Phil Print of Crossroads Church in Cottage Grove, MN wrote:

I’m speaking to some pastors about our relationship with our culture next week…how we (the church) view it and how we live in it. Some see 21st century American culture as the enemy, and they declare war on it (culture wars). They develop a “circle-the-wagons” mentality and isolate and attempt to insulate (think Amish here) themselves from culture. Other Christians and churches seem to go with the flow. They immerse themselves in culture and end up essentially no different from anyone else. They look, think, and act like everyone else.

I’m guessing we all would fall somewhere between those extremes (I hope). I know we’re called to NOT copy the behavior and customs of the world. It’s also clear, though, that we are to penetrate our culture in order to impact people for Christ. My point: I don’t see our culture as a battlefield. I see it as a mission field. The difficult part is how we engage this post-Christian culture…how we live out what the Apostle Paul modeled for us in Acts 17:16-34 and 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.

Insights?

My response:

Phil,
Are you familiar with H. Richard Niebuhr? Niebuhr felt that there were 5 types of interaction between Christianity and Culture (see half way down the page in that link). While it isn’t exactly within the framework of what you are talking to the pastors about, I think it is still relevant. It is something that made me think (though I don’t necessarily completely agree with Niebuhr on a number of theological points). A book you might find useful is “The Church between Gospel and Culture – The Emerging Mission in North America” Edited by George R. Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder – WB Eerdmans Publishing. There are a number of articles in there speaking directly to what you are thinking/talking about. Bethel should have a copy.

At the end of the day Christianity must be translatable to the culture we are reaching out to. This is true for foreign missionaries and for meeting our neighbors in our back yards. Christianity is compatible with all cultures, which is why we translate the Bible into the vernacular (though this hasn’t always been the case WRT the Roman Catholic Church). Islam is not, and it continues to use a single language as it’s “divine” language. Our God is the source of life and truth, and because of that we have contact points in every culture, places we can bridge to. While doing this, we must of course keep in mind that we are in the world, not of it (1 Cor. 7:29-31). The process of translating the Gospel into the culture does not mean we must seek to annihilate that culture, but we should maintain a critical attitude so as to not become syncretists. We must ride the razors edge between rejecting a culture and fully embracing a culture, because it is easiest to fall to either side. Staying in this point of tension is going to be uncomfortable at times, but it is where we are called to be if we are to reach a lost and hurting world. I believe Paul was an advocate of this very thing. He did not see there being a single culture favored by God. He ministered across many cultural boundaries (as did Christ). Paul is key in understanding this because he led the Gentile breakthrough which was an enormous paradigm shift for the early Jewish Christians.

In summary, there are points where our culture (and other cultures) are both battlefields and mission fields. There are segments of cultures that are diametrically opposed to Christianity, and that must be rejected or Christianity looses its distinctions, and the Gospel looses its life changing powers. But we cannot completely disregard a culture, or we become fully irrelevant and are unable to bring the Gospel to the world as we are clearly commanded to do in scripture.

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