How Should the Church Engage the Broader Culture?

Historically, this has proven to be a challenging question. What is the role of the church in the context of the broader culture? How responsible should the church be in this arena? What does the Bible teach us about this issue? What should our response be when we sense the culture is antagonistic to the Gospel? What if it is supportive of the Gospel? How much of the culture’s “positioning” should be our concern?

Questions like these have challenged theologians and ethicists for centuries. The Apostle Paul addressed numerous cultural and religious issues that the first-century believers were facing (e.g., food sacrificed to idols, household relationships, lawsuits). The brilliant church father, Augustine, wrote The City of God in the third century and set forth a philosophy of Christian history that influenced countless church leaders for centuries.

In more recent times, ethicist Richard Niebuhr, published his landmark work, Christ and Culture in 1951. In this book, he offered the Church several options with regard to its life within the broader culture. Here are his classic categories:

                  –Christ against Culture
                  -Christ of Culture
                  -Christ above Culture
                  -Christ and Culture in Paradox
                  -Christ the Transformer of Culture

These categories are pretty much what you would think – by their designations. He argued that Christians had to participate in the cultural dialogue somehow. Niebuhr portrayed the Church as “Christ” – so the categories he named and described have served to guide this discussion in modern theological circles for a generation. When I was in seminary, we had to read this classic book and discuss the merits of each category.

I would phrase these a bit differently. Here are the options for the Church as I see them:

Accommodate – This approach is appropriately named. The Church can just embrace and accept the broader cultural influence. An example from the ancient would be exhibited by the Sadducees. The Sadducees in the first century decided to engage closely with the Roman government. They allowed the Romans to elect the High Priest from their number. They negotiated with and accommodated the Romans in Israel. This is an example of how God’s people sometimes have chosen to simply accept the broader culture.

Dominate – This view espouses that God’s people have been called to “overthrow” the broader culture. The means necessary to accomplish this change according to the needs. For example, in the first century, the Zealots were a group of Jews who wanted to lead a military campaign against the Romans and establish God’s Kingdom on earth with force. In the modern era, the Moral Majority was often depicted as an example of this approach and the means were political in nature.

Separate – This view is represented by those who believe the culture is so corrupt that any engagement by God’s people is just too risky. The answer is to simply withdraw from the culture and let God “work it all out.” In the first century, the Pharisees exhibited this to some degree. The most extreme example were the Essenes who lived by the Dead Sea and simply disengaged from all cultural contact.

There have been numerous examples of this approach throughout Christian history. For example the Monastic movement that arose in the Middle Ages in the Roman Catholic Church represents this approach. Monasteries often became enclaves for men (Convents for women) who served the church through prayer, contemplation, Scripture preservation and poverty.

In the modern era, the Amish or some branches of the broader Mennonite community serve as examples of God’s people withdrawing from society at large. The desire for purity and a high regard for Christian community have led these folks to live separately from the broader society around them.

Alienate – This category is actually more of a result of some of the strategies than it is an actual strategy itself. In other words, some Christians have been so strong in implementing cultural engagement that they have alienated the society.

Penetrate – This strategy is represented by those who believe that the calling from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16) is to be lived out in every generation of Christians. This view is represented by those who seek to live in the midst of the broader community and represent Christ. This strategy leads Christians to engage in the business sector, the halls of the academy, the various stages in the artistic arena, the political sphere and the local community. Christians can be seen as agents of restoration in the midst of a broken, fallen world. Gabe Lyons, in his book, Next Christians, challenges believers today to live as “restorers” and be useful to God as His Kingdom is being established on earth. Michael Lindsay interviewed numerous evangelical Christian leaders who are doing just that – being salt and light – in his seminal book, Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite, Oxford University Press, 2007. Michael has just published a new book that treats this subject as well – View from the Top: An Inside Look at How People in Power See and Shape the World, John Wiley and Sons, 2014. Also, James Davison Hunter has written on this subject to assist Christians in penetrating culture in his highly acclaimed book, To Change the World, Oxford University Press, 2010.

Cultivate – This strategy has been employed by Christians in numerous generations across Christian history. This is the approach that embraces the idea that God has created us in His Image – thus, we are to be creative people. We are to allow our redeemed minds to engage the broader culture in such a way that we are able to actually cultivate culture ourselves. This practice offers alternatives for members of our society to engage in cultural activities that would not be available had we not participated with such creativity.

Andy Crouch’s book, Culture Making, (InterVarsity Press, 2008) addresses this strategy extremely well. He challenges his readers to embrace their calling to be creative agents in our world. Andy’s contention is that believers can actually create culture that is real, meaningful and beneficial to a broad base of people.