Monday, February 23, 2009


Church and Culture--Chief's Historical Perspective

I just love Jailbreaker's thoughts on culture and Christians--particularly western Christians--and I have learned so much from his perspective over the years.

When I think about culture and Christianity in the context of our discussion, I guess what is at stake is the fact that our model of "church" doesn't (and really can't) connect with another culture. Really, what we are dealing with is how we organize Christians in fellowship with one another. How did we start the journey? When did we begin to change our focus?

Somewhat oversimplified, our Christian culture in the United States began as a community, planted in a New World (new to Europeans, at least) to create a pure church. Their vision of a church was a body of believers in covenant with Christ and with one another, accountable to each other, possessing a high view of Scripture and a mistrust of their own motives. Gradually, through our own history we traded community for individuality as we settled the frontiers.

American Christians tend to think as individuals and our churches reflect our fragmentation. Consider how we divide our church worship services into contemporary or traditional and have small groups for every age group or interest. It is the penetration of the church by the market. In a broad sense, we "do church" as individuals without building community in the church. Americans select churches, not because they see people loving each other in a variety of situations, but because they "meet my needs," a phrase I interpret as "this church is entertaining or the pastor preaches interesting sermons, there are lots of activities for us and our kids, and the music is great."

Contrast our contemporary church experience with the church as portrayed in the first few chapters of Acts. The first century church is an anomaly--people willing to lay down their lives and possessions for others, confront sin lovingly, and preach the truth. And lest someone say that I long for a Golden Age or some form of primitivism, we must recall that even the early church was full of imperfect people. So were the churches of 17th century Puritans. Right or wrong, this is the way it has been and it is hard to for the leopard to trade in his spots for a new coat, particularly as post-modernist attitudes continue to make inroads into the church.

Not only wouldn't we want to impose our forms on other cultures, we really can't. No cultural form, be it social, political, economic, or religious can be "cut and pasted" onto another culture. Period. Certainly, there are absolutes which can and should be (justice, freedom, human dignity to name a few) but even these can and will be interpreted in ways that are culturally accepted while still biblically sound.

Still, in some ways I think we are asking the wrong questions. Perhaps it is best to ask, not "how do I adapt to this culture?" but "how do I bring these people I love face to face with Jesus Christ as he is revealed in the word of God?" Then, we need to ask "how can I get these lovers of Jesus Christ to love one another?" Josh McDowell has said that adults in our own country need to recognize that we have two cultures (I would add "at least two") in our churches today - that of the adults and that of our youth. As I walk into the classroom every day in a Christian school and face this youth culture head on, it is not as crucial for me to speak their language or to know their songs as it is to answer the cry of their heart, spoken or unspoken: "We want to see Jesus." And once they see Jesus, how do I then teach them to love one another instead of tearing each other apart as teens do. Unless we all see church culture in these terms, we do not see the church (or Christ) rightly.


  1. "I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some." 1 Corinthians 9:22b, New American Standard version

    Presbyter makes a solid argument about the validity and necessity of a church as visible and organized as the one we read about in the New Testament. Jailbreaker and the Chief's points about the primacy of Jesus over cultural forms and formats are also valid, and the two are not in contradiction. Having a pulpit, a steeple, a baptismal tub, pews, a church bulletin, a pipe organ or a five-piece band are all tools our culture came up with to solve practical problems or accomplish particular effects. They are neither essential to the Biblical concept of church nor in opposition to it.

    When Paul was in the synagogue, he used Hebrew scripture to support his case for Jesus. When addressing other audiences, he used Gentile poetry, a pagan temple inscription, and a narrative reminder of publicly known recent history. He preached in house churches, royal courts, prisons, marketplaces, and the aforementioned synagogues. He would have preached in a theater filled with an angry mob had his friends not stopped him for his own safety. This may have been the location closest in architecture (thankfully not in audience) to the modern megachurch.

    Jesus himself preached in the Temple, in synagogues, on mountains, and in boats near shore. He spoke to groups of thousands, groups of less than two dozen, and audiences of one. He preached messages that lasted long enough for his audience to get very hungry. He also summarized his life's mission in a few sentences to the Samaritan woman at the well.
    He used parables and analogies that resonated with his audience and the circumstances of their lives. However, his points were so sharp and so timeless that we can use his messages today, although sometimes we have to explain their context.

    Viruses use chemical "keys" to breach a cell wall. Antibodies use similar keys to breach a virus cell. The process of developing immunity to a virus is the process of the antibody trying key after key until it finds one that works for that virus. If my memory is correct, it then communicates that message to the rest of the immune system. When the viruses' descendants have mutated enough that the key no longer works, or when the immune system "forgets," the process starts over.

    Neither Paul nor Jesus ever adapted the core of their message to their audience or their environment, but they continually adapted the trappings -- the keys by which they reached people's minds and hearts.

    Let's stay faithful to the message and to our Biblical instructions for organization, service, and accountability, but let's reach people wherever they are and in whatever format will have the most effect.
    When we come up with a technique that's effective for a particular audience, let's use it as best we can and share it with others.

  2. John, your thoughts are very helpful in bringing clarity to this issue - thanks! Perhaps I'm reading into your comments, but it sounds like you're suggesting that there is freedom of form, which I think does help to frame this issue well.

    As I write this, I can't help but wonder what my non-American colleagues ministering in the rocky soil nations of India, Malaysia, Indonesia, etc., would be thinking right now if they were "listening in" to our discussion on the Gospel and culture.

    I suspect they would be smiling at "us Americans" because they already understand this concept of "freedom of form" as something clearly established in Scripture and they would be wondering why we Americans still don't "get it."

    Just the thought of us here debating it while they're out there living it brings a smile to my face as well. Yet I'm mindful of the fact that discussion like this is probably the only way this will ever become clear to us short of living in the rocky soil nation ourselves.

  3. In my opinion, this is a gross oversimplification. First, scripture makes it abundantly clear that, while there was a lot of good about the early church, it certainly wasn't without its fait share of problems. Next, if you look at the early American church, you had a number of communities fleeing persecution in Europe, but all too willing to persecute one another once they got here. Third, yes, you do have some people who attend church to have their needs met. Somewhat akin to when Jesus told a crowd of followers that they were just following him around because he had fed them. However, wherever you go, there are also vibrant communities who gather together to worship, but who also are proclaiming the gospel to people they encounter in th world. The church is different today because the world is different. Again, I'm not saying that you're entirely wrong, but you're also not entirely correct. We like to be able to think of things in ways that allow us to compartmentalize them and make judgments about people, and life doesn't always fit into such tidy packages.

  4. Tim -- welcome to the world of blogging. Gross oversimplification is what we do! :)

  5. Tim, you're right, but none of this discussion really matters if all we're talking about is our own enjoyment of the Christian community that we happen to be a part of.

    Since this discussion is being framed in terms of "going to the nations" we face some real obstacles, particularly in the rocky soil nations, that can no longer be glossed over.

    What we're trying to do here is get a handle on what those issues might be, and how our deeply rooted assumptions about ministry, church, etc., might play a role.

    Nonetheless, I still like the perspective you bring in terms of our "history" not being as "rosy" as we would like to think. It definitely is worth pondering further.

  6. Jailbreaker, as odd as it may sound, you seem to be a little "globally myopic" (now there's a strange thought). While it's certainly your unique gift and perspective, I don't see why we need to frame the discussion in terms of "going to the nations". I see the global ("rocky soil") perspective as an important part of the discussion--one which most of us pay far too little attention--and important for informing the larger question. On the other hand, Chief's post clearly had a prominent "domestic" side to it.
    I deal with culture from yet another perspective, as the local body I happen to be involved with in Virginia is an ethnic one. The principles we're discussing here are equally applicable to my situation.

  7. Chief--Lone Ranger-ism I call it. And have been guilty of it most of my life. Myself with a Bible.. what else would I need? Now as I try to change, its not easy, learning to see myself interconnected with ALL other believers on the planet, for eternity.

  8. I see what you're saying, Jailer, but I have found that it can be very difficult to grasp these issues as they apply to the local level. I may be dead wrong, but I think looking at things from a global perspective, particularly from the rocky soil perspective, helps us greatly to see things more clearly on the local level.

    In fact, it can equally be argued that we are too "locally myopic." :-)

  9. But the question is why the Church doesn't connect with other cultures. Within the United States alone, we have many cultures. There's no cookie-cutter way to have or be the church. What I would say is that, by in large, the reason we're not connecting with other cultures is that the churches hasn't adapted in ways that allow it to engage other cultures in relevant ways. I'll take Baptist churches as an example, simply because that's my heritage. Go to most Baptist churches and you'll find that they aren't all that different today than they were 40 years ago when I was growing up. Yet the culture has changed tremendously. It used to be that a church that would send out people on Sunday afternoons to welcome visitors who had been to church that morning were really on the ball. However, in today's society, a knock on the door by people with a loaf of bread and a handful of brochures is guaranteed to scare off a visitor who hasn't grown up going to church. I use this example, because I know of a person who was really freaked out by well-intentioned drop-in visits by some churches she and her husband had visited. The churches that are connecting are the ones that actually have thought long and hard about how to reach out to people who don't necessarily see the world from the same perspective as they do. Like Paul when he was in Athens, they are engaging people on their own turf, taking the unchanging message of the gospel, and adapting the delivery of the message so that others will be more open to receive it.

  10. Well... I have some good news! You are on to something by referring to the early church in Acts and the Epistles. They met outside the temple (being rejected of their Jewish brethren for following after Jesus Christ as Messiah) and went from house to house assembling together.

    All the gifts were present and doctrine was taught, bread was broken and burdens were shared... and this goes on even today! My wife and I have been involved with "House to House" fellowships for 15 years now... and the opportunities for growth, encouragement and the use of our gifts (mine is teaching and preaching) in the authority of Jesus Christ is... amazing!

    We dumped the denominational titles long ago (referred to "Institutional Church" or "I.C.") but retain a working relationship with the brethren who "attend" those setting formally!

    I thank our Lord that we are made to be baptized into ONE body by the Spirit!


  11. Great topic!

    There is a study out that declares a "silent revival" has been in progress for the last decade in America. The reason no one knows about it is this - the revival is happening in non white churches amongst various immigrant churches such as the Chinese churches in America, the Brazilian churches in America, the Korean churches in America, the Nigerian churches etc. which in many cases have been growning similar to what was seen in the great American revivals a couple hundred years ago amongst the white churches.

    They project that according to the US census, in 25 years America will be a nation that is 51% non white thus America's church will most likly be a non-white, non- European, type church body. It is interesting.

    As a missionary myself who has visited Protestant and Catholic churches of about 7 different denominations in various places such as Egypt, Vietnam, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Tiawan, China as well as in the American States of California, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Virginia, Minnisota, New York and Massachusets, I've come to see just how big the kingdom of God is and how it varies so much from one church to another.

    The only clear "Church model" that I have seen "besides the one presented in the New Testemant" that does get reproduced over and over and is accepeted is the denominational models thus a Baptist church in China looks & acts very much like a Baptist church in Virginia or The Church of England church in America (Episcopal) looks & acts just like the one in Hong Kong each with some slight adaptions for local culture.

    Below is a link to an article from a church in India that has discussed this topic as well and I thought it was a good way to compare what is in the Bible as a church model with what we see in churches around the world today.

  12. Stacey, do you know where we can get our hands on that study addressing the "silent revival" taking place? It would be interesting to read more about their findings.

    The closest thing I've found in terms of research is in a very thought provoking book by George Barna called "Revolution." In it, he says that his research shows that approximately 30% of American believers are functioning as a body outside the institutional church right now. He goes on to further estimate, with solid reasoning, that in 20-30 years, 70% of American believers will be functioning as a body outside the institutional church.

    We've already heard from William B in an earlier comment on this post that he himself is a house church leader and has not been a part of the institutional church for 15 years.

    God is clearly at work, right here in America, in ways that many had never thought possible.

  13. William, could you talk more about how you retain a "working relationship" with the brethren in the institutional church?

    I think this is a key concept to understand (particularly when we think of unity in "the church") and would appreciate hearing more from someone who is actively seeking to live this out.

  14. >>Right or wrong, this is the way it has been and it is hard to for the leopard to trade in his spots for a new coat, particularly as post-modernist attitudes continue to make inroads into the church.

    I think it's odd that you would take a swipe at "post-modernist attitudes." If anything I think young people today, those growing up in the post-modern culture, are more open to change than anyone. In fact, post-moderns are for the most part disenfranchised with the institutional church which seniors and the baby-boomer generation are still clinging too.

    I think post-moderns are sick of the traditional, ritualistic, Sunday-only Americanized Christian culture which basically tries to Christian principles to achieve the same self-sufficient, comfort-seeking lifestyle of non-Christian Americans.

    Post-moderns are looking for an Acts 2 kind of church that is authentic, relational, passionate, relevant, and lived out daily in real life.

    I do think there is a "silent revival" taking place. I think you're more apt to find an Acts 2 church outside the U.S. in countries where Christians are poor and persecuted and they have to depend on God and each other for daily survival. But I also think there is a "silent revival" taking place in the U.S.

    My eyes are just starting to open to it after reading Crazy Love and The Irresistible Revolution. Next on my reading list are The Divine Commodity, Pagan Church, and Reimagining Church.

    - Paul

  15. Stacey, Very good points. That's why when you go to Africa and see some of the worship services, the men are showing up in suits and ties despite the fact that it's blazing hot outside, and even hotter within the walls of the church. ... And why some of them are still singing old European hymns. On a related note, many evangelical missionaries are working hard to allow local believers to shape and create their own forms of worship, traditions, and so on. They are there to teach the gospel, to teach the new believers how to study scripture, and disciple one another, and that's it. I know that Southern Baptist missionaries in many former Soviet countries won't define themselves as Baptists. Why? Because there's a Baptist denomination already, and all the members are white Russians. Were a member of another ethic group to enter a Baptist church in those areas, they would probably be encouraged to go find the local mosque.

  16. I couldn't agree with you more. We have gone from the community to self. While we must have a personal relationship with God, we must also care for our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is for this reason that you don't see neighborhood churches thriving as they once did. We have so many little store fronts because they offer each individual what they want and each of those churches has their own spin on the word of God. We can pick and choose what we feel is right for us individually. And we must not forget to mention the mega churches where the people flock to because of the person/celebrity status. I am not saying there is anything wrong with mega churches but the communities do not have the support and therefore if there is no community connection, the neigborhoods fail. And yes, as you put it, "we do church". Why? Because it is an obligation... We get what we can/need and we go on. When I read your topic and then your statement, I thought about the Catholic Church. As far as I know, they don't take from the word what they want and leave the rest. It amazes me how they follow so many rules, those things that were ingrained in them from childhood. Then we look at other cultures where the people might stand for hours to hear the word taught to them and we (American) are ready to leave after the song and dance as it were. Again...I agree with you completely.

  17. I thank you for writing this. It reminds me of the words to a song that asks, "Are you prepared to wear His crown of thorns to bring His peace?"

    I know this might sound very odd, but as Christians I see that most of us fall short of sharing the love of Christ because we are afraid to die, though each perhaps for different reasons. I attended a presentation where missions came up, and so also the question of how can we send missionaries into a war zone and let them be killed. The speaker's reply was that maybe we need to send more missionaries; if we are going to die anyway, we might as well make it count for something we believe in. Where else is the love of Christ more needed than in a place of danger and strife?

    Your question really rang true to me, "how do I bring these people I love face to face with Jesus Christ as he is revealed in the word of God?" There is something to be said for dying to the self and kindling the love to lay down our lives for our friends. Whether we die by denying ourselves the comforts of the world, ministering in a battle zone or sharing Christ in (church?) cultures foreign to us, the Word says it is by lifting Christ up that others will be drawn unto him. Do we deeply believe that we are already crucified with Christ and dead to this life such that we are resurrected with him already in the next?

    Am I prepared to physically die today if doing so gives a chance, but not a guarantee, of bringing those I love face to face with Jesus Christ? I can't say that I am, but this is the challenge I feel in your words. Bonhoeffer said that Jesus calls us "to come and to die." In response I can feel my flesh very much alive and trying to justify all the good things I could do if I live.

    Don't the kids you mentioned want to see Jesus just like we all want to see Jesus? You ask how we teach them to love each other instead of tearing each other apart. Is it not by handing them the hammer and nails and loving them enough to let them crucify us if they must, and trusting God's will be done without us having to see how he uses our death? Is not truly all we have to offer them a cross that teaches us to sacrifice ourselves for each other as our Lord did already?

    Maybe we need to add to your hard questions. What comes up for me is: For those who tear each other apart, how can we willingly lay down our lives for them that they may see Christ and truly live? And, do I really believe what Jesus said would happen if we do this?

    Again, thank you for speaking your truth. I'd love to find what you see as your next step.

  18. Church is a consumer product in our culture. The professional Christians prepare/rehearse all week to present an acceptable product to their paying audience of passive spectators. I pray that God's Spirit will bring together a spiritual family in my community that desires to bring praise, honor, and glory to Jesus and love and encouragement to one another.

  19. Recently we talked about being an Acts 2:42 community not in the literal sense of sell your belongings and join the cult (drink the koolaid) but in the support your neighbors in need your brothers and sisters in christ. Like working with local grocery stores to pick up day old bread and overripe fruit to give to the needy in your church community or community in general. I think if people see you behave in this kind of way you are going to shine the light of the gospel when someone looks on the outside.

    someone just asked me if I was afraid to die and I said I don't want to die but I'm not afraid I've made my peace with my God and maker.

    God Bless you all!

  20. Paul
    In a sense I agree with you completely on what post-moderns are looking for. I am surrounded by them every day. And I agree with some emergent church thinking that emphasizes that we need to "repaint the faith" (Rob Bell - Velvet Elvis). I think you're right - younger people truly want to move beyond "the traditional, ritualistic, Sunday-only Americanized Christian culture which basically tries to (missing word)Christian principles to achieve the same self-sufficient, comfort-seeking lifestyle of non-Christian Americans." Unfortunately, there seems to be a disconnect between the desire for these things and the work that it will take to get them. I see in too many the desire to get all the things you mentioned without investing the prayer, the study, the suffering and the building of relationships outside our comfort zone that will achieve what they (and we)want. We want knowledge but we won't study. We want honest relationships but we will never be accountable. We want wisdom, yet I have read blogs by young pastors who see nothing immoral in the least with using another pastor's sermons without giving him credit (or better yet, preparing one's own) We want community, but we organize our Bible studies and small groups by age and economic substrata. Etc. etc. That's why I think you're correct that these churches exist in areas where the needs and persecutions are tremendous and there is no sense of "entitlement" such as is found in our culture at large. We want all this stuff handed to us. It's like the hunger you hear in songs of the 60s counterculture minus its "Revolutionary" spirit.
    I wonder, for example, how to reconcile the desire you mention with the level of biblical illiteracy among Christian students (and their parents) and the lack of passion for prayer God's word. Yet they attend some of the best evangelical, non-denominational churches and youth groups in the area.
    I've been impressed with all your comments - thank you for helping me to continue to think through this - we are all works in progress!

  21. Small groups are an important component of the Church.

    We are not in the 1st Century anymore, so, let's not try to remember "the good old days". Stick to the Bible. Be in the world, but don't conform to the world.


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