If you’ve been around traditional evangelicalism long, you’ve no doubt heard that Christian should be “in the world, but not of it.” And there’s a lot of truth in that statement, when it’s rightly understood.
The problem is, there are a lot of angles from which people define what it means to be “of the world,” or to use an old-fashioned word, to be “worldly.”
In my grandparents’ generation, worldliness was usually interpreted as the activities and behaviors often practiced by people who weren’t associated with the church. You could usually list them pretty quickly.
Dancing, card-playing, going to the movies, wearing tattoos, listening to the “world’s” music… those were thought of as “worldly” things.
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There’s a major flaw with this kind of thinking, however. Jesus hit it head-on with the Pharisees when he reminded them that they could be like whitewashed tombs, behaving in a “holy” way on the outside, but spiritually dead on the inside.
Besides, whose list do we use? I like to play cards. I’m a terrible dancer, but I’m happy to try when my wife and I are in the right place and time and dancing happens to be going on nearby. I could pretty much be a repeat offender of everything on that list except the tattoo thing, and I’m just waiting for the right moment.
Worldliness isn’t about behavior, alone. It can’t be. We wind up using lists that change over time and our list becomes a scoresheet we use to make sure we’re less worldly and therefore somehow more holy that the people we observe around us.
Worldliness starts with the heart. It’s about beliefs and affections. It’s about attachments.
When I’m attached to this planet, as it is in its fallen state, I’ll make decisions and demonstrate behaviors that are inconsistent with the Bible’s teachings. Being entertained isn’t worldly. Being more enamored with temporary things than eternal things is.
And this is where the church comes in.
The church is a movement started by Jesus consisting of people who are a “called out assembly,” charged with the assignment of bringing the joy and glory of God to all people in their communities and in their world.
Elsewhere the Bible calls God’s people “peculiar,” signifying that we are God’s alone and therefore are to be different and distinct in some way from the world.
So yes, we’re in the world. We’re here to love the people around us, to offer the redemptive story of Jesus to anyone who will hear it, and to improve the world around us as his redeemed people.
But how do we stay out of the world while living in it?
There are basically three strategies when it comes to living up to our role as a “called out” people.
One is isolation, whereby we disconnect ourselves from the world around us and move into a spiritual ivory tower. We do this when we establish rules of righteousness that we can easily live by and use to assign others to a notch lower than ourselves.
But Jesus wasn’t an isolationist. He was constantly moving around the community, gathering crowds, bumping into people, rubbing shoulders with notorious sinners, going to parties with tax collectors, sharing life lessons with prostitutes, and offering grace and more grace to anyone who wanted it.
The second strategy is imitation whereby we become like the world in order to reach the world. We do this when we live our lives out of unbiblical philosophies and worldviews.
I often hear people talk about guitars and drums in church as being “like the world.” No, that’s just being musical. Adjusting our style or our methods of communication to make the gospel more relatable and understandable to people unfamiliar with it isn’t worldly. It’s evangelistic.
We imitate the world when our decisions are influenced more by a godless philosophy than a God-centered one. When we think materialistically, as though this world is all there is; or when we think humanistically, as though we are sufficient without God’s influence; or when we think naturalistically, as though there isn’t a supernatural empowering available to us from God… then we’re being worldly.
The third strategy is insulation and infiltration in which we insulate ourselves with the truth of God’s Word and then carry that truth into the world with us.
God calls very few people into full-time, vocational ministry. He leaves the most of his followers in their lives as his newly-called missionaries.
Your workplace is a mission field, as well as your family and your neighborhood.
If you isolate yourself from the world, you’ll never reach it. Instead, we become attractional when we demonstrate in real ways the difference that thinking biblically about life makes on a daily basis.
When we’re committed to stronger ethics because of our faith… when we express and share more joy because of our faith… when we’re prone to show grace instead of judgment… we’re properly being in the world as witnesses while not being of the world in our beliefs and behaviors.
And how do we do that effectively? Two simple steps…
- Soak up God’s word, which shapes our worldview.
- Share the story freely, in a supernaturally natural way.
Jesus put it this way…
Father, I don’t ask you to take my followers out of the world, but keep them safe from the evil one. They don’t belong to this world, and neither do I. Your word is the truth. So let this truth make them completely yours.
John 17:15-17 CEV
One of my favorite books on this subject is Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel by Russell Moore.