By Ed Stetzer
I love research. I’m kind of a nerd that way. I also love the Church. So leading a large Christian research organization committed to producing results that serve the Church works out well for me. Recently, I was asked how church leaders should use the data we produce, which I thought was an astute question that warranted a response.
Engagement in God’s mission requires an acute understanding of two components: the gospel and culture. The gospel is the good news of the incarnation of Christ. This was the advent of God’s kingdom in the kingdoms of the world, each of which boasts its own particular culture. No matter the culture, Christ’s coming into it is indeed good news; but the particulars of how it was good news varies from one culture to the next.
The problem is we don’t know who resonates with which aspects of the good news unless we know the people to whom we are taking the gospel. This is how we hope pastors will use the research we present to churches—to understand the culture around them and how they are doing in engaging them with the gospel.
Two groups of people referenced in the Bible illustrate what we need to do to be effective in our gospel-driven cultural engagement. In Acts 17:10-11, Luke praises the Bereans because they were devoted to the study of the Scriptures. They rooted themselves deeply in the Word of God, and it affected the way they lived.
We need to be like the Bereans—firmly rooted in the Word so the teaching therein guides us. Simply put, we must first understand and live in light of the good news before we can persuade others of its goodness (2 Corinthians 5:11).
The second group, found in 1 Chronicles 12:32, may be more obscure. In discussing the armies of men who joined David as he was fleeing Saul, we meet the men of Issachar who “understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” That is a profound characterization, and such men would have been exceptionally valuable to David as he and his armies carried out their missions.
In the same way, we need to understand the times we are in. We need to understand the people to whom God is sending us for the sake of the gospel, so we know how to engage them.
We need to be people who understand both the gospel and culture.
The Word of God gives us our mission, while the data helps us know how we can best accomplish our task—engaging people with the gospel.
There are extremes on either end of the spectrum, one that ignores the culture and one that ignores the Scriptures. There are those whose approach in any culture is to ignore the data, love people, and just present the gospel. If they don’t understand the culture, they cannot possibly interact with it and eventually become irrelevant.
The opposite is also true in that there are those who are not tethered to the Word but are driven by the data. They become so enamored with the culture they lose the distinctiveness of the kingdom of God. They also eventually become irrelevant, because there is no difference between them and the culture of the people around them.
Each of these results is tragic, and each occurs because people default to comfort—they either ignore the culture or conform to it. There is tension in living the character of one kingdom inside another.
My desire as a believer and a researcher is that Christians would be faithful to the Scriptures and students of the culture around us, which would lead to more fruitful efforts in mission. Our research is produced with that hope in mind—to encourage and enable you to be faithful people of Berea and Issachar, who are fruitful because you are tethered to the Word and can discern the times.
Ed Stetzer is president of Lifeway Research.