Church vs Culture

I was a 16 year old, trained to battle the world… 

I have spent a lifetime in church. I was baptized as an infant. I was the perennial second place winner of Sunday School Bible memorization. I was unflinchingly committed to my youth group, a hard-core every week kid. And sometime in 80s and 90s, with the rise of the religious right, I was drafted into the Evangelical culture wars.

Church vs Culture

We built our camps… 

In my formative years of youth ministry history, in the Evangelical Deep South, we had a well defined war strategy: Copy-Replace. I think I was in ninth grade when I realized that “Christian” was an adjective that could be applied to anything (thanks Rob Bell, for the language to describe that phenomenon).

You like punk rock? Try Christian Punk Rock! You play basketball?  Try Church League Basketball! Your breath stinks? Don’t use those worldly mints, use these! We sat together in the lunch room, we wore WWJD bracelets and carried Bibles in the hallway. We skipped prom… well I didn’t actually skip prom, but my buddies did! Like dating? Kiss it goodbye—Christians court! You get it, we did things differently.

We lost… 

I feel like it would be counter productive to lay out all of the specific issues that we chose to be our “hill to die on.” If I defined the battle lines, I think we would be in danger of missing the point. Suffice to say the issues that were paramount in my context—at the conferences I went to, in the music I listened to—are no longer a part of the wider cultural discussion.

Since we build culture, it seems safe to say that culture needs redemption. We cannot call culture holy in a sweeping, uncritical way. We can find God in grimy places, and we can call out sin in places that look all put together. We are blessed with God’s Spirit that allows us to live in tension.

Fifteen years later the dust has settled and across the board we have lost or fallen out of relevance in the conversation. We’ve got some stragglers like the Japanese soldiers who were still fighting  in the 1970s, but the culture as a whole has moved on, with or without us. So what do we do?

Christ and Culture

Richard Niebuhr started a conversation about this 60 years ago, and the church has been fumbling through it ever since. He lays out five possibilities for Christian engagement in culture:

The “Everything is evil, let’s get out of here” approach (Christ Against Culture)

My experience was close to this approach. “Christ against Culture” draws a thick black line between church and culture, then backs as far away from that line as possible. It looks like total separation: Mennonites and monks. In youth group terms, this is the purest form of the “Christian bubble.” I’m not here to tell you which approach to choose… but don’t choose this one.

 The “This is fine everybody, nothing to see here” approach (Christ of Culture)

This one is pretty rare, because it’s nuts. Essentially this view understands the incarnation of Christ as an affirmation of humanity and human aspirations. Therefore human culture is celebrated, taken as fundamentally good in an un-critical way. No tension, no difference between Christian values and cultural values. In short, culture is goodan extension of God’s Kingdom. Please don’t teach your students to accept culture as holy without using the Spirit-guided critical senses. That’s nuts.

The “Let’s get real, guys” approach (Christ above CultureSynthesis)

Recognizing that the first two approaches are extremes, Niebuhr offered the Lite version. In short, culture is not fundamentally evil, but it needs Gospel influence. That may sound like common sense, but the implications may go further than you’re comfortable with.

When missionaries affirm pagan practices as reflections of God’s truth they are practicing the synthesis approach. When you quote the Bible in your talk, then use a movie clip to say the same thing, you are doing a tame version of synthesis.

The “It may not be evil, but I am uncomfortable” approach (Christ above CultureParadox)

The only difference between this view and synthesis is a healthy dose of skepticism. Or perhaps a more honest assessment of the effects of sin. Christ is Lord of the church and culture. Culture is good. Well it’s pretty good. The synthesis view may still sound like a celebration of culture. The paradox view is characterized by tension. The world isn’t fundamentally evil, culture is not bad. However, it is broken and so are we. God’s Kingdom is breaking through in beautiful ways right now. But it’s hard to find and the night is dark and full of terrors.

The “It’s kind of evil, let’s change it’ approach (Christ above CultureTransforming)

Add one more dose of skepticism to the paradox approach and move two steps towards your sense that the world is really broken. That is where the transforming approach is born. Culture may not be totally evil; like us, it was designed by God. However, it is fundamentally broken and our energy should go into changing it, not celebrating or co-opting it. This is different than the “against” approach because it believes culture can be changed. It isn’t broken in a way that puts it beyond redemption or the authority of Christ. This was my late 90s wheelhouse.

So What Do I Do with My Students?

If the world were somehow fundamentally evil, then what is the Incarnation about? Did God inhabit an evil shell? No! And because God created the world, the world reflects God’s nature. God’s Kingdom is peeking around the corners of our culture. Also, kids are swimming in culture. You cannot remove them, or yourself! We aren’t doing kids any favors when we teach them to shut it out and push it away. And we ignore our own blind spots when we pretend we are not part of culture.

It’s also clear that we are broken in some way. Since we build culture, it seems safe to say that culture needs redemption. We cannot call culture holy in a sweeping, uncritical way. We can find God in grimy places, and we can call out sin in places that look all put together. We are blessed with God’s Spirit that allows us to live in tension.

We have the power to find God in the culture and find places in need of redemption. We are charged with giving our teenagers that same power—to recognize the world they are immersed in, and begin to critically engage it for the sake of the Gospel.

Interested in more? Comment, or read Niebuhr!


About the Author: Tyler Fuller

tyler fuller

The only job I have ever pursued is vocational ministry. I spent over a decade doing Young Life and church Youth Ministry. I am now the Missions Pastor at a mega church in the panhandle of Florida (who still gets to work with youth every day!)

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