5. We must replace cultural pessimism with gospel confidence. I am a baseball player. At least I used to be. I grew up playing the sport and still miss playing the game. Because of this, one old adage that has always rung true with me goes, “Don’t take your eye off the ball.” A good hitter must maintain insane focus while batting. This is especially true as he faces harder and more effective pitching. The hitter must be able to process a lot of information in a very short amount of time. What type of pitch is it? Where will the pitch settle as it passes by? Should I swing or should I hold? Should I swing with power, or should I swing with more finesse and ‘go with the pitch?’ You will notice that all of these questions center upon the ball. When a batter takes his eyes off the ball, he swings aimlessly, and ultimately, with poor result more often than not.
One of the ways that we tend to take our eyes off the ball in regards to evangelism is by allowing the culture around us to dictate our attitudes. Our culture is sick. It has been cultivated by sick, sinful hearts and is a direct implication of the Fall. When we begin to focus on just how bad certain aspects of the culture around us become, we take our eyes off the ball. We begin to develop feelings of disgust, fear, apathy, anger, and finally, pessimism. We begin to buy the assumption that the culture is so sick that nothing can or will change it. Feelings like this begin to demobilize us. They kill any intentionality and urgency we once had for taking the gospel to the darkness with reckless abandon. We begin to shelter ourselves in the comfort and safety of the Christian subculture that has been slowly created in the wake of such feelings. We begin to pursue transformation through boycotts, Facebook rants, and protests, out of anger instead of gospel compassion. Now, if you know me you know that I am all about standing for the truth and even being involved politically and socially. But, make no mistake, these are not usually effective vehicles for evangelism. They definitely cannot make up the main thrust of our evangelistic activity.
Of the mindshifts I have offered so far, this one might hit closest to home for me. I’m just being transparent. God has greatly convicted me that one of the greatest hindrances to my own involvement in evangelism lies with this very issue. This is especially true in working with students. I have come to realize that i can just be flat-out pessimistic as I view the surrounding student culture in the community where I live and serve. I can become overwhelmed with a sense of helplessness as I attempt to form a strategy for reaching students. Quite simply, I have taken my eye off the ball.
So, what is ‘the ball?’ It’s the gospel. But beyond that, it is the gospel in all its beauty and power! As I have faced this conviction, one specific verse of Scripture has begun to captivate my heart.
“…greater is he who is in you, than he who is in the world.” – 1 John 4:4
I need to be reminded of this often, and I think Christians need to be reminded of it now more than ever. Because the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16)! The Gospel is powerful! And the Savior that stands behind the gospel, as the guarantor of that gospel is all-powerful! The Gospel changes things, and not just what I deem to be changeable. It radically changes the utterly sinful, the hopelessly lost, and the completely rebellious! When I keep my eye on the ball, I’m reminded of this truth instead of being overwhelmed by the hopelessness of the culture. I stop thinking that somehow changing the culture is up to my own power or that my culture is something to fear or to escape.
What happens when a batter takes his eye off the ball? I remember the worst slump I ever experienced as a young baseball player. It was just after my best season ever, which was my senior year. For some reason things began to click for me at the plate that year. I had very few games that season in which I did not have a hit, and had many games with 2 hits or more. But after the high school season had ended and ‘big league’ ball had begun at our local Little League, it was as if I were learning to hit for the very first time! With each plate appearance my frustration grew as I could not figure out why that which was so easy a few weeks before now seemed so difficult. The pitching I faced was quite inferior to what I had faced in that final season of high school, yet I struggled to make even little contact with the straighter and slower pitches I faced.
As usual, my dad is the one who finally helped me see what ailed me. “Jason,” he said, after a game wherein I had actually made contact with the ball in all 4 at-bats, yet the ball had only traveled a combined 61/2 feet, “you have to stop thinking about everything but the ball and just hit the ball.” My very next at-bat in my next game I began to realize that I had been focusing on every single thing but the one thing that mattered…the ball. I had begun paying attention to the motion of the pitcher, the position of my hands, how I was stepping, and even to where the catcher had set up. My dad was completely right, as usual. I found that I had been focusing on the ball too late, pulling my head (and eyes) away from the ball, and hacking out of sheer frustration. I began to dread every at-bat.
Taking my eye off the ball had two very detrimental outcomes for my performance. First, I began to over-swing out of frustration. I began to swing aimlessly, instead of to hit my target. I began to swing out of anger instead of intentionality. Because of this I whiffed more than I made actual contact. And when I did make contact it did not amount to very much.
Second, I began to simply not swing. By the time I processed where the pitch would end up it was too late. I remember having so many called strikes, and even a lot of called strike-outs. This added to my frustration because I had rarely let a strike by me during the high school season that had just ended. Even on the rare occasion that I struck out during that season, those at-bats would be riddled with foul balls and many pitches. Now, because my focus had been misplaced, there were so many really good pitches that simply passed me by.
I remember ending that season pretty well, however. That very next game I began to make solid contact with the ball again. Why? Because I placed my focus back on what mattered and sought to simply go where the pitch took me. I think we need to see the same resurgence in the present day with how we approach evangelism. The fact that we have become all too focused on the culture we either swing aimlessly or have become paralyzed as opportunities pass us by.
One of the greatest influences resulting in my own mind shift in this area came from something I learned at Southeastern from Dr. Bruce Ashford. He asked the question one day in class, “Is culture inherently bad?” In my own arrogance I remember answering that question with a resounding “yes!” in my heart. As Dr. Ashford began to answer his own question, though, I remember my pride melting as he opened up a completely new understanding of culture to me. This is how he answered the question.
God’s creation is inherently good. (“It is good.”)
‘Culture’ is that which is cultivated out of God’s good creation.
God’s creation is fallen. Man is fallen.
Man, even in his fallen-ness, continues to cultivate culture out of God’s creation.
From this, two things can be said about ‘culture.’
(1) Culture is structurally ‘good.’ (Because it is cultivated out of God’s creation).
(2) Culture is directionally ‘bad.’ (Because of Man’s fallen-ness and misplaced worship).
I was reminded by Dr. Ashford in that class that Jesus is Lord of all. Culture is wicked, but more importantly, it is directionally bad. Culture was designed by God in the beginning to be the primary way that humanity would worship him. They were to create culture, acting as image-bearers of their Creator, in a way that brought him glory and served one another. But now, God’s crowning achievement in creation cultivate culture for its own glory and worship of its own sinfulness. Understanding this allows me to approach culture with compassion instead of anger. It propels me out in an effort to rescue instead of condemn. It reminds me that people are lost and need Jesus, not my rants.
Fleeing the culture because of its sinfulness is simply not an option for believers. Interacting with the culture solely through condemnation might convey truth, but offers no gospel of good news. Only through keeping our eyes on the ball, the power and beauty of the gospel, can we both view and interact with the culture as we ought. Only through a proper view of culture can we be effective tools in God’s mission to transfer and transform fallen people, thus bringing radical change to the culture as well! Only through the transforming presence of the Holy Spirit can we keep our eyes on the ball and go where the ball takes us.