Contending with Culture

Recently I read Befitting Your Majesty for a series of devotions for our church pastoral staff. Author Jim Mackey calls the church to assess its effectiveness in the 21st century. In order to do so she must develop a basic understanding of the times in which she lives. The danger for Christians, which Mackey expresses, is wrongly assessing the surrounding culture – or worse yet, not assessing it at all – and not distinguishing between the values of the kingdom of God and the values of that culture.

What do we mean by the term culture? One definition is “the sum total of ways of living developed by a group of human beings and handed on from generation to generation.”  Mackey writes to Christians living in Western culture and warns against being assimilated into the culture. This reflects the Apostle Paul’s admonition to Christians living in the heart of the Roman Empire: “And do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is . . .” (Romans 12:2).

A great challenge for people growing up in the West is that Western culture is all that they have known. The Western worldview incessantly but subtly informs them of what is right and wrong, true and false, virtue and vice. Because of this endless nourishing and nurturing of one’s perceptions it is difficult to obtain an objective perspective on what is peculiarly Western. In order to gain a new perspective one must either be able to assess the culture from outside or learn about another’s experiences outside of the culture. A common proverb says, “If you want to know what water is like, don’t ask a fish.” The same could be said about Westerners’ trying to describe their own culture.

The Bible speaks of a system which is present in the world that has aligned itself against the rule of God. It fundamentally propagates a view of reality in which God is irrelevant or is, as in the West, non-existent. This system, known as kosmos in the New Testament, is a hierarchical structure ruled by one known as “the ruler of this world” and “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4; John 12:31). It is the essence of unredeemed creation, the enemy of God and the great hindrance to the Christian life.

This system permeates and influences all of the different cultures of the world. It is a force which shapes one’s intellect and character, demanding the allegiance of one’s whole being. Apostles Paul and Peter warned the early Christians against allowing their character to be fashioned into the image of the world (Romans 12:2; 1 Peter 1:14).

Christians, however, have a clear advantage in evaluating the culture because of a unique point of origin from which to reason. God has transferred them from the authority of the dark world system into the kingdom of His Son (Colossians 1:13). It is this vantage point which affords them God’s view of the world which He readily reveals through His word and by His Spirit.

Christians must recognize the characteristics of Western culture in order to avoid being assimilated and conformed to the values of that culture. Craig Van Gelder lists a number of more important ones. One characteristic, which is foundational for the rest, is the belief of relative truth. There is no ultimate universal truth or authority by which one must order one’s life. If God is removed from the equation as one who gives meaning to life then the gate is open for other values to step in and to define the worth of a human being, as is evident in subsequent characteristics.

A second characteristic is the autonomy of the individual. Ultimate authority is seated in the human mind instead of being dependent upon external sources such as tradition or revelation. Each person is sufficient in him- or herself in being able to determine what is true.

Consumerism is a third characteristic which pressures people to continually purchase goods in order to support ongoing growth and profitability. The culture plays on the consumer’s desires and promises to provide meaning in life through material possessions.

The development of technology and the implementation of technique-driven change have helped fuel myths in the Western world which influence how we live: the new and the more efficient are better; and there is a scientific or technological solution to every problem we face.

Finally, many people have turned to feelings and desires in reaction to reason’s inability to provide meaning in life. Drugs, sex and various heightened sensual experiences, often encouraged through the arts and media, are touted as ways to find fulfillment.

How then should Christians think about their relationship to the surrounding culture? Regrettably, one common response is to fully disengage and to concentrate on the afterlife. Jesus’ words “I am not of this world” (John 8:23) are quoted as a scriptural basis for this. However Jesus is not saying this in order for His followers to withdraw from the world. He is giving a qualification for His being in the world to save it from sin. His very presence in the world serves as a testimony to Christians’ engagement in the world. He commanded the disciples to go into all the world –both geographically and culturally – to proclaim the message of the kingdom of God and prayed that the Father not take them disciples out of the world (John 17:15).

Sadly, most Christians do not study scripture in order to gain an understanding of reality or to live by it. According to one recent study only 17 percent of those who attend church regularly and consider their faith as essential have a biblical worldview. Nevertheless there are four practical ways in which to live a successful Christian life in today’s Western culture.

Firstly, be different. There are only two options: conforming or being transformed (Romans 12:2). Sitting out is not an option. Loving this system makes one an enemy of God (James 4:4; 1 John 2:15-17). Resist the seduction of the world system, which is in opposition to God, by renewing the mind according to God’s word.

Secondly, be intentional. Engage society without being influenced by the values of the world system. Faith is necessary to go beyond the borders of one’s own comfort zone and to interact with people who are different, indifferent or even hostile towards God. Jesus came into this world which rejected Him (John 1:10-11). Remaining within the walls of the church building is less confrontational but Christians are commanded to go forth to proclaim the message of God’s salvation.

Thirdly, be contextual. Recognize the times, know the cultural setting and know what needs to be done to serve society and to make the gospel message palatable (1 Chronicles 12:32). The church community’s faith, practice and message must be continually examined and reformed in order to be effective.

Fourthly, be prophetic. Live the Christian life which witnesses to the hope of God’s salvation, peace and blessings. Love others and use the trust gained in order to speak to the culture. Give biblical and practical answers to solve society’s problems.

Christians in the Western world live as citizens of the kingdom of God as it is breaking into the world. Where the two cultures clash and vie for dominance, one must ultimately supersede the other. Christians demonstrate the sovereignty of God’s kingdom by being continually in the process of transformation by the renewing of the mind. Thus they will understand the surrounding culture and live in a manner that brings honor and glory to God.