In any given place or time the church will demonstrate by its actions its philosophy of cultural interaction. In other words, the church makes choices which communicates volumes of how it perceives itself against the backdrop the prevailing ideas, morals, and methods of its culture.
The Gospel was given in order to transform individuals to the likeness of Jesus Christ. The church was established to be the instrument through which that transforming message and power is to be communicated and demonstrated. Therefore, how the church interacts with its culture is an important issue in regards to faithful proclamation of the treasure of the Gospel with which it has been entrusted.
How the church behaves as individuals outside the walls and away from scheduled meetings and how the church behaves corporately when it acts together is incredibly important. In both arenas a clear message is being sent to everyone about the nature of the relationship of Christian faith to its culture. And this in itself is critical to the faithful proclamation of a whole Gospel. How accommodating a church is to its culture is an important question.
I think there are three basic approaches leaders and churches take in regards to interaction with the broader culture. And within these primary approaches there are certainly secondary shades of difference, but I think evangelical churches tend to fall into one of these on a fundamental level.
The church that stands against its culture marches to a defiant beat. This is an approach fueled by fear, seeing all that's wrong in the culture and spending the most energy condemning it while retreating from it. There is much emphasis on keeping oneself unstained by the world and protecting the church from corruptive influences. This approach leans heavily to a self-protective mode, which in turn projects a distinct "us" versus "them" vibe to those on the outside looking in.
The result of the church against culture mentality is an unhealthy fear of those not like us and a tragically hidden gospel. The gospel might be preached from the pulpit or taught in a Sunday school class, but it's not lived out on the outside because people are too concerned with staying away from the wrong kind of people. This church will always be negatively known for what it stands against and not positively what it stands for.
The church that accommodates its culture dances to imitative rhythms of the world. It's governing dynamic is to appeal to people, to be likable, relevant and cool. Much of its energy goes into staying edgy and fresh. The next big thing is always the next biggest things since the last biggest thing ever. Primary emphasis seems to be placed on style. Typically, the style of worship is a dark room with a band playing loud praise songs with all the trappings of a rock concert. The messages are typically borrowed, topically-driven and reworked series from the latest guru of edginess. This style alone is not the problem, but churches that tend to present worship this way, are the ones that tend to drift toward worldly means and methods.
The church that allows accommodation to steer the ship may find itself also rethinking issues related to morality and ethics. If the consensus within the culture has shifted on a particular moral issue, the accommodating church may find itself tempted to move with the culture rather than risk offending, all the while employing high sounding rhetoric of inclusion, love, and not judging to explain the biblical flip flop.
The result of the accommodating church has always been an uncritical evaluation of prevailing cultural opinions and/or of methods, both in regards to appropriateness and integrity. Sometimes the biblical content is compromised or thrown out if the cultural consensus has grown to reject it. However, even if the theology from the pulpit is sound, the methods for gaining a crowd may be at times questionable. The language, look, feel, and attitude all evidences of getting just a little too chummy with the world. This accommodation is prone to invite a spiritual confusion that doesn't help a believer develop better discernment about what is and is not congruent and with a Christian lifestyle, but creates even more gray area. At worst the adapting church results in a superficial gospel garnished with a lowering of the bar for Christian living.
The church that works to transform its culture with the gospel hopefully steers a faithful course through the two pitfalls of the extremes described above. It faithfully runs the race with a focus on the finish line of the glory of God. If you placed the church against culture on the far right end of the scale and the church accommodating its culture on the far left end, then that implies there are numerous points along the scale. Now, imagine the church that wants to transform culture right in the middle of that line. This church neither wants to be known for what it's against (even though it will stand against some things), nor for accommodating the culture to the point where it caters to the wrong things simply to attract a crowd (even though it will have to employ methods and have a style).
The church that believes that the gospel is sufficient to transform individuals knows that it is also called to work, but it will be discriminating about its methods and practices. Also, this church will demonstrate great grace to outsiders to whom it desires to get the gospel. Believers will be challenged to live the whole gospel while thoughtfully engaging the culture with the precepts and principles of the Bible. This church will spend as much time praying as planning and will seek what is faithful and spiritual more than what is merely pragmatic and effective. This church will desire to see more people reached with the gospel, but will not be willing to simply get a large crowd and manipulate responses with questionable means.
The end results for the church that wishes to transform its culture with the gospel will be a people who are discerning and loving. Simultaneously the church will preach and teach truth and love people in ministry and know how to draw appropriate lines so the world opposed to God doesn't transform it. This church will reach out with the message of grace to all and refuse to be assimilated to unbiblical messages, morals, or methods.
For me and other pastors, the question is this: What kind of church are we leading and teaching our congregation to be? The long-term consequences of the answer are profound.
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