Understanding the Times
In 1 Chronicles 12:32, the men of the tribe of Issachar are described with these helpful words: “men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do.” What an invaluable spiritual gift! There are many areas in which this gift can be of great service to the church of Jesus Christ. One of these areas is evangelism and missions in North America.
Missiologists believe that the best approach to missions is to study the culture of the people to be reached with the gospel. When we send a missionary to a third-world country, part of their training is to work on understanding the culture to which they will reach out. They often need several years to really get a feel for that particular culture. After all, their questions, concerns, and priorities are not necessarily the same as ours; this can come across in the mundane things as well as the larger things. In missions, this is called contextualization.
Contextualization as presented by many today is an overreaction to a colonial approach to missions that was to some degree present in earlier generations of missionaries. To generalize very broadly, colonialism is characterized by seeing yourself as the superior civilized person who has to train primitive backward people to be like yourself. Contextualization, on the other hand, means adjusting to that culture rather than demanding them to adjust to yours.
This is often overdone in our times. After all, the golden calf in Scripture was contextualization, too, and God condemns it as intolerable idolatry. Contextualizers often thoughtlessly adopt the modern idea that there is no such thing as truth that is universally true, and that every cultural expression is equally valid and valuable. The Emergent Church movement is an example of how destructive this is in the church. There is little biblical about their views, because Christ transforms culture not by making us all cookie cutter copies of each other, but by taking the great truths that are valid in every culture and changing that culture accordingly.
Understanding our times
To come back to the text, the men of Issachar in the days of the census reported in 1 Chronicles 12 understood the times and what needed to be done in light of the times. I wonder how many of us have taken the time to understand the times in which we live. Do words like postmodernism, relativism, consumerism, and hedonism mean anything to you? To be sure, you have felt their effects daily and have been influenced by them, even though you might not recognize these terms.
Our churches are transitioning from their Dutch roots to being established North American denominations. This has its dangers as well as blessings. The danger is that we conform to the prevailing culture of this world rather than being transformed (Rom. 12:1-2). The blessing is that we become more diverse, so that God’s purpose of uniting every tongue, tribe, and kindred in Christ is reflected in our membership.
Perhaps you struggle with evangelism. You don’t know how to respond to the arguments of unbelievers at work, in your neighborhood, or in the family. Their way of thinking seems almost like a foreign language.
Let me give you an example. I am in the habit of listening to talk radio whenever I am in the car. It is a fascinating crash course on our culture, though at times you simply have to turn off the radio when the talk gets raunchy. Recently, the discussion was about homosexuality. What fascinated me was the exchange between the host and a man who was obviously familiar with the Bible, though it was not clear to me whether he was Christian or a member of a cult. (Unfortunately, cults are well represented in southern Alberta.) The caller argued that homosexuality was wrong, and that therefore gay marriage was wrong, too. The host asked him, “Why do you think so?” The caller responded that we have to base our opinion on the Word of God, which says it is wrong. The host said, “That is just your opinion; the Bible is just another human book, as are all religious texts. What right do you have to tell others how to live their lives? Their desires and opinions are as valid and valuable as your own.” The caller at this point did not know what to say. Their worldviews were clashing, and they were speaking past each other rather than engaging and convincing each other.
Another caller on the same program said, “You can’t tell me to stop loving my wife and children. Gay people love their spouses as much as we do. We just have to accept them the way they are, the way they are born.” The radio host was in total agreement with this.
A pressing issue
This is going to be an increasingly pressing topic in our times. The church in many European countries is being increasingly hounded and harassed on this issue, and North American churches are next. In fact, it is already happening to some degree.
Would you be able to engage this radio host in meaningful conversation? How would you answer? Just saying that the Bible says it will be dismissed as your private opinion. Of course, in the end we do have to say, “The Bible says...” But the key question is, how do we do this?
In Acts 17, the Apostle Paul showed that he understood the times. He went to Mars Hill in Athens. Contrary to what the Emergent Church would have you believe, he preached the same message there as everywhere – repentance towards God and faith in Jesus Christ. He preached a crucified and risen Savior. But he was gifted by God to recognize how to address that culture, how to get and keep their attention. Like the men of Issachar, he understood the times and what needed to be done. This is our great need in postmodern, relativistic, hedonistic, and consumerist North America.
Characteristics of Our Culture
Postmodernism is the idea that there is no such thing as truth. There is just personal opinion. No one’s opinion is any more valuable than others.
Relativism is simply another word for the same thing that no point of view is better than another.
Hedonism is the pursuit of pleasure. If there is no such thing as truth, then all you have to live for is pleasure. The Apostle Paul summarizes this philosophy this way: eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Many in our culture, especially in the part of Canada where I live, care only about the next beer and sporting event. Sports is their idol, the golden calf of today. Cathedrals have been replaced with stadiums, and metal idols with sports jerseys. They care only about the next thrill.
Consumerism is the desire to buy and use stuff – you could also call it materialism. People increasingly want to own the nicer car, the cottage, the RV, the boat, and the latest clothes and gadgets.
Evangelizing our culture
So how do you speak of Christ as Lord to such people? Where do you begin? You can begin with a biblical view of pleasure. You can ask, “Do you know why you want pleasure? Because God created you for it. He created you for eternal life, in which streams of pleasure ever flow and boundless joys abide (Ps. 16). He created us to share in His pleasure, by glorifying Him and loving others. But this sense of pleasure has been warped by sin. It has become self-serving and idolatrous. God calls us to repent, not of the love of pleasure, but of loving it idolatrously.”
The book of Ecclesiastes is valuable here. Solomon tried it all. But he was forced to conclude, “Vanity of vanities, it is all empty, grasping of the wind.” Pleasure without God is empty, fleeting, and useless. The conclusion of the matter is to fear God and keep His commandments.
We see things only from our limited perspective; but God sees from all perspectives at once and reveals His truth, which is true for everyone, whether we want to recognize it or not. To be liberated from the tyranny of our private opinion, we need God’s opinion; we need Christ who is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). Without His truth, all that is left are Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. We can all recognize that there is truth in daily life. That is only possible if there is truth that is bigger than disconnected bits and pieces, truth that is as big as the universe itself. We do not have the right to do as we please. We were not created to find our own truth, but to live according to God’s truth.
There is much we can do to learn to speak to our times. Primary, of course, is knowing God’s Word. There are many good books written by Christians on how to interact with our times. No doubt your church library will have some.1 Otherwise, I am sure your pastor would love to recommend some. Dig in, so that you, too, by the grace of God, can learn how to understand the times and know what to say and do.