The church certainly has a love/hate relationship with culture. People from all stripes of religious traditions shout about culture and how the church should or should not relate to it. Unfortunately, many don't think discerningly about what it is and how to engage it.
The tension between the church and the wider culture has been around since the church began. And it isn't going away anytime soon.
What is culture?
The late theologian Harvie Conn said that culture is "the common ideas, feelings, and values that guide community and personal behavior that organize and regulate what the group thinks, feels, and does about God, the world, and humanity."
Culture itself is not evil but a composite of good and evil -- as understood Biblically. In any given culture we can find both the imago Dei and idols because all people are made in God's image and reflect that reality in some ways.
To say that we shouldn't engage culture is like telling a fish to not swim in water. Culture is the world we "swim" in. So what do we do with this as the church?
All Things to All Men
First, the church should definitively state that culture matters.
Culture mattered to the Apostle Paul. In Acts 17, we see Paul positively affirm that culture is consequential. In Acts 17:22, Paul finds a space within the culture to proclaim the gospel. This venue was called the Areopagus, which was Athen's highest court of appeal. This was not a synagogue. This was a public sphere in the cultural milieu. This was no accident.
Paul also acknowledged the spiritual questions of the philosophers contextually. He observed their idols as he walked through the city. He even quoted one of their own poets. And most importantly, Paul understood how to respond to culture. In Acts 17:29-30, he took something they found value in and reinvigorated it with the truth of the gospel. He didn't sugarcoat what God was after -- repentance -- but he did so with a humility and generosity that understood their culture just as much as his listeners did.
Second, the church should acknowledge that relating to culture the wrong way matters.
Author and pastor Tim Keller has described four incomplete approaches that the church has related to culture: the pietiest, the conservative activist, the cultural "relevant," and the counter-culturalist.
A pietist is someone who stresses Bible study, personal religious experience, and evangelism to the exclusion of trying to understand culture's expressions. A conservative activist perceives the main problem today to be the loss of moral absolutes. A cultural relevant, in reaction to the conservative movement, believe they are to deeply identify with felt needs of people -- embodying love and truth by working against inequality and injustice in society. A counter-culturalist believes the church needs to follow Christ 'outside the camp' and identify with the poor and the marginalized.
Keller says that every one of these groups articulates a crucial and irreplaceable part of what is wrong with our church's relationship to culture but exclusively fall short. He says that they have an unbalanced view of themselves because they are responding more to the imbalances in one another than to culture.
He also states that these groups have an insufficient grasp of the Biblical plot line because each approach represents just one possible emphasis of the narrative arc within a comprehensive whole.
When we relate to culture wrongly, it hurts the greater witness of the church in our cities and in the world. It shows us to be wildly singular in our focus, rather than generously humble in our approach to engage culture. Relating to culture wrongly matters because, as it says in Ephesians 3:10, it can kill any opportunity for the "manifold wisdom of God might be made known" in the spheres we live in.
Third, the church should affirm that engaging culture the right way matters.
Pastor Joe Thorn says that we should engage culture in three ways: reject what is evil, receive what is good, and redeem what is broken/lost. Rejecting what is evil is straightforward. There are things in culture that Christians and the church should flat out exclude from their lives. But as the church relates to culture through reception or redemption, there are two things we need to remember.
Jesus tells his friends, the disciples, that as they go, they are to be a "city on a hill" whose "good deeds" are a light that will lead not-yet-Christians to acknowledge Jesus as Lord. Just as the disciples, Christians are summoned to be an alternate city within every earthly city. We should be the very best and brightest citizens, pursuing the "peace and prosperity" of our cities (Jeremiah 29:4-7). We are to be light.
But we are also supposed to be salt. Keller says that salt is a much more modest metaphor than what the image of light seems to hold out.
Christian living (like salt in the meat) is quite important to keep culture from corrupting but it is also a metaphor that is different in another way as well. Salt must spread out and penetrate to be useful and effective. Christians then do not only engage the world as a counter-cultural community as "light" but also as scattered individuals who take the Word into every sphere and sector of culture.
Why does this matter? The church is firmly planted in culture whether they want to admit or not. And the churches ability to be nimble and winsomely adapt to the culture around it will determine its penetration into it. Unfortunately, many churches are frozen in an era that doesn't reflect the society it lives in.
For many, it's time to thaw out and a reclaim the Apostle Paul's passion to become all things to all men that by all possible means, that God might save some through their church's positive witness in culture for the sake of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:22-23).
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