From terrorist attacks to racial injustice to political chaos to an increasingly secular world that seems to have lost its moral center, we find ourselves in some unique and challenging times. Fear runs rampant across our cultural landscape—and, especially and increasingly, fear sits in the pews of our churches. Talk to most Christians—or read Christian blogs and social media streams—and it’s clear that the church isn’t what it was. Or rather, it isn’t where it was.
As we live in this cultural moment as Christians, each of us responds in one way or another. We may do it with great thought, or we may do it based on gut instinct or on what everyone else at our church is doing—but we will respond. Typically, that response will take one of three approaches—converting culture, condemning culture, and consuming culture—which I’ve borrowed from concepts in Andy Crouch’s book Culture Making.
But I believe each approach is problematic and missing something fundamental and biblical: courage.
In this mindset, what matters most is that our nation’s culture reflects biblical principles and values. Supporters of this view are willing to go to great lengths to make it happen, even if that means making alliances with corrupted politicians and political parties, or making what they might see as lesser moral compromises. Think the “Christian right,” especially as of late.
But this approach, especially in a span of history where the church doesn’t have high cultural standing, is going to leave a lot of people frustrated and bitter. It already has. It will only perpetuate “the culture wars,” a frankly arrogant posture that pits the church against the world, and doesn’t draw a healthy line between the kingdom of God now and the kingdom of God to come.
You can’t use politics to build the new Jerusalem, and you can’t legislate people into the kingdom of God.
I’m not going to pretend there aren’t some good aspects of “converting culture.” After all, you can trace much of its roots to the work of amazing theologians like Abraham Kuyper and Francis Schaeffer. It recognizes the reality that Christians should be engaged in all of culture, seeking to transform culture through the power of Christ, through whom all things were created and through whom all things are sustained. After all, Christ isn’t just the Lord of the church, but of the world.
And yes, Christians are called to seek the good of those around us, and to pursue justice and to love good and shun evil. But we get into trouble when we confuse the earthly city with the heavenly city. Until Christ returns, this world will never look like it should. You can’t use politics to build the new Jerusalem, and you can’t legislate people into the kingdom of God.
In fact, I’d argue the compromises and unholy alliances that Christians have made to “convert” the culture have left many more suspicious of and hardened to the message of the church. And I don’t blame them.
This is the idea of removing ourselves from the world, retreating into a subculture, and staying well away from wider culture because society is sinful, corrupted, and antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This stream has always been part of the church’s response to the challenge of living in this world. You see it in the rise of the monasteries. You see it in various parts of the Anabaptist movement. There’s certainly something admirable and beautiful to it. God does call his people to holiness. The Scriptures are clear about the church being distinct from the rest of the world. We’re to be salt—we are to “taste” different.
My concern is that, by itself, I just don’t think the idea is all that biblical. We’re to be “the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13)—and salt maintains its flavor while it’s rubbed into the food it’s being used to preserve. Not only that, it spreads its flavor, too. There comes a point when we have to actually get our hands dirty and show and share the good news of Christ—and proximity and relationships are essential to making that work. It requires involvement in the local community and in the “public square.” If God’s Old Testament people could be called to “seek the welfare of the city” of Babylon during their exile from their homeland (Jer. 23:7), then we should be seeking the welfare of ours, too.
Closing out the culture won’t close out sin.
The truth is that, whether we’re talking food, technology, music, or other entertainment, God gives us these things as good gifts to be enjoyed, as long as we keep them in their right place by not elevating creation over the Creator. We can be skeptical of them, but we shouldn’t be fearful of them. Culture isn’t the source of evil. That’s the human heart (Mark 7:18–23)—and so closing out the culture won’t close out sin.
This idea is in many ways the most attractive, the most widespread, and the most scary. It’s to follow the trends and become like culture. Wherever culture and historical Christian teaching disagree, the latter is accommodated to the former. After all, if we want to stay relevant in a post-Christian age, then some of the Christian stuff will have to go, right?
In most cases, those who take this approach start in a good place, with good intentions of seeing where the Bible speaks boldly and clearly about social issues that we often ignore and embracing the connection between faith and culture. As the Manhattan-based Tim Keller said in his critique of this position in his book Center Church:
This model sees Christianity as being fundamentally compatible with the surrounding culture. Those who embrace this model believe that God is at work redemptively within cultural movements that have nothing explicitly to do with Christianity.
But the problem comes when we start to put too great a focus on culture to the neglect of the gospel, and that even goes for social justice. We start to want the implications of the gospel more than we want the actual gospel. Those who take the “consuming culture” approach follow culture, first and foremost, before Scripture, neglecting and compromising on significant aspects of faith. These men and women begin to look more and more like the world and less and less like the church.
When the voice of a culture, and not the word of Christ, governs the church, then it is no longer the church of Christ.
When the voice of a culture, and not the word of Christ, is what governs the church, then it is no longer the church of Christ. It’s just a social club of people desperately trying to keep up with the zeitgeist. Ironically, that’s the quickest way to close your church. Why would anyone bother coming to a church that is indistinguishable from anything else?!
Posture of Courage
These three approaches—converting culture, condemning culture, and consuming culture—are all different, but I think they all have something in common. I’d argue they arise, in part, out of fear. Those in the “converting culture” camp fear that they’re losing their culture and that if they don’t make the compromises necessary to continue the culture war, the church can’t thrive, or even survive. Those in the “condemning culture” camp fear that culture will corrupt them and the church. Those in the “consuming culture” camp fear that the church will become unacceptable and therefore irrelevant to those steeped in post-Christian culture.
Given our bent toward fear in this cultural moment, I’m convinced that we don’t need another new strategy, necessarily, for engaging culture but, instead, a renewed posture of courage. That’s what Christians most need in a post-9/11, post-Christian, post-modern, post-everything world. If our hearts are not in the right place—if our hopes are misaligned—anything we try to do will be short-lived and misguided.
If we have a God-sized, God-given courage, then we will be freed up to be the people of God, living out the mission of God, marked by the joy of God. With courage, this season of history can be viewed not with fear and trepidation, but instead with hope and a sense of opportunity. With courage, our perspectives turn, and we can be excited and encouraged about our circumstances and not intimidated, angered, or paralyzed by them.
When we have a courage grounded in the unchanging nature of God, we’ll have the right intuitions and motivations to navigate the ever-changing nature of this world, whatever comes our way.