When I was in the Air Cadets (a sort of junior branch of the Air Force) as a teenager we often would have to do assault courses. There was one obstacle I dreaded, there would generally be some sort of log over some water that you had to try and make your way over as quickly as possible. It was a tricky balancing act, and I often fell of one side or the other and ended up soaked, much to the amusement of my friends.
Thinking about that makes me think about the church and discipleship. As the church and as disciples of Jesus we also have a tricky balancing act. Here is how John Stott describes it.
“The church has a double responsibility in relation to the world around us. On the one hand are to live serve and witness in the world. One the other hand, we are to avoid becoming contaminated by the world. So, we are neither to seek to preserve our holiness by escaping from the world nor sacrifice our holiness by conforming to the world. Escapism and conformism are thus both forbidden to us”
I’ve noticed that the church in my lifetime has just about been as good as the balancing act between escapism and conformism as I was on the log on the assault course.
When I was growing up the church our family belonged to definitely fell of on the side escapism. It seemed like the whole point of being a Christian was to escape from the world into a sort of sanctified bubble. Members didn’t drink alcohol and avoided places that served it, they didn’t dance, they didn’t go to social occasions with work colleagues who weren’t Christians, they didn’t go to the cinema, and many didn’t have TVs in their homes. All of this was to stop us being contaminated by the world, but of course it meant we had virtually no influence in the world either because we had virtually no contact with it.
It seems to me that today the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. There seems little expectation that it terms of entertainment or activities that Christians will be different from their non Christians neighbours. On social media I have noticed some Christian friends joking about drinking too much wine just like my non Christian friends. It seems like they have fallen off on the side of conformism and the result is also that they have virtually no influence in the world either.
At the moment we are focusing on the Sermon on the Mount and in it Jesus encourages us to keep the balance between impacting the world for the Kingdom of God and not being conformed to the world around us.
One of the key phrases in the Sermon on the Mount is in Matthew 6:8 “Do not be like them” Jesus is telling us our lives have to be a contrast to those who live outside the Kingdom of God. He talks about righteousness and holiness throughout the sermon.
Yet Jesus also says we need to influence the world around us; ‘You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. ‘You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden” Matthew 5:13 Salt can’t exert any influence unless it was rubbed into the meat it was meant to preserve and light has to shine in darkness. We can’t make an impact for the kingdom of God unless we are connected to that world in some way.
I wish I had some easy formula to give you to do this difficult balancing act between escapism and conformity, but I don’t.
It takes the collective wisdom of the church, openness to the Holy Spirit and obedience to the Word of God to maintain this balance. But I think if we are at least aware of the challenge, then we are making some sort of progress.