By Dr. James Emery White, Crosswalk.com
The early Christian church had an interesting nickname that many 21st century Christians are largely unaware even existed. It was sometimes called the “Third Way,” and the name appeared as early as the second century.
It was a reference to how some religious expressions catered to culture by co-opting and reflecting it, while others isolated themselves from it. In other words, most religions either wholeheartedly embraced culture and attempted to find their relevance in mirroring its vision and values, or they created a place by removing themselves from it altogether. As Gerald Sittser has written in regard to the early Christian movement, the first option would have “undermined the uniqueness of their belief system and way of life,” and the second “would have kept them safe on the margins—safe... but irrelevant.”
Instead, Christians did neither. They chose a very visible “third way” that simultaneously engaged the world while not compromising their beliefs—hence their nickname. As commonly put, they were in the world, but not of it.
The church is still to be the “third way,” but too often it isn’t. Even worse, there are many who are deeply confused about what such a “third way” would even entail. In recent history, you have had Fundamentalism that isolated itself from the world, contrasted with mainline Protestantism that attached itself to the world. Neither fared well, yet both would have said they were attempting to engage the world in the best possible way. In truth, they missed the “third way” entirely.
Evangelicalism, at its earliest and best, was an attempt to regain “third way” footing. For a season, there was much promise through the founding of culturally engaging institutions, publications and conferences. Churches awakened in the ’60s and ’70s, and innovation in ministry and music was unleashed while maintaining biblical orthodoxy. But we quickly lost our way.
Now we seem as settled into reflecting the world or retreating from it as ever. On the reflecting side, there is the rise of the “hipster” approach to church, seemingly modeled on the idea that building a bridge to the world involves mimicking it in every possible way. As a result, you see grown men in their 60s wearing skinny jeans, sporting tattoos, wearing leather jackets and looking… ridiculous. Younger leaders seem as intent on building their image as a celebrity brand as they are building a church. And the mainline church? It’s never met a cultural trend it didn’t like.
Then there are those who move toward ever-increasing isolation from the world. No, not as the Fundamentalists retreated, but in a refusal to truly rethink strategy and style. It’s a cultural isolation as pronounced as a monastery.
For example, Southern Baptists just reported their biggest drop in church membership in more than a century. But they have been in decline for some time now. There are many reasons for their losses, but one of the main ones is the widespread refusal to build any true cultural bridges. Even those who have a veneer of the contemporary have it thinly applied. The substance of the church and its ministry is still oriented to reaching the already convinced (and an older generation of the already convinced at that).
The “third way” is simple but profound: Build bridges of understanding over which the church and the world can walk, meeting over the Gospel in the middle. Use language and art, experience and relationship, ministry and narrative, to both explain and embody God’s message to the world. Speak into the world at its point of greatest need and spiritual curiosity, speaking in and through its indigenous language—while never veering away from biblical orthodoxy.
The “third way” demands even more; it will only be as penetrating as its people are marked by a life transformed by Christ. There will need to be a true sense of the “not of this world” emanating from their spirits and attitudes, marriages and families, sense of vocation and mission. “What do they have that I don’t?” will need to come naturally to the thinking of those we engage. Challenging? Of course. But make no mistake: the “third way” is not simply a course of action. If we are to experience the dynamic and power of the early church, we will need to be seen as “third wayers,”
… else we will have nothing to offer the world that it does not already have.
James Emery White
*The earliest reference to which I am aware of the designation “third way” was in a second-century letter to a Roman official named Diognetus.
Gerald L. Sittser, “The Early Church Thrived Amid Secularism and Shows How We Can, Too,” Christianity Today, October 16, 2019, read online.
Kate Shellnutt, “Southern Baptists See Biggest Drop in 100 Years,” Christianity Today, June 4, 2020, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His newest book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.