How Should Christians Understand Culture? (Letter to a University Student)
I was glad to receive your recent letter, even more surprised people born after Windows-95 still pen letters. I’m thankful to hear your classes are going well, but I understand the challenges of the university are beginning to press-in on your faith. I know first-hand that college is a difficult environment. I also think your question is keenly perceptive. In essence, you’re asking how we Christians should understand culture.
Faithful believers in every generation have tussled with the question, so we dare not blind ourselves to its significance. Few, it seems, are asking questions of culture. David Wells has observed the same: “I would welcome a serious discussion about culture. We should be exploring what it is and how it works, rather than just looking at polls to see what is hot.”
Wells’ instincts are correct. Culture is assumed to be a tangled web of tastes, fads, fashions, and marketing deductions. What I think most people mean by culture is a congenial environment in which certain customs, products, and outlooks are carried on by groups in a society. So the Christian wants to know how much he or she must imbibe of these customs, products, and outlooks in order to be heard, liked, or appreciated.
On another level, culture is often a wastebasket term used for any number of things, usually situational. Whether you “appreciate” culture, I think, depends on where you are in the world, and therefore it is situational. The supposed culture of Damascus in Syria is vastly different than the culture of coffee shops in Portland. So if our understanding of such culture never transcends the situational, then we are not really talking about culture but merely niche affinities like tastes in movies, coffee, or nuclear weapons. This is why Christian books about supposedly reaching the culture rarely talk about how to do this in bombed-out cities. Chatting over coffee about redemptive values in movies is easier than moving to Serbia and discipling believers, culturally speaking.
It is not for us to understand the culture so much as it is to know what we’re made for and why we exist in this world. I think the apostle Paul gives us the most relevant cultural statement for all time: “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). This imperative travels well, whether you’re in war-torn Syria or in the student union break room. God’s glory is the highest culture we can achieve; anything else is a facile substitute.
Historically speaking, Christians are famous for putting themselves through all sorts of contorted positions in order to understand the culture around them. From Calvin’s Geneva and Kuyper’s Amsterdam to Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture at Yale, the question has been plied and applied from every conceivable angle. It’s important to understand and appreciate the many historical nuances. However, in an effort to summarize, I offer here four broad categories of Christians and their relationship to culture.
Cultural Separatist: “Out” of the Culture
These are Christians who isolate themselves from the world, or so they think. They may not move to a commune, as it were, but they build a cloistered society, the borders of which they rarely cross. The world is darkened in sin and nothing short of a pure removal from its society will suffice. In this case, they have merely exchanged one form of dying culture for another.
Many of them have a genuine concern for holiness, but it is a mere holiness of external boundaries. Their removal from society means forming often impenetrable safeguards around home, family, and church. Within these communities are various checklists and standards in which it is expected one will follow. It is often motivated by fear and is easily fed by sensationalism. In the end, it becomes a culture which is ingrown, isolationistic, and unable to go into the world and make disciples. With this perspective, we must dispense.
Cultural Integrationist: “In” the Culture
These are Christians who are often motivated by genuine desires to reach the lost in the world. Misunderstanding Paul’s words, they take “become all things to all men” as a blank check to accommodate their Christianity to the world thus amalgamating the surrounding culture with Christianity.
In this scheme, a supposed relevance can easily take precedence over biblical truth, thus lacking a clear theological vision. Witness in the culture becomes all but indistinguishable from the worldly accommodation. Christianity becomes therapeutic and pragmatic rather than oriented toward truth and real heart change. I think this form also runs along the route of wanting respectability whether it be social, academic, or something else.
The greatest danger for the cultural integrationist is that over time the church becomes like the world rather than being a distinct witness. Given enough time, the two are indistinguishable. Though a certain freedom may be experienced, it is actually a captivity to prevailing winds of fads and popular affinities. Most serious is blessing with approval cultural expressions for which Christ laid down His life. The desire to “reach the culture” effects an inability to call many manifestations of sin what they are. Like the separatists, the integrationist is found wanting.
Cultural Warriors: “Against” the Culture
These Christians have a genuine concern for seeing society improve and some semblance of morality restored. Many see the church as a rallying point organizing change for the culture through programs, social endeavors, and in many instances, politics. The idea of “taking back” the culture or nation forms the nexus of the Christian life. Political activism becomes the front-line of mission in the world. Ironically, the warrior’s idea of culture is highly subjective and Christian mission takes on the flavor of whichever one is holding the sign.
This cultural activism is easily substituted for speaking the truth in love. Getting out the vote and getting out the gospel become conflated missions, and the salt of the gospel morphs, thereby losing its saltiness. The gospel of the cultural warrior is not a platform of good news but a position of attack or reform. Like the other two, this misses the mark.
Cultural Missionaries: “To” the Culture
The believer’s presence in the culture is not one of separatism, integration, or as a warrior. The mission of the church is what drives the believer as he or she goes to the surrounding culture. The mission is to make and nurture disciples in and through the church.
Unlike the cultural warrior, reforms, whether social or political, are not the first priority. The missionary also understands culture is not something we seek to “redeem.” Labeling sin as “redemptive” does not make facile entertainments suddenly profound. It’s not prudish to say a movie is trash or pornographic because it distorts the image of God in man and makes a mockery of said image.
I think some believers have forgotten how to critique anything to the point where the cultural dregs are heralded as redemptive artistic expressions. Christians should point out truth and beauty when evidenced by God’s common grace. However, finding truth in the untruthful or beauty in the pornographic is not our task. Redemption doesn’t come through calling mud “gold,” but by seeing the mud transformed into something new.
The Lord Jesus does this in an “already” and “not yet” aspect. The already is the rescue of sinners through the washing of regeneration, making them kingdom sojourners here and now; but the “not yet” is His earthly kingdom where His enemies will be crushed under His feet and every sin and foe vanquished. We have been transferred from one kingdom to another, and this changes everything (Col 1:13).
From the separatist, we too would value holiness, yet this is not merely marked by what we’re against but by the compelling grace of God. We believe the Christian should walk carefully in this world. Scripture is unambiguous: “Do not love the world nor the things in the world” (1 John 2:15). At the same time Christ establishes us in world (John 17:14–15).
Like the integrationist, we too believe truth should be lived out in the real world. Real Christianity is best equipped to meet real needs (orphans, widows, poor, unborn). Yet, we can do this without diluting the gospel with the cheap supplements of compromise.
Like the cultural warrior, we too believe Christians should make the best citizens, but our first line of influence is our citizenship in heaven. In today’s hyper political climate, we must question if the gospel is more prevalent than our politics. Activism that bypasses the gospel as the only hope is a dying cause that merely exchanges one form of enslavement for another.
As cultural missionaries, we believe the mission of the church is to make disciples in the world. Our focus is not a changing a culture, which is not possible, but seeing hearts changed by the gospel of Christ. We do this by gathering for worship, instruction, and fellowship and then scattering to reach the lost in our various spheres of influence. The church is to be a force for good and righteousness in the world, and this comes through the primary influence of the gospel.
Cultural missionaries must also understand that our authority is Scripture. David Wells follows Guinness on this point and says we must make up our minds as to whether we will be sola Scriptura or sola cultura. We can’t have both. He wonders aloud, “What is the binding authority on the church? What determines how it thinks, what it wants, and how it is going to go about its business? Will it be Scripture alone, Scripture understood as God’s binding address, or will it be culture? Will it be what is current, edgy, and with-it? Or will it be God’s Word, which is always contemporary because its truth endures for all eternity?”
One final thought—a true cultural missionary is an eschatological believer. We anticipate the final conquering of Christ over the current world system and its attendant “culture.” Whatever is unfit for eternity will not survive the furnace blast of divine heat. What will last is a beautiful new heaven and new earth where the Triune God reigns over a culture not merely remodeled but made new from top to bottom. What is often called “culture” now is nothing more than a confused and cracked glass clouded with a sinful veneer. The culture to come, however, will be glorious with the King standing at the center showing the residual sinful scars of this culture on his hands and side.
In the end, this is a radical cultural proposal which will often single you out as a beam of light and a grain of salt in an otherwise dark and sodium-free land. The culture doesn’t need Christians telling them their efforts at porneia are “redemptive”—rather they need the gospel of Christ lived and proclaimed by the people who call themselves the Church. In Christ, you have everything you need to stand in this generation as a shaft of gospel light to the glory of God the Father in the power of His Spirit.
I pray this letter finds you well, His truth and love guarding your heart while off at school.
Paul Lamey is one of our seven TES campus pastors, having served as pastor of preaching and leadership development at Grace Community Church in Huntsville, AL since 2002.