Growing up in the Church it seemed to me I was always being reminded, “don’t make friends with the world... you’re in the world but you’re not of it” (based on James 4:4). What did that mean?
As a young child I don’t think my understanding of it was quite accurate. I thought it meant I shouldn’t have any meaningful friendships with people who were sinners; for one thing they would corrupt me and after all we didn’t have anything in common. I am so glad that I grew out of that kind of mindset! Sadly, however, many well-meaning disciples live their entire lives driven by such faulty thinking. We cannot be effective disciples if we live our lives isolated from (people of) the world. How can we live (be) in the world, not being part of it and at the same time be influential disciples of the Messiah?
Yahshua repeatedly told His followers that they were not of this world, even as He wasn’t; but yet He told others that they were of this world. You are of the world if you are ‘without Yahweh’, alienated from Him, dead in your sins; you are of this world if you live according to the desires of the sinful nature, going against the righteous standards of Yahweh and going your own way; you are of this world if you live and behave as children who serve ‘the prince of this world’ – the devil.
Being not of this world means you are not subject to the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:1-2 KJV), you are not guided by the same values that operate in that world, you don’t live by the same standards, you don’t worship at the altar of self and materialism, you don’t seek the same goals (self-centred). You don’t do or follow after any of those things because you have been transferred, translated from the kingdom of this world to the kingdom of heaven. Here you are guided by a new set of values, you live your life by a standard that expresses Yahweh’s holiness, you seek His Kingdom only, and His righteousness - not your own desires: your worship springs from a heart that is completely centred on Him. It is important to know the difference between ‘being of the world’ and ‘not of the world’, and even more importantly what the expectations are for both.
The apostle John (chapters 13 – 17) gives us a glimpse of what can be said to be Yahshua’s most intimate and important time with His disciples. He opens up His heart to His followers knowing that He is soon ‘going back to His Father’. In these chapters He unveils their purpose in the world. Yahshua declares that He had chosen them from out of the world (Jn. 15:19) in order to send them back into the world (Jn. 17:18). In thinking about this my mind raced to one of my favourite TV series: The X Files, where agents Mulder and Scully investigate extra terrestrial and paranormal phenomena. On a number of occasions they encounter humans who are being returned after abduction by aliens from other worlds, these individuals invariably have had some kind of alien implant, and their whole purpose is to infiltrate the human population. It’s all a bit far-fetched and exciting stuff, but there is an echo of truth in relation to followers of Yahshua being chosen out of the world. 2 Corinthians 5:17 (NKJV) opens up this fascinating thought for us: “Therefore, if anyone is in [Messiah], he is (altogether)* a new creature.” We are essentially aliens, not the green Martian type but a ‘new’ species, a new race with a new purpose. This purpose is to infiltrate the strongholds of this world.
Often, in trying not to be ‘of the world’, believers miss the fact that they’re in the world to radically influence it, to challenge those who are ‘of it’, calling them to embrace an alternative Kingdom! This is precisely what our Saviour and Master did, and He expects us to do the same; just catch this statement of His: “As you sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world” (Jn. 17:18 HCSB); and again, “As the Father has sent me, I also send you” (Jn. 20:21b HCSB). We can go on and be more precise about what Yahshua was sent into the world to do: “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost” (Lk. 19:10 HCSB). Clearly, then, if we have been sent into the world as our Master was, our purpose is to seek those who otherwise would be lost and present the message of the Kingdom to them.
As disciples we do our best work when we follow the pattern of our Master, and we see that Yahshua achieved His purpose by going out of His way and getting into the circle of ordinary folk. Why? Because He knew that to influence the world He had to connect with it: to transform people’s lives He had to connect with them. Of course He was accused of mixing with the outcasts and the riffraff of His day, but these were the very folk He had come to save. What I admire about the Master is that He was not deterred by the accusations of sceptics and experts who thought He’d completely lost it; His focus on the purpose remained razor sharp. Yahshua connected with people, with their lives, with their situations, with their helplessness, with their failures and problems and in so doing He was able to speak into their lives in ways they could understand and relate to. We cannot speak into people’s lives unless we are prepared to connect with them, and that invariably means making an effort to get close and touch them. And this might also mean enduring misunderstanding from people within our own ranks.
The task of making disciples, massively influencing the world for Yahshua is NOT over; the command to go into the world to do this has not changed. However, the things that have changed are cultures, people’s lifestyles and values, people’s expectations and attitudes. As disciples in the 21st Century we have to be aware of such changes and become more creative and innovative about how we connect with the people and communities of the world. We have to accept that some of our traditional ways in reaching out to people are no longer effective. Because Yahshua was in tune with the times and the then culture He was able to use relevant methods in connecting with and getting under people’s skin in order to speak truth to them. This is the challenge of today.
I know of some churches who, in realising they have to find new ways of interfacing with the ‘lost of the world’, are engaging in various community projects that open doors to connect with parents, young people and children consistently. This regular interaction gives these disciples opportunity to be touched by the needs of both parents and children, and also the opportunity to express in meaningful ways the Master’s love.
Some church groups have given themselves to feeding and caring for the poor and destitute in their community. This is more than the traditional soup run that many organisations do; this particular initiative allows mature disciples to sit with and interact with those who are being served with food and other commodities. These disciples are able to listen to the stories of broken and desperately needy people, to build a relationship with them and again to demonstrate Yahshua’s love and compassion. I believe the Church must be courageous and embrace these and other innovative ideas in seeking to reach the unchurched.
People will hear you when they feel you are connected with them – when they feel that you’re not standing from a distance shouting the odds to them, but you are up close and sharing. We are aliens, not of this world, but we should be vitally connected to people of the world not for the purpose of abducting, but of seeing them transformed and transferred to the kingdom of heaven. Being an alien in the world is risky if we are to be effective in carrying out our prime objective – to make disciples (to make more aliens!). Being different isn’t always attractive, more often than not it invites persecution and hatred. Our Master said, “If the world hates you, understand that it hated Me before it hated you. … Remember the word I spoke to you: ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will also keep yours” (Jn. 15:18 & 20 HCSB). Let us not fear being misunderstood and even persecuted for associating ourselves with ‘sinners’ – our Master was vilified for being the friend of riffraff.
To be effective disciples of Yahshua we have to stay in the world not disconnected from its communities and cultures, but connected to its people and be in touch with their needs. We have to move out of the citadel of our fellowship, build bridges of friendship and support for the sinners, the lost and vulnerable of this world. As believers we should not be afraid of building friendships with ‘sinners’, those who are said to be ‘of the world’ – we are not adopting or living by their rules, we are connecting with them in the hope of winning them over to the Master’s Kingdom.
(*The writers insertion)
For just as each of us has one body with many members...