"The church must adapt or die," said the Lutheran. I met him at a wedding I played preacher at over the weekend. During the meal that followed, I served as resident preacher, answering demographic questions (How big is your church?) and denominational inquiries (What exactly is Grace Brethren?)
People don't know how to talk to preachers. Then again, preachers don't know how to talk to people. I made the mistake of thinking people might be interested in spiritual topics. For example, when the Lutheran told me the church must adapt or die, I figured this was an open door to wax theologically.
I was compelled to talk about Christianity, because I was not sure that the Lutheran followed the same Christ, given his definition of adapt was "tolerate and welcome any difference" and die meant "lose its sex appeal for the sake of orthodoxy."
Adapt or die: He spoke a half truth, and I, the resident preacher, wanted to correct it.
I approached the conversation third party, asking them if they had heard of a book called The Reason for God by Timothy Keller. They had not. "It's a New York Times Bestseller," I clarified. No response.
"The author is a pastor in Manhattan who has interviewed people throughout the city, compiling questions and objections to Christianity."
"That sounds interesting," one lady interjected.
"I would recommend it to anyone." Then, looking at the Lutheran, I continued. "One of the objections to Christianity is that it functions as a cultural straitjacket. Christians are dated, sheltered, out of touch with reality, so the argument goes."
I watched for nods of approval.
"Keller argues the opposite. In fact, if you look at other religions, especially Islam, you see that most adherents have remained in the same region. Numeric growth is the result of reproduction. Whereas Christianity has spread from the Middle East to Europe to North America to South America. Now Christianity is surging in Africa and Asia."
At this point I cannot tell if people are memorized or suffering from a food coma. Because of the empty plates and champagne glasses atop the table, I fear the latter.
I press on. "In this book--that I recommend to anyone--Keller applauds Christianity for its ability to adapt to new cultural contexts while remaining true to its core message..." (See 1st Comment for quote from The Reason for God.)
Church planters and missiologists, of course, call this contextualization. It is an essential practice in sharing the gospel. Suddenly, I realized the opportunity to contextualize was before me. My table was comprised of accountants and business people. To them the language of gospel was foreign. So I employed market terms. And here is where the conversation got sticky.
"Any business understands that functioning outside your core mission eventually reaps disaster. For example, several years ago Krispy Kreme donuts overextended itself, went outside its mission, and the company has become virtually non-existent..."
I was getting ready to make a parallel between donuts and the candy-coated gospel in America's churches, but seeing a small hole in the conversation, one of the ladies blurted, "Krispy Kreme donuts are delicious."
"Do you know how many calories are in those?" added another.
"Have you ever gotten them hot and fresh?" intoned a third.
I tried to adapt and the conversation died. My wife squeezed my leg under the table. So much for contextualization!