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Five Cultural Struggles: Tolerance
by Tom Goodman
October 18, 2007

We'll be more effective as church leaders when we understand what people in our culture struggle with.  In his book, No Perfect People Allowed, Austin pastor John Burke says that there are five main issues in our culture Christian leaders must come to terms with:


We looked at the struggle with trust last week.  This week, let's look at another cultural struggle: tolerance -- and our community's perception that we lack it.  The only way to successfully address this issue as Christian leaders is to welcome people as they are and lead them to where they need to be.  We expect others to do that with areas of rebellion that we're still struggling with as Christian leaders, so we need to extend that dual effort to others: acceptance "as is," and yet encouragement to press toward life as it is meant to be.

If you've tried to have a conversation with an unchurched friend in the last few years, you already know how super-sensitive people are to the matter of tolerance.  Burke wrote:
During the first two years of Gateway's existence, I consistently was asked two questions by spiritual seekers more than any other questions:  "What do you think of other religions?"  And "How do you feel about gay people?"  I've discovered the real question they are asking is:  "Are you one of the narrow-minded, bigoted, hate-filled, intolerant types of Christians I've heard about?"  What they really want to know is whether we promote love or hatred.  The connection may not seem obvious, but it is critical to understand if you want to communicate effectively.

Sadly, while our community insists on tolerance, we all need so much more than that.  "Our culture diets on the candy of tolerance," Burke observes, "but what it really craves is the meat of grace....  Tolerance alone cannot accommodate both justice and mercy -- it can only look the other way."

Did you catch the failure of tolerance?  It "cannot accommodate both justice and mercy."  What does that mean?  He means that a person who commits to nothing more than tolerance cannot do the hard work of upholding standards of behavior and at the same time embracing the person who fails at those standards.  Only a gracious person can do that.  And grace is what Christ's church has to offer:
The uniqueness of Christianity boils down to this one word: Grace....  But if you interview people on the street, few, if any, associate Christianity or church with anything closely resembling grace.  What they feel is law: zero tolerance, judgment, and condemnation.  Why doesn't the church utilize its greatest asset?
The reality is that God is a tolerant God.  Paul asks in Romans 2:4, "Do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance, and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance?"  But God does so much more than patiently put up with our failures:  He extends grace to forgive them.  "If we are to represent God through the church," Burke reminds us, "we must exhibit far more than tolerance.  We too must show grace."

As I said, the only way to successfully address this issue as Christian leaders is to welcome people as they are and lead them to where they need to be.  Two actions: acceptance and challenge.

First, it requires acceptance "as is."  Failure is a verb, not a noun.  In other words, it's something we do, not something we are.  As we live out that truth, we'll be able to appreciate the value of people regardless of where they are in embracing and living God's standards.

Of course, some Christian leaders have an understandable fear about accepting others in this way:  Won't we inadvertently send a signal that their sinful behavior isn't in fact sinful?  Won't we come across as condoning things God clearly says are against his will?

That's where the second action comes in.  We need to be able to say to people, "Come as you are... but don't stay that way."  Life as it was meant to be lived includes aligning our behavior with certain standards.  Church leaders need to have a clearly-marked process of spiritual growth that people can work through so they come to accept and practice those divine expectations.

Again, this isn't simply an approach we should take toward certain people but all people.  We can be grateful that God continues to take that approach to us.  I'm not a finished product, and neither are you.  Aren't you glad you've found acceptance "as is" here at Hillcrest, and aren't you glad you've found encouragement to keep pressing forward toward full maturity?  Let's make sure we extend this twofold approach to everyone.  It's biblical, and therefore it's the best way to address our community's concern about tolerance.


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