Church & Culture: The Central Tension

Salt & Light

The dilemma: To be in the world but not of the world; to be involved enough so that our message is culturally relevant but not so much that we lose our moral authority. In other Church & Culture1words, to interact in the midst of “the mud, the blood and the beer” of our culture without being splattered to the point of filth.

This is a challenge to say the least—one that should test and stretch us to our most creative brainstorming to support and encourage each other. But that is not always the case. Like many other issues we dismiss the practical ramifications of our theology of reconciliation so that we can divide into camps.

On one side are those who wade into the fray without regard to the ever-present dangers to their spiritual well-being. Under the guise of “finding common ground” they blindly eat, drink, and sleep with every bit of self-glorifying drivel our culture generates until there is not distinctive difference between their actions and attitudes, and the me/me/me/mine/mine/mine mantra of the world.

On the other side are those who find the entire concept to be an impossible challenge so they retreat from the front lines of the battle to cloister themselves in the apparent safety of a “Christian” subculture. Psychologists have a phrase for that ostrich-like approach to life—living in denial.

As a community of believers we need to recognize the folly of both camps so that we can join together to hammer out an approach to our culture that will allow us to effectively reach our friends and neighbors with the gospel.

Truth is, to be in the world but not of the world ought to be the central tension at issue in every disciple’s life because we are salt, we are light. By definition, we are called to Church & Culture2walk the tightrope balanced between the moral ambiguity and chaos of our culture while interpreting and exerting a redemptive influence on the decay. Our culture is corrupt, fallen and enslaved in the bondage of sin. Or in the words of folk-rock poet Adam Duritz: “There’s a skeleton in every man’s house, beneath the dust and love and sweat that hangs on everybody there’s a dead man trying to get out . . .” Our culture is that dead man trying to escape the death sentence of original sin. If believers aren’t down in “the mud, the blood and the beer” to purposefully apply cleansing power and point people in the right direction, who will? If believers remain sequestered within the confines of safe and secure mindsets rather than accepting the challenge to interact, engage and be exposed to various elements of our culture then what hope is there for “a dead man trying to get out . . .”?

Questions & Answers

As I see it, our culture seeks answers to the troubling questions that groan and rattle their chains as they ramble endlessly along the corridors of time. Robert F. Kennedy said: “All great questions must be raised by great voices, and the greatest voice is the voice of the people speaking out in prose, or painting, or poetry or music; speaking out in homes and halls, streets and farm, courts and cafes . . .”

Church & Culture3The church has been entrusted with the answers to the questions raised by the voices of our culture. And remember, you and I are the church. If there are no perceivable differences in actions and attitudes between believers and nonbelievers, then our culturally correct answers to the questions that haunt humanity will be hollow and frail pontifications that carry no moral weight. On the other hand, if we are so far removed from the ferment which births the questions that we cannot frame the answers in the language of the day then our biblically correct words will seem obscure or irrelevant. Jesus showed us a better way. If we study his example closely we gain some Big Picture insights that we can apply. It is clear to me that Jesus freely connected with his culture yet he refused to capitulate to the cultural norms. In a world that degraded women, Christ elevated them to positions of equality and influence.

While the culture of the day valued material wealth, Jesus spoke eloquently about “treasures in heaven” and “the lilies of the field.” In an environment that routinely cast off the poor, weak and disenfranchised like yesterday’s garbage, Christ invested the majority of his ministry time hanging out and exchanging views with those folks who had no voice.

In a society that revered position, prestige and power, Jesus openly ridiculed hypocrisy and constantly challenged religious bigotry and political machinations. In fact even when he was on trial for his life he reminded Pontius Pilate that the governor did not hold his high political office because of Rome but because God allowed it.

The point is this: Christ confronted his culture head-on with no apology for who he was or for how his views differed from the accepted consensus of the day. He forcefully addressed the wrongs and injustices of his culture by turning generally held cultural norms upside down. In the process of responding to the ageless questions, Christ invigorated his culture, caused it to reevaluate their way of thinking, and pointed people to God.

What makes this germane to our discussion is that Jesus accomplished his task by using illustrations and stories that were part of his culture. He discerned his culture so that he was able to speak in language and terms that the common person understood; he used phrases and references to which someone thoroughly immersed in the “pop culture” of the day could easily relate.

Day By Day

Church & Culture4Today, there are some 21st century culture norms that desperately need to be turned upside down. Proving once again that there is “nothing new under the sun,” we wrestle with many of the same stinging issues that Jesus overturned in the first century; prejudice, materialism, idolatry, pride, convenience.

We seem to have no difficulty with the concept of culturalization because we willingly send people to foreign countries and require them to become completely familiar with the language and customs, yet here in North America we hide or at least pretend to hide from our culture. Why?

We sit back in our comfortable pews and rail against the wrongs and injustices of pagan cultures while on the homefront we have effectively capitulated to far too many cultural Church & Culture5norms that are evil and corrupt. Why? Our foreign missionaries learn the culture where they serve so that they can relate to the people, yet at home if and when we share the gospel we speak “churchese” or archaic “Christian” talk. Why?

Are we afraid of our culture? Or, don’t we know what we believe and why we believe it? I submit that more often than not, we are a mass of insecurities when it comes to the whys and wherefores of our beliefs.

Since we are disciples, I suggest that again we must look more closely at the example Jesus set. He spoke boldly and with authority so it is self-evident that he completely understood what he believed and why he believed it. He spent 30 years preparing for a three-year public ministry. Then in a final act of preparation, he was led into the desert for 40 days of purification and testing. He was fully cognizant of his mission.

I further submit that Christ continually reminded himself of the reasons and consequences of his belief system. Even a cursory perusal of the gospels tells us that Jesus regularly separated himself from his followers to be alone with his heavenly Father. The personal connection to the Almighty Godhead is what provided Christ with the discernment, courage and stamina to confront his culture and radically challenge the status quo with no apology and no surrender.

A personal daily walk with God. Simple enough idea—one which when taken to its logical conclusion has the potential to transform each individual into a radical tightrope a father showing something to his son at sunset on a beachartist who can effectively engage and enlighten the moral ambiguity and chaos that threaten to engulf us all. A personal daily walk with God. Simple enough idea—one that is thoroughly necessary for the cleansing and renewal of our minds while we are being splattered by “the mud, the blood and the beer” of our culture.

A personal daily walk with God. Simple enough idea—one that is quintessential for us to be empowered to present our diseased culture with relevant answers without apology or reluctance. A personal daily walk with God. Simple enough idea—one that we need to aggressively apply because there is absolutely no substitute or shortcut to the difficult destination we desire.

This is, I believe, what it means to be in the world but not of the world.

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