In some fashion or another, most every Christian grapples with this question. Niehbur’s work Christ and Culture is a classic grappling with this issue. As is the case with many things, the opinions of Christians vary on this issue. Niehbur himself offered five responses in his framework. So, I don’t pretend an easy answer is available to us.
But, I do want to raise the question with what I hope will be a slightly different emphasis (maybe not, we’ll see). And that is, what is the relationship of the church qua church to culture? It’s an ecclesiological question rather than a question of individual Christian ethics or of Christology, though it touches on both of these as well. How should the people of God, as the people of God, understand and interact with the construct and reality called “culture”?
For me, this question flows out of a couple of streams. There is the stream of lived experience in the local church that seems to exalt cultural considerations to the level of, if not over, Christian identity. I think I see that or hear tells of that in most every “predominantly (fill in the ethnic blank) church” out there. And in those settings, where culture is so easily and often blended or associated with “race,” it is not surprising that an overwhelming number of churches struggle with the basic question of how Christians of differing ethnic backgrounds are to live together in the same church and how the “culture of the church” is to reflect either the majority group in local church A or be porous enough for minority groups to be a part of local church A. There is this basic identity conflict going on in the people of God.
Second, the question flows from a theological stream as well. This is most pressing for me. The Bible’s, and therefore God’s, vision of the church is a vision of multi-ethnic and multi-lingual unity. This vision simultaneously affirms “group identity distinctives” (at least at the level of ethnicity and language) and real, pervasive, unbreakable and ultimate unity with and in Christ Jesus. God is redeeming for himself one people out of all people. As a former racist, this is compelling and attractive and even necessary to me. That the visible local church seems so little bothered by how far we appear from God’s vision is distressing to me. I recognize the already—not yet tension we live in so many ways as Christians. But I think there is too much eagerness to bring that eschatology forward as an “excuse” not to do some sweaty, back-breaking, heart-searching, transparent thinking and work before God on this issue. Our ecclesiology, in too many cases, isn’t informing our practice.
Third, the question flows from a pastoral care stream. As someone who wants to pastor the church that Jesus is building, with all its glorious diversity and unity, I’m concerned that my own assumptions about life and cultural experiences will create limits in the pastoral task if I am not carefully discerning when it comes to church and culture. The Lord has given me the great privilege and stewardship, like many of you, of shepherding a congregation with folks from over 25 nations. The diversity is greater if we include ethnic groups rather than national boundaries. How do I practically care for people who may be brining such widely differing assumptions about life?
These are some of the concerns that motivate this series of posts, Lord willing. At root, I hope to entertain a series of questions, moving from the more fundamental to the more applied. Here’s a tentative list:
- What is “culture”?
- Is there such a thing as a distinctively Christian culture?
- How are the practices of the church (i.e., preaching, marriage counseling, and singing) to be shaped by either culture at large or a distinctively Christian culture?
- How should Christian people engage with non-Christian people and cultures? What are the terms and objectives of engagement?
Please, please, please join this conversation. What you read here will certainly not be “expert opinion”. Hopefully, this will be a conversation starter for some and a continuation for others. But please feel free to join in the discussion.
Grace and peace in Him who makes us one with himself.