college travels

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Some thoughts on Church and Culture – Thesis 2

I think we've been presented with a false dichotomy – either target your church at a particular culture in order to connect with people from that culture, and manipulate the gospel as a result (see previous post)... OR don't change church to match the surrounding culture and end up with an alienating 'churchy' culture that reaches no one other than those who have been enculturated over a lifetime.

There's another option.  Thesis 2: "A church shaped by the gospel creates its own culture where each member will engage any culture in the name of Christ"

Tim Keller (in The Reasons for God) points out how Christianity has found a home in cultures across the world and throughout history.  There have been dominant cultures within the church, but the dominant culture has changed over time – from Jerusalem to Constantinople, then Rome, Europe, England, the United States of America, and soon to the Global South.  At the same time the church has grown and thrived in diverse cultures and sub-cultures across the world.

The reason for this is that the trans-cultural truth of Christ can find a home equally within any culture—indeed, the church is made up of people from 'every tribe, language, people and nation' (Rev 7).  But the way we come together is important to grasp – not as one new culture, nor as simply the collection of different cultures, but the transformation of each culture in Christ which comes from giving a new heart to each of those cultures.  

Each culture is transformed in Christ – when we come to Christ we retain everything of our existing culture other than those things that are opposed to the Gospel of Christ.  So as an Australian I'll still cheer the Wallabies over the All Blacks, but I'll put aside the binge drinking and disrespect for the law.  As a coffee-snob I can still enjoy my macchiato but I'll need to tame the snobbery.

As our individual cultures are transformed in Christ, they still retain the differences that are taken up into Christ and therefore taken up into the church.  Which means that each local church will have its own culture – a culture like every other church culture because it is centred on the gospel of Christ; but a culture unlike any other church because it is enriched by the culture of the specific members of that church.  The church may have a majority culture, but that won't be a hegemonic culture because more significant than the majority will be the experience shared by all of confession of Christ as Lord; and neither will the majority culture be derived from those outside the church, but from those inside the church who are most fundamentally members of Christ.

As a result we have a church culture where any culture is welcome to come and be transformed and taken up into Christ.  And we will have a church culture where the individual members of the church will be ready and equipped to engage with any other culture in the name of Christ.

So now, as a coffee snob transformed in Christ, my church culture has equipped me to be able to engage generously and openly with both the elderly couple who live next door, the motor enthusiast who lives opposite, the computer nerd I meet at work and the tree-hugger I met while walking the dog.  And I do that NOT by pretending to be elderly one day, a rev-head the next, then pop into nerd-dom and finish the day wearing a hemp t-shirt.  That sort of 'incarnationalism' is artificial pretense and not what Paul means in becoming 'all things to all people'.

Paul's point in 1 Corinthians 9 is that while he has certain rights and freedoms as an apostle and as someone set free in Christ, he will readily choose to give up those rights in order to serve others more clearly with the gospel.  Where his rights may get in the way of the gospel of Christ being clearly heard he will forgo his freedom so that others might be saved.  Thus for Paul, being 'all things to all people' is not about what he puts on in order to be like someone else (his aim is not to 'go undercover' or pretend to be what he is not).  Instead he is concerned with what he will put off in order to not cause any unnecessary offence so that the gospel of Christ might be clearly heard.

So, to engage with my elderly neighbour I won't turn up my nose if they offer me international roast; with my motor enthusiast friend I won't turn up at his place in a suit, for my tree-hugger friend I won't serve him a coke in a Styrofoam cup.   Though I have a right to do all of those things, I'll put aside my rights, knowing that I'm a servant of all, so that I might share Christ.

And when every member of the church has this at their heart, then we as a community together in Christ will be able to connect with anyone who lives near enough to us to join with us as we join the mission of God as His people called in Christ by the Spirit through the Gospel.


  • Graham,

    I am simply want to say thankyou for these 2 posts. They were really encouraging in my current situation and also challenging me to better engage with people that may not be in my immediate culture and to share Christ with them.

    By Blogger Richard Riley, at 11:00 pm  

  • Great stuff. I've really enjoyed these two posts Graham, thanks!

    It makes me wonder (on a side note)...

    To what extent do you think parachurch organisations (eg. beach missions, City Bible forum, Christian surfers etc...) are beholden to the same limits and freedoms you've described churches as having (when it comes to engaging with culture)?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:33 pm  

  • Great Theses (is that the right plural for Thesis?), Graham. It's such a shame that our sinfulness makes reaching this ideal so hard.

    It reminds me of that saying that so many ministers say; "I love ministry, I just can't stand the people!"

    It also makes me all the more thankful to God for the faithful Christians I know who very lovingly go out of their way to welcome and meet people who are very different to them - there's one older guy at All Saints who is always chatting to the teenagers, giving them advice, offering to pray for them. He's made himself almost a surrogate-grandfather to them, and it's such a good thing for the teenagers. I wanna be like him when I grow up.

    By Anonymous Matt Jacobs, at 10:56 pm  

  • Being Authentic as a human seems pretty key, allow Jesus to be everything to everyone. Let you be you. I certainly think that you are right with establishing a community that is set apart and different from the world.

    I think that community looks different where ever it is and whoever is the Pastor. Authentic Gospel community looks different, but always has Jesus at the base.

    Being Savvy with your marketing, church design, series titles and community involvement doesn't necessarily mean sacrificing the authenticity of the word.

    Part of that means that you are passionate about Jesus, for this culture, and sharing his gospel.

    By Anonymous Duncan Robinson, at 10:33 pm  

  • Nathan: "To what extent do you think parachurch organisations (eg. beach missions, City Bible forum, Christian surfers etc...) are beholden to the same limits and freedoms you've described churches as having (when it comes to engaging with culture)?"

    Good question Nathan. I think para-church organisations are much more free to target a specific culture as long as they are actually ministries that support and feed into local churches rather than ministries that replace local churches.

    And I think the key here is 'actually'. I know lots of para-church ministries who say they exist to serve the local church, but in reality they don't really do so.

    But for a legitimate 'sub-ministry' of the church (like a youth ministry), or of a collection of Christians from various churches (like a Christian scrapbooking association, should one actually exist!), they are free to say to someone who doesn't meet the niche, 'you can't belong here'. So you can legitimately say to the 25 year old who wants to come to youth group, 'sorry, but this isn't the place where you can come, how about we introduce you to the young adults' ministry'; Christian Scrapbookers International can freely say to the motor enthusiast who thinks scrapbooking is stupid, 'why don't we find you another group of people to bond with'.

    But imho the local church can't do that and still claim to be 'the church of Jesus Christ'.

    By Blogger Graham Stanton, at 7:52 pm  

  • Duncan: "Being Savvy with your marketing, church design, series titles and community involvement doesn't necessarily mean sacrificing the authenticity of the word."

    You're right of course; but my concern is when savvy marketing becomes our number one concern - because if that happens, then when a sacrifice of the authenticity of the word is required in order to maintain connection with a marketing niche, then bring on the sacrifice!

    "Part of that means that you are passionate about Jesus, for this culture, and sharing his gospel."

    Yes, but which culture? What does 'this' mean? This one that 58% of the population identify with? This one that I feel most comfortable with? This one that has the highest disposable income? This one that has the highest historic rater of conversion per evangelistic contact!

    So, if I can move an ammendment to your motion to read: "you are passionate about Jesus, for these cultures we are somehow in contact with, and sharing his gospel" I'm happy to vote accordingly... is there a seconder?

    By Blogger Graham Stanton, at 7:57 pm  

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