(1Co 9:19-23 ESV) 19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
Paul explains his missionary strategy: He meets the lost where he finds them. He speaks to them in terms they can understand. He couches the gospel in the cultural context. For example,
(Act 17:22-25 ESV) 22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”
Paul preaches to the philosophers in Athens about the “unknown god” even though the true God is known. But he knows that the altar to an unknown god gives him an opening to explain God in terms his listeners could understand.
The scriptures are filled with God working within then contemporary culture to express himself. He appeared to Abraham as a stranger in need of hospitality. He appeared to Moses in a burning bush. He appeared to the Israelites as a column of smoke and fire. He presents himself in ways that work in the current culture.
When God made a covenant with Abraham, he had Abraham slaughter animals so God could pass through the split carcasses — in the way bedouins of the area made covenants. When God made a covenant with Israel, he wrote Deuteronomy in the form of an ancient, Middle Eastern treaty. When he punished David for his sin with Bathsheba, he allowed Absalom to have sex with his concubines — because that brought great shame to David in that culture.
Just so, the Tabernacle and Temple involved animal sacrifice because that’s how people in those places at those times worshiped deities. I believe he had Abraham and his descendants circumcised to remind them that their sex lives belong to God — because the idolatrous cults of their neighbors involved ritual prostitution. Circumcision would show the prostitutes that this man was breaking his vows to God — and hopefully remind the man of his commitment so he would not shame God in the tent of an Asherah priestess.
Why did Miriam celebrate the crossing of the Red Sea with tambourines? Because God had authorized tambourine worship? No, because that’s how people in that culture celebrated. Why did David dance before the Ark? Because it was authorized? No, because it was how Early Iron Age Israelites rejoiced.
Why were the early Christians repeatedly told to greet one another with the Holy Kiss? Because in that culture, that’s how people who love each other greeted one another.
God, of course, doesn’t accept all of our culture. When culture runs contrary to God’s will, God’s will prevails. But the great missionary Paul teaches us to push far beyond our comfort zones and to give up our freedom and rights in order to win the lost to Jesus. What I want doesn’t matter.
I doubt that Paul wanted to beaten nearly to death, lashed, and shipwrecked, but he suffered those things for the sake of God’s mission. He didn’t get what he wanted, but he did learn to be like Jesus — which to him was a far greater joy.
And yet … we’re not willing to suffer through contemporary Christian music for the sake of the Kingdom. If the songs aren’t 50 years old, we threaten to leave, to withhold our checks, and to make trouble. We are worshiping the wrong god.
Ironic, isn’t it, that the same people insisting that it’s more important that God enjoy the worship than the young people are the ones who think it’s more important that the old members enjoy the music than God. I mean, is God more interested in the nostalgia of his oldest children or the expansion of the boundaries of the Kingdom?
Yes, God loves the old members, too, but he loves them so much he wants them re-shaped into the image of Christ. He wants them transformed. He wants them to put the desires of others above their own. He wants them to show an example of sacrifice and self-emptying — because it is in these things that true joy is found.
So let me argue the case from the ironic angle. Do you want to be happy? Really, really happy? Well, the secret to happiness to stop worrying about your own wants and to lose yourself in the wants of others. Do you doubt me? Then think about your grandchildren. When you have the grandkids, do you eat at McDonalds? Even if you hate McDonalds? Yes, you do, because you find more joy in the smiles of your grandchildren than in your own food preferences.
When you have the grandkids in your home for Christmas, do you play your music or do you play music the children enjoy? Do you read them your favorite books — or theirs? Do you set the room temperature at what the baby prefers or at your own preference?
Of course, you might also take joy in teaching the grandkids to enjoy a little Frank Sinatra, but you don’t force it down their throats. You invite them to join you in sharing an experience you enjoy, hoping they enjoy it, too. And if they don’t, you put the Chipmunks and VeggieTales back on.
You see, love changes what makes you happy. When you love someone, meeting their needs is more delightful than meeting your own. If you love your wife, you’d rather buy her a new dress that she really wants than replace your worn out old suit, because her smile means far more to you than a new suit.
Do you want to be happy at church? There is but one path to happiness, and that is love. Learn to love those young people — really, really love them. Spend time with them. Eat with them. Share stories about how God touched your life with them. And then surrender to them — just as you surrender to your spouse and your grandchildren. There is great joy in surrender. There is none in getting your way.
Should they do the same for you? Yes. But you are the leaders, the mature, the experienced. You are the ones who’ve spent decades in Bible study and prayer. You’re the ones who have to set the example of selflessness. And you aren’t selfless if you demand that the immature reciprocate.
That grandbaby isn’t going to learn to share for quite some time, but you have to share with the grandbaby right now, enjoying his toothless grin. It’ll all work out in the end, but it’ll work out because you’ll stop counting wins and losses and instead revel in the joys of others and the legacy you’re leaving — all those new converts and members who’ve been blessed by your selflessness and who, one day, will mature to the point that they’ll do the same thing for others when it’s their time to be like their Savior.