college travels

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Some thoughts on Church and Culture – Thesis 1

I’ve been thinking a lot about the interaction between gospel and culture recently, particularly in relation to church planting. The vibe I’m hearing around the place is that we need to discover the culture of the community in which we want to plant a church and then shape our church culture to be able to fit with the surrounding culture. It goes under the heading of ‘incarnational mission’ (something I’ve railed against in the past... but that’s another story). So, to take a prominent example, Mars Hill Seattle looks around their city and sees a whole lot of Gen Y inner-city types; so they set about developing a church culture that is Gen Y inner-city-ish and from that platform set about evangelising the city. Which all seems great – and of course, there’s lot of greatness and godliness involved in it and lots of people have come to life in Christ. But here’s my concern...

Thesis 1: “If a church is targeted at a particular culture the gospel must become moulded to, marginalised by or manipulated by that culture”

Now you may respond as others responded when I first suggested this to them – “but Mars Hill is VERY orthodox! They’ve succeeded in keeping the gospel clear while also being relevant to the surrounding culture”. Buy my question is, is that really true? My BIG concern with Mars Hill is that the doctrine of the divinity and uniqueness of Christ comes across with the same force and passion and expectation of adherence as the doctrine that men shouldn’t be stay-at-home Dads. I imagine that when asked, Mark Driscoll would affirm that the doctrines of Christ are more central and important than the doctrine of stay-at-home dads (I hope he would!). But the problem is, that to the punter listening there’s no differentiation (that I’ve heard) between what is a catholic doctrine of the faith and a particular application of a particular interpretation of the Bible! Hence, a manipulated gospel at worst, a moulded or marginalised gospel at best.

I’m reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s line: ‘God hates visionary dreaming.’ Which wasn’t a spray against planning and vision casting! Instead, he levelled a challenge to church leaders to dream of a church with Christ alone as its head rather than a church with themselves at the head. His point was that the church must be the community shaped by the gospel, and only the gospel.

I have a friend who is dreaming of a church that would have the same grungy-surfy-semi-alternative culture as the suburb he lives in. His dream is to see lots of people won for Christ. I just don’t think his plans are going to achieve that. If we craft a church that has a grungy-surfy-semi-alternative culture then we’re going to have to say to existing members of the church, ‘you can’t belong here’, or at least, you can’t be prominent in leading here because you’re an old-fashioned-anglo-conservative. Not only do we end up with a church that excludes those who are already Christ’s, we’ll also exclude those who could be Christ’s but who don’t fit the target culture – what happens to the grandmother who is neither grungy, surfy, or alternative in even the slightest way? We have a church where she can’t be welcomed. The church is no longer shaped by the gospel, it’s shaped by the culture, with the gospel fitted in afterwards.

Given that the gospel is the gospel for all nations, when we set out to create a church that will make current members no longer fit and potential members not be welcome we’ve moulded, marginalised or manipulated the gospel. To be saved you need Jesus and grungy-surfy-semi-alternative-ness.

But, my good friend says, all you’re ending up with is your own un-scrutinised promotion of a particular culture to the exclusion of current and potential members – you’ve just replaced the dominant culture of the area that will attract more people with the out-dated, weird, churchy culture that you’ve inherited and grown used to, and that attracts NO ONE!

Well, that’s quite a challenge – which I shall gladly rise to in my next post.

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  • I very much like (and agree with) your train of thought!
    In regards to youth ministry, I feel like there is a constant pressure from the wider church that we need to be more 'culture focussed' in what we do with youth and to reach out to youth. The centrality of the gospel in shaping who we are is a tough battle - but one I agree we need to fight for in our churches!

    Look forward to the next post :)

    By Blogger Luke, at 1:55 pm  

  • I appreciate your insights Graham, I am about to read the second post because I didn't realize you had a blog!

    I appreciate the insight on Authentic Gospel community which we are seeking to establish, I think there also needs to be some appreciation that the Church that you end up with will have the flavor of the Pastor who runs it.

    Which means if the Pastor is a Surfy Grunge Dude, it might look a little like that. I think the key is not to brand it that way, but establish a Church that is fully embracing of being Children of the Light and Set Apart.

    I think it is important for the Church to be fully aware of the culture and demographics of your area so you can better engage it.

    What really makes me cringe is when Churches choose to engage culture poorly and it ends up looking kitsch and dated. I would prefer you not to engage and stay different, rather than make a poor and lame attempt.

    I do wonder whether Jesus being an expert story-teller means that he contextualizes the old testament to make it culturally relevant to the 1st century church, do we stop doing this?

    By Anonymous Duncan Robinson, at 10:27 pm  

  • "What really makes me cringe is when Churches choose to engage culture poorly and it ends up looking kitsch and dated. I would prefer you not to engage and stay different, rather than make a poor and lame attempt."

    You mean that it's not fully sick arse tops when I wear skinny jeans around my butt and say 'fully sick arse tops' all the time!?

    Is it possible at all for someone from another culture to seek 'cultural relevance' without being kitsch and dated? For me, 'cultural relevance' smacks of pretense; while the call of the gospel is 'cultural engagement' that is respectful while remaining authentically 'you'.

    "I do wonder whether Jesus being an expert story-teller means that he contextualizes the old testament to make it culturally relevant to the 1st century church, do we stop doing this?"

    I think Jesus ministered to a more culturaly homogenous group than we do. Though the first century was as multicultural as our world today I think Jesus' ministry focussed on the people of Israel (the 70% or so of the Jewish population who didn't identify with either the Pharisees, Saducees, Esenes or Zealots) - but this was a theological imperative not an evangelistic strategy of cultural targetting.

    I think the example in Acts of Paul's ministry to Jews and Gentiles (to Jews in Pisidian Antioch-Acts 13; to Gentiles in Athens-Acts 17) is a better example of cultural engagement.

    By Blogger Graham Stanton, at 8:09 pm  

  • Haven't read your blog in a while. I think I've been missing out. We are really struggling to reach the aboriginal people in our town. There are certainly no services they feel comfortable to attend. The problem being that there is nearly no overlap between the two groups in town. There is quite a bit of reverse discrimination about, and next to no chance that someone who is aboriginal in our town would happily attend one of our services, except funerals. Not sure what the answer is at the end of the day. The social stigma in town is just way too high - in both directions.

    By Blogger it'sjustme, at 11:12 am  

  • Hi 'it's just me' ... it took a while before I could work out who 'just me' actually was! Welcome back :-) and thanks for reading.

    I'm not sure what the answer would be - the divide between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia is not just cultural, but has the whole history of animosity, isolation and disenfranchisement.

    But if there is anyone who could start to bridge that gap it would have to be Christians wouldn't it? One or two Christian people willing to be patient, to be repentant, gracious, kind... to listen and not speak.

    I imagine that all sounds very pious and theoretical given that it's being written a long way from Wee Waa. Will be praying for you and the church.

    By Blogger Graham Stanton, at 9:43 pm  

  • Oops - I really must change that sometime.

    I think you're right by the way. It takes a change of heart of those in the church to reach those who are out of the church. Probably a whole lot of love and grace wouldn't go astray either.

    While there is a lot of history between indigenous and non-indigenous people, at the end of the day there is no new way to evangelise outside sharing the truth of the gospel, in relationship and with love.

    By Blogger it'sjustme, at 10:08 pm  

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