In 2018 I had the opportunity to spend nearly a month in the nation of Scotland. Some friends of mine had a church plant in the city of Glasgow, and our college ministry was sending two different teams over. So, with the gracious permission of leadership here at Bay Life, I visited the first team and remained in the country to receive the next team. During my three week stay with Pete and his family, I experienced a bit of a culture shock. In 2013 I had moved out on my own to a tiny apartment in Seminole Heights and had lived alone ever since. Suddenly, I was plunged into the routines of a young family with children. At first, it was jarring, but slowly, and almost imperceptibly I adopted the rhythms of my new home. I learned to wait in line to use the bathroom, and by the end, I didn’t even wake up in the night when the baby started crying. Something else took place without my realizing it, I began to develop a Scottish accent. It’s not that I was trying to sound like the people around me, it just kind of happened... I didn’t even notice it until the next missions team from Bay Life showed up, and they pointed out that my accent was shifting. Once I was surrounded by my fellow Floridians, I began to recover my native speech once again.
There’s something of an analogy in my experience to the way that culture works. More often than not, we don’t realize how much we’ve been influenced until we take a step back and notice that we’ve changed. Culture rarely acts on us in a way that can be felt, we don’t know that our accent is changing until suddenly one day we sound like our Scottish or Irish neighbors. Or maybe more relevant to this moment: we don’t know how much we’ve been influenced by our culture until we start talking about politics exactly like non-believers. Or we starting talking about sex, and marriage, and love exactly like Cosmopolitan magazine. Or maybe it's when we notice that our vision of the good life has more in common with what social media influencers sell us than what the Apostle Paul tells us. Whatever the shift, it is the result of a long process of deformation, one that is subtle but cumulative. Culture forms us through the art we consume: in music, in movies, in Tv shows. It also forms us through the conversations that we have, over a thousand cups of coffee. But the sum total of all these tiny adjustments is that we begin, like Israel, to look no different than the nations.
Fortunately, God knows that one of the greatest temptations is to be conformed to the patterns of this world. He is so aware of it that he builds a counter-culture within every single culture on the planet. A place in which his people can be re-formed, and recover their native language. This counter cultural assembly is found within the community of the church. Very often we speak of the church as a place to get, “re-fueled” which is fair enough. Yet I think we can say more because the church is also a place in which we are re-formed. Once a week these outposts of the kingdom of God assemble and those who belong to Jesus are reminded of our native accent. We hear God speak through his word to remind us of who we are, and we are equipped to enter back into the world reminded of our true citizenship and our true identity. It’s no wonder that the author of Hebrews warns his readers not to forsake the gathering of believers.
In an era of COVID, this is more difficult than before. There are a number of us who aren’t in a position to return to the physical gathering: whether we are immune-compromised or caring for those who are most vulnerable. Here we can be certain that the Spirit offers grace, and we can rejoice that he has placed us in a moment in history where we can seek out community through online means. We also ought to rejoice in the fact that we live during a moment in which we have widespread access to scripture and resources through which we can gain a deeper understanding of God’s word and his world. Because the Bible also has the power to reform what has been warped and misshapen. Church history is filled with the stories of figures whose whole world changed when they read the Bible: St. Augustine, Martin Luther, Karl Barth, all were radically reshaped by their encounters with the voice of God in scripture. While some of us cannot gather in person with our brothers and sisters, we can come to the word of God and allow it to do its reforming work in our hearts. After all, it’s in the Bible that we learn how to act, think, and speak in a way that reflects our true nationality as citizens of the kingdom of God.
It’s often said that familiarity breeds contempt, and anyone who’s been trapped in a car with friends for a long road trip can attest to the truthfulness of that statement. But it is also true that familiarity breeds indifference, the longer we’ve been exposed to something the less likely we are to take it seriously. This is the great danger we face when it comes to gathering with believers and opening up the scriptures. We live in an era where both are easily accessible, and the temptation will be to treat them as insignificant practices. Yet, if we grow indifferent to the gifts of God’s word and his people, we’ll miss out on two of the most significant ways that The Spirit forms us into citizens of the kingdom. For the sake of our souls, we can't afford to do that. So let me encourage you to take a step back and examine how much of your heart and your posture reflect the formation of our current cultural climate. Perhaps you'll find that you've begun to develop an accent without even realizing it. Once you've done that, let me invite you to immerse yourself afresh in the community of faith and the written word so that you can be formed anew into the image of Christ, and as a citizen of his kingdom.