They say culture is created in big cities and flows downstream to our small towns over time. Growing up, my friends and I would joke, “If our state is ten years ‘behind the times,’ we’re behind by at least a century.” As a teenager, this felt like a curse because so few of the bands I wanted to see live ever included West Virginia as a stop in their tour. Now as a parent of four, this has felt more like a blessing. For better or for worse, it might take longer for the latest cultural trends and ideas that blow up the headlines to show up in our homes, schools, and churches in small towns. But they still arrive.
Thyatira was the least impressive and least significant of the seven cities mentioned in Revelation, yet the letter to this church is the longest of all seven. Our small towns are not an afterthought to Jesus, and neither are you as you labor to make him known there. It might sound strange, but I find the situation in Thyatira deeply encouraging because it shows what we’re facing in our small towns today is not new!
Jesus’s message to the church at Thyatira extends to our churches as well. When culture invades, Christians and churches can react in unhelpful ways which miss the opportunity to make more (and better) disciples of Jesus. Jesus’s words to Thyatira help us see and avoid these four common reactions to an invading culture.
The first unhelpful reaction to invading culture is for us to withdraw deeper into our churches and relationships that remain unchanged. This approach says, “with all the crazy out there, let’s just turn off the computers, hole up in our churches, watch The Andy Griffith Show reruns, and pretend we live in Mayberry.” While retreat can make sense (Proverbs says the prudent sees danger and hides himself), such fearful retreat ignores the danger of unfaithfulness to our marching orders from Jesus. In Thyatira, Jesus said, “I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance. Hold fast what you have until I come” (Rev. 2:19, 25). When our churches neglect discipling people, our culture does not. Click To Tweet
He called that small church to endure in their good works of faithful love and witness in the city, not to retreat from the very ones to whom they were called. The Great Commission is a command to “go” make disciples, even if the place to which we’re going looks increasingly more like Babylon than Mayberry—and even if, instead of being celebrated for our faith, we might be crucified.
When the wave of culture sweeps in denying the goodness of gender, marriage, and sexual difference that God created, one reaction is to hop on that wave and pretend the Bible can somehow be twisted to affirm whatever the culture decided was true ten minutes ago. Compromise says, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!”
Sanding down all the ways the Bible conflicts with our culture may keep peace with others, but it will cost us our peace with God. No one can meet the real Jesus if we contort him into a god of our own culture’s liking. Such compromise is a posture of defeat that results in disobedience to Jesus and an impotent church. That’s why Jesus lovingly called the church in Thyatira to refuse to tolerate bad Bible teaching and sexual immorality. To display the glory of God, our churches must treasure a beauty our world does not yet see, and renounce many evils our world still cherishes. Click To Tweet
However great the pushback we encounter, we’ll never advance the gospel by denying God’s good Word and design. To display the glory of God, our churches must treasure a beauty our world does not yet see, and renounce many evils our world still cherishes.
3. Political Idolatry
Another unhelpful reaction to invading culture is to exchange our hope in the gospel for hope in political saviors. When Christians see political leaders pushing harmful ideologies into their small towns, some are tempted to “fight fire with fire” and begin heralding political reform as their primary cause. Political legislation at its best may restrain moral evil, but we have seen and know the gospel is the only power of God to transform hearts. Some in the church at Thyatira embraced idolatry (Rev. 2:20); when we seek our salvation in political leaders, we do the same. Putting our hope in politics is an enticing, but ultimately insufficient solution. Jesus alone is the true Savior and king we’ve been commissioned to herald.The Great Commission is a command to “go” make disciples, even if the place to which we’re going looks increasingly more like Babylon than Mayberry. Click To Tweet
A fourth unhelpful reaction when the culture invades is to take the fabled ostrich approach of sticking our heads in the sand. I had friends who were raised by well-meaning but oblivious grandparents who looked the other way while their grandkids got into all sorts of dangerous stuff. As pastors, we can make the same mistake if we continue trucking along with the same old application and strategies as though no one in our community is facing idols and ideologies currently washing over the culture at large.
But when our churches neglect discipling people, our culture does not. Jesus was aware of what was happening in Thyatira, both in the city and in the church. He names the sins and idolatry of his day, and he wants the pastors and churches there to take notice and act accordingly.
It would be inappropriate to let our preaching calendar be set by our newsfeed. However, it would be pastoral malpractice to ignore the questions and struggles many in our churches and cities are hearing and facing. Hymn writer Elizabeth Charles wisely warned, “If I profess, with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition, every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christianity.”