first I thought it sounded stilted and academic. I was interviewing for a marketing position and I wondered if printing this on brochures might put us at a disadvantage with schools that had snappier taglines. Whether “freedom within a framework” was authentic to the institution, or even good for student recruitment, I don’t know.

But as I’ve been looking at Acts and the epistles, during this season where we’re figuring out what it means to practice faith and be light in a dark place while separated from each other and our community, I keep returning to the concept of “freedom within bounds.”

This seems to be the evangelistic model (if you could call it that) that informed the early church’s preaching and teaching. And it could set a healthy pattern for how we structure our outreach when we emerge from self-isolation and enter what everyone keeps calling the “new normal.”

Pre-pandemic church growth models included the seeker sensitive approach, the purpose-driven model (or is that now obsolete?), the culturally-attuned preacher model, the media-centric model, the multi-campus model and more. There’s even a high church, liturgical model aimed at millennials who reject the aforementioned approaches as fads!

Stewarding technology

Now with COVID-19, we’re seeing an online model with remote communion, sermons delivered from living rooms and congregants checking in via comment thread. I even saw an altar call with the closing instructions, “If you accepted Jesus, text 1234 to 555-1212 and we’ll follow-up.” Is this good, bad, neutral or just common-sense stewardship of technology and the times?

There are no simple answers. It can be easy for churches to think like a business: define a target market, then align outreach and programs to attract and retain that market. It can be just as easy to embrace technology as the most powerful tool to reach a generation wedded to their devices.

When we look at the early church, however, I’m not sure we can see a particular model. Evangelistic outreach seems to defy templates and narrow classification. 

Peter’s preaching at Pentecost is anything but seeker sensitive. He presents Christ and concludes by telling the crowd He’s the one they crucified. Later, after healing a lame man, he tells the onlookers, “You killed the Author of life.”

In both cases, we read that many believed.

Yet that wasn’t Paul’s approach on Mars Hill. There, in Act 17, he starts by addressing felt needs (religious inclinations that led to idolatry) and quotes a pagan poet before Jesus is presented. We see that some mocked and some believed.

Go raw or go deep?

So was it best to go full-barrel with a raw presentation of the gospel. Or was it better to identify deeply enough with the lost to speak their language and identify with their worldview?

If we examine Paul’s clearest description of his own preaching, at least to the Corinthian church, you might conclude that any proclamation beyond “Christ crucified” was worldly and a product of human cleverness.

But we know that Paul spent time in the synagogues REASONING from the Old Testament that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 17 and 18). And we understand his letter to the Romans as a masterpiece of persuasive rhetoric. There Paul makes the case for Christ as skillfully as a seasoned attorney willing to take the time and marshal the details to make his case.

How do we respond then to current conditions? Should we fully embrace technology or are there principles that prescribe limits? Where is there freedom with bounds?

Is inviting the unchurched to “Watch Parties” effective? What do we do about a culture that increasingly sees Christianity as harmful rather than positive? Does the gospel mediated through technology neutralize some of the offense?

Since online communities are the new public square (or corner coffee shop), is there benefit in adding our voice to the social and political exchanges on social media? Do we lead with our good works to gain a hearing? And if so, how can we be the hands and feet of Jesus while socially distanced?

Back to Paul

Before we conclude we’re in foreign territory with no clear answers. We might go back to Paul for a moment to gain some clarity. We might consider the matter of circumcision — without getting lost in the detail of its symbolism and practice.

As Paul set about his evangelistic travels, he had Timothy his disciple circumcised (Acts 16:3). Yet Paul would not allow Titus to be circumcised (Galatians 2:3-5).

This seems to be a deliberate choice based on who Paul was trying to reach. Timothy had Jewish blood. So lack of circumcision would have been an affront to Jewish audiences. Titus, on the other hand, was Greek. So his circumcision would have fed into the (false) idea that this was a requirement for salvation.

In one case, Paul removed what would been a barrier to the gospel … without compromising truth. In the other instance, Paul refused to give in to cultural preference … to preserve the gospel truth. The apparent principle: it’s OK to contextualize the truth, but never at the cost of compromising truth.

Since the gospel is an affront to human pride, it will offend no matter how it’s dressed up to appeal. At the same time, since the gospel meets humanity’s deepest need, the heart that God has quickened to receive the truth will accept it though we might stumble in its presentation.

Questions for today

What does this mean for online church and reaching the lost at a time when matters of life, death, meaning and hope are top-of-mind? It means we have freedom within the framework of gospel boundaries.

Do we maintain live streamed services and online archives once we gather again? There’s reason and freedom to do so. Might the gathered church lose some people who prefer to stay at home and watch? Probably.

At the same time, are there individuals who might otherwise avoid church for fear of entering a “foreign culture” be inclined to participate online as a first step to walking through our doors? Probably.

We’ve done well lately to honor the dedication and sacrifice of frontline workers who have borne the brunt of the pandemic. Knowing that their schedule makes it hard to attend Sunday mornings, are churches willing to add another service – not because their sanctuary is at capacity but because here’s a group that needs to experience gospel truth in personal community.

Again, there aren’t clear answers. But the principle remains that we have great freedom to consider and make these choices – as long as we stay within the bounds of gospel truth.

What to retain, what to release

Churches will have to decide how to proceed, specifically what to retain from 100% online activity and what to leave behind. But freedom can be unnerving and it’s wise to seek direction.

Perhaps we’re served best if we take time now and in the weeks ahead to look up, look in and look out. In other words,

  1. Look up to God in His word and in prayer to gain His heart for the lost.
  2. Look inwardly at the local Body and its members’ gifts, passions, experiences and networks beyond the church walls, and
  3. Look outward at the community with the intent to understand our neighbors’ hopes, fears and struggles.

If the church is going to be a witness in the “new normal,” it will have to exegete the community and the culture with the same rigor and intentionality that preachers employ to faithfully exegete the word. We will have to incarnate Christ in a context that might be unfamiliar and uncomfortable. But God is with us.

There’s enough in Scripture to challenge us to be like the Men of Issachar who “had understanding of the times to know what Israel ought to do” (1 Chron. 12:32). And there’s enough in Scripture to give comfort that salvation is a work of God that will bear fruit despite our failings. In short, we have both freedom and assurance — within a framework of faith.

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