Penetrating the Darkness
The debate over seeker-sensitive gatherings waxes and wanes, at times eliciting very strong objections and even anger from both sides of the debate. Those congregations that do not incorporate the seeker-friendly model will often have “Invite a Friend” Sundays wherein the entire service is revamped to accommodate the new faces in the crowd. This approach strikes me as odd and self-defeating, because when the visiting family returns the following week, and everything has returned to the normal pattern, they will be thinking, Wait a minute. This is not what we experienced last week.
It is the very definition of “bait and switch.”
From my chair, the entire debate seems silly, and completely out of step with the approach Jesus takes toward those outside the family of his followers. The basic premise of the seeker-sensitive movement is flawed, and for that reason, the astute Christ-follower will employ an entirely different gospel-teaching model.
Jesus’ Approach to Outreach
We read in Matthew’s gospel how Jesus heard that his cousin John had been tossed into prison for confronting Herod Antipas about his extreme sexual indiscretions, a confrontation that ultimately cost John his head.¹ Rather than go to the prison to visit John or to somehow secure his release, Jesus left the region, headed north into Galilee, seemingly stopping at Nazareth, and then moving on from Nazareth to Capernaum. Luke tells us that it was the enraged people of the Nazareth synagogue who drove Jesus away.²
Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali — to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:
“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles —
the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.”
From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” — Matthew 4:13–17, NIV-1978
The move to Capernaum constitutes the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. It was necessary for his cousin John to finish his own ministry before Jesus began his, almost as though John’s imprisonment was the starting pistol for Jesus to fully engage. Without this breaking point, there was the potential for confusion among the people.
John pointed the way to Jesus, and John did not want his own disciples to continue to follow him. They needed to become followers of Jesus, the one to whom John pointed. As Matthew Henry eloquently said, “The moon and stars are lost when the sun rises.”³
As Jesus launched his ministry, he did not sit in the local synagogue, restructuring the approach to worship activities in order to make them more palatable to seekers. Jesus did not go to the “lighted people,” but rather to those who were beaten down, lost, broken, and frustrated with the religious systems of their day.
Jesus pursues those who are imprisoned by prostitution and sex trades, those who are addicted to methamphetamines. He looks for the crack addict and the pornography addict. He is seeking out the man who beats his wife and the woman who beats her children. Jesus goes to people who understand darkness, because they are drowning in it every day.
Becoming Culturally Relevant
In an attempt to become all things to all men that we might by all means win some,⁴ the 21st Century approach to outreach focuses on modernizing our weekend services in order to show a respectable level of cultural relevance, to make corporate worship more palatable, even “edgy,” and to capture the short-attention-span generation.
If we have a better sign, more engaging music, a better audio-video presentation — if we can make it more fun and engaging — then perhaps they will come. So, we modernize our approach to worship, we update our musical repertoire, and we stand at the dividing line between the light and the darkness in a vain hope that those trapped within the darkness will find us.
Do not misread me as one inclined toward vilifying modifications to our weekend practices. There was a time in the history of the church wherein the introduction of four-part harmony to hymns was the controversial issue that was dividing believers.
I am not objecting to updating our weekend practices. What I am calling into question is the driving force behind those changes. I am questioning the validity of the underlying premise that the purpose of the weekend gatherings is to entice non-Christ-followers to join us and undergo a conversion experience rather than to feed the flock that is under the shepherd’s care.
What I see in the life of Jesus is not that he invited the people in darkness to come to him as he sat in the light. Quite the opposite. Jesus is the light (just as we are⁵), and he unflinchingly took that light into the deepest darkness. He established the headquarters of his ministry in the city of Capernaum, in “Galilee of the Gentiles,” a land despised by those who saw themselves as the racially pure citizens of Judea.⁶
Those Sitting in Darkness
As Jesus penetrates the darkness of this world, the text ominously says, “…on those dwelling in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”⁷ It is important to know who those people were, because they were the people to whom Jesus went and ministered, and therefore, they were, or are, the people to whom I must be ministering.
Note also, the first word out of Jesus’ mouth is “Repent.”⁸ By today’s standard, that is not a seeker-friendly approach.
As Matthew quotes Isaiah regarding the people in darkness, the text literally says they were “sitting in darkness.”⁹ It is the language of captivity.
Recently Alean and I toured a popular cave in South Dakota. As is common with these tours, the tour guide had all the guests face her as she turned off the artificial illumination. It is in such experiences that we learn there is a darkness so deep, and so thick, that it can be felt. It penetrates your very being. You can hold your hand one quarter inch in front of your face, and you will not see it.
Similarly, there is a spiritual darkness, that darkness in which the people of Galilee were sitting, a darkness so dense that it was frightening. That spiritual darkness floods the world today, paralyzing those it consumes.
The people sitting in this darkness do not know how to respond to it, so against their own intellect they pretend that it is not dark at all, calling good evil and evil good, or calling light darkness and darkness light¹⁰ when deep down, they know the darkness is oh-so-dark.
In darkness the captives sit motionless — in the land of the shadow of death. Their spiritual state is so abysmal that they simply endure it. They seek nothing better, because nothing better can be seen. The pitiable condition of the person sitting next to them is no better than their own, so there is no perceivable advantage of making a change. Their attitude is, as Jack Nicholson said, “Maybe this is as good as it gets.”¹¹
Bringing Light to the Darkness
Jesus penetrated that darkness, not with a candle, but with a great light. It is the same light we have available today.
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
And the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness will cover the earth
And deep darkness the peoples;
But the LORD will rise upon you
And His glory will appear upon you.
– Isaiah 60:1–2, NASB
In the land of darkness, that land beneath the looming shadow of death, Jesus began to choose his disciples, calling Peter, Andrew, James, and John; and as he did so, he told them, “Follow me.”¹²
He did not call them to follow a theology, a philosophy, a denomination, a political ideology. He called them to follow him, and he said he would make them fishers of men, a phrase used often to describe those who sought out disciples and adherents to their teaching and persuasive conversation.¹³
He that is in the dark because it is night, may be sure that the sun will shortly arise; but he that is in the dark because he is blind, will not so soon have his eyes opened.¹⁴
The devoted Christ-follower will bravely and boldly penetrate the darkness of the world to guide suffocating men and women to the man who said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”¹⁵
The fact that Jesus intentionally marched into the darkness flies in the face of the separatist view of God that says he stays as far away from darkness as possible. God does not ignore those sitting in darkness. He actively pursues them.
It is the heart of Jesus to go to the last people on Earth who ever expected to be loved by the Jewish Messiah.
When Jesus called Simon and Andrew to follow him, he did not do so because they were fishers of men, but rather because he would make them fishers of men. We may also be anything but fishers of men when Jesus calls us, but he will make us exactly what he needs us to be in the kingdom if we will surrender to his sovereignty over our lives.
Those three words, “I will make…” obliterate all of our excuses and overcome all our inadequacies. The apostle Paul tells us that God will complete the good work he has begun in each of us. The burden of perceived inadequacy is removed from our shoulders, and we are fully prepared for the work he has put before us.
Blessings upon you, my friends.
Victoriously in Christ!
1. Matthew 14:1–12
2. Luke 4:29
3. Henry, M. (1994). Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible: complete and unabridged in one volume (p. 1625). Peabody: Hendrickson.
4. 2 Corinthians 9:22
5. Matthew 5:14
6. Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 1, p. 19). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
7. Matthew 4:16
8. Matthew 4:17
9. Vincent, M. R. (1887). Word studies in the New Testament (Vol. 1, p. 30). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
10. Isaiah 5;20
11. Brooks, J.L. (Director). (1997). As Good as it Gets [Film]. Culver City, CA: Sony Pictures Entertainment.
12. Matthew 4:19
13. Henry, M. (1994). Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible: complete and unabridged in one volume (p. 1625). Peabody: Hendrickson.
15. John 8:12b, NIV-1978