Sometimes it feels like we, as Christians living in the twenty-first century, are the first to find ourselves surrounded by a culture that seems to reject much of what we believe. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. The earliest Christians, struggling to survive in the first century, were surrounded by a far more hostile culture. In spite of the obstacles and challenges, this group continued to grow, unlike the present Church in America, which appears to be shrinking each and every year. What’s the difference between these two groups? One important distinction is simply the response each group expressed (and is currently expressing) toward the culture in which they live(d). The first century Church was a thermostat, while the twenty first century Church (in America, at least) is often little more than a thermometer.
Thermostats control the temperature, while thermometers simply reflect it. The first century Church was well trained by its Master. Jesus told the earliest disciples and followers that they needed to resist the temptation to simply reflect the temperature of their culture:
“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.” (Matthew 5:13)
Jesus told his followers to set the tone for the world around them. To change the flavor of the culture rather than simply adopt the flavor of their first century environment. We are salt. And we are light:
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)
Light guides and exposes. Jesus’ command to be “light” assumes two things. It assumes the world around us is dark and needs light, and it assumes the practices and beliefs of the culture are misguided and need correcting. That’s why we need to be thermostats rather than thermometers. We are called to set the tone, add truth to the culture, shine a light on the darkness and guide people to something better. The Church is at a crucial point of decision. We can acquiesce, shrink in silence, or stand tall in spite of the consequences. Jesus called his followers to do the latter. That’s why he did his best to prepare them for the reaction they would surely receive from the culture:
“If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.” (John 15:18-19)
There would be no reason to prepare His followers for persecution if Jesus intended them to either compromise or remain silent. He must want something more from us as His ambassadors. He must want us to do the right thing, not the easy thing.
But we can’t (and won’t) do anything if we aren’t sure about what we believe and why our beliefs are true. Sadly it seems many of us are willing to compromise and reflect the views of the culture (like thermometers) rather than attempt to impact the world for Christ (like thermostats). Thermometers don’t effect change, they simply record it. Jesus never took this approach and He never advocated such an approach for His disciples. Christ followers are called to be uncompromising change agents. That’s why it’s time for all of us to be thermostats rather than thermometers.
- Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity