Dialogues of the Deaf
This description, offered by Swiss psychosomatic counseling guru Paul Tournier in the middle part of the last century, fits much of the “dialogue” of our day as well. Listening to NPR, reading RealClearPolitics, or watching FoxNews, it doesn’t take long to notice that everyone is talking and no one is actually listening. Because our society has lost the ability to do the hard work of thinking things through to their conclusion, we are not equipped to do the dangerous work of listening – letting other ideas impact our convictions and inform our response. The only safe discourse, then, is to perpetuate the “dialogues of the deaf”!
This lack of “conversation skills” in the culture at large is mirrored in the church. The question I had this morning was, “How can we, as the church in America, avoid surrendering the exclusive, external truth of Christianity while at the same time refusing to yell Jesus’ name with our hands over our ears?” How can we stay anchored to our Rock and swim in the sea of neighbors and classmates and grocery-store clerks who have no categories for our witness? There are two sides to the coin: we must feel the weight of our Lord’s mandate to dialogue with culture. It is impossible to disciple the nations without dialoguing with culture! But this dialogue must be controlled from top to bottom by two biblical caveats that are often reversed or avoided all together in the church today.
First, the biblical model of “dialogue with culture” seems to indicate that a healthy percentage of this interaction should originate from those outside the church. The initiative, in other words, should be theirs as often as it is ours (i.e. Jn. 12:21; I Pt. 3:15). If there is nothing about our experience of the life of Christ that would cause others to take notice and ask questions of us, there is little to be gained by our asking questions of them. I say this primarily because the purpose of our questions is to invite them into the life and joy that we have found rather than establish a forum where we are “ever learning (about one another) but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” as it is in Jesus (II Tim. 3:7; Eph 4:21).
Second, in our dialogue with culture we must realize and maintain the teleological difference between our questions and theirs. We are asking questions to expose the hollowness of their answers, to expose their unavoidable dissatisfied with their current belief system, to help them stop hoping in a false “god”, to stir in them a deep hunger that can only be satisfied in Jesus. We are not asking questions to learn from their religious experience in the sense that we need to supplement or reconfigure what we have in Jesus. We are asking questions to discern how best to communicate the truth of the Gospel into their specific situation. Many people (in the church!) today scoff at this perspective as being arrogant, narrow-minded and dangerous. But given the claims of Jesus recorded in Scripture (i.e. John 14:6), I don’t see how we can enter into “dialogue” with our culture/other faiths with any other end in sight.
To name but one sphere of application, these two caveats carry an important implication for our church services – those times where our corporate life in Christ is visible and accessible to the culture. Namely, our services must be structured to magnify and experience the exclusive claims of Jesus as the Way, Truth, and Life. This must happen, first of all, because the purpose of the Body gathering is primarily to edify its members. But this priority does not remove “outsiders” from our radar screens. On the contrary, Paul articulates a vision of the church – as each member contribute the measure of Christ (grace) they have been given – being built together as a dwelling place of the fulness of God by His Spirit. It is when the presence of God is manifest on the earth through the Church that people will begin to ask questions of us (per caveat #1, see the response of the outsiders in I Cor. 14:25)! It is as the Body is built up and equipped in this way that we will be able to ask questions of our culture that offer the all-sufficiency and display the overwhelming beauty of Christ (per caveat #2, see Jesus at the well in Jn 4!). So if it is true that we have a heart for the salvation of the lost; and if it is true that no one comes to the Father except through His only Son Jesus Christ; then we must structure our services so that the presence of Christ is welcome and the power of Christ is released. This is ultimately the most “seeker-sensitive” thing we can do.