A theology of culture for your ministry
Is "the world" friend, foe, or something else?
Our Cultural Problem
I had just finished meeting with an amazing turnout of students, parents, and volunteer leaders in which we were discussing the vision and direction of the student ministry. Students seemed excited to be more involved, leaders were ready to take on new challenges, and parents seemed unanimously supportive. But then the meeting ended, and the side conversations ensued.
Soon a set of parents approached me and commented, “We are so happy that there are going to be more church activities for our kids to be involved in. We really need to protect them from all the evil in culture these days.”
A few moments later another couple approached me to communicate their excitement that we were trying to form a band and use movie clips during our gatherings. “It’s just so important to be culturally relevant,” they said.
I began to wonder if I was in the twilight zone.
How could two couples who were part of the same church community and who just attended the same meeting react so differently? I was absolutely floored. I suppose it could be that I did a horrible job of explaining myself that evening, but I’m willing to bet that this wasn’t the root of the problem. Perhaps the real issue was that both couples were so thoroughly schooled in different—but common—conceptions of church and culture that they could not hear (much less understand) what I was trying to say.
Technically, what we’ll explore in this article might be called a theology of culture, but in essence I’m hoping we discover together what it means to be the people of God—being personally and corporately the sort of people whom God uses to announce and embody the gospel of the Kingdom. While “culture” has been and continues to be something of a hot topic for those who work with students, I’d venture to say that, now more than ever, it’s something for the church as a whole to consider and engage.
You may be familiar with the Deep Design practical theology paradigm from the book Deep Ministry in a Shallow World by Chap Clark and Kara Powell. Using this theological grid as a springboard, I’d like to try to explain where I think many Christians are NOW in terms of their understanding of and engagement with culture. Next, I’d like to suggest a NEW way that we might want to think about culture. Specifically, I want to suggest that as Christians we have two primary responsibilities with regard to culture: creating and discerning. Finally, I’ll try to illustrate HOW this might look for those engaged in ministry with teenagers.
NOW: Christendom’s legacy of understanding and engaging culture
Polarizations: Niebuhr as the Pacesetter
In 1951, H. Richard Niebuhr wrote what has become a classic text on the theology of culture, Christ and Culture. [[H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1951).]] Niebuhr’s book exemplifies the church’s basic understanding of culture within Christendom. [[While Niebuhr was writing in and to a Christendom context (making the assumption that “everyone is a Christian” in the society), recently Craig Carter has written Rethinking Christ and Culture, which seeks to accomplish the same task, but in and to a Post-Christendom context.]] He presents five ways in which Christ and culture might relate: “Christ against culture,” “Christ of culture,” “Christ and culture in paradox,” “Christ above culture,” and “Christ the transformer of culture.”
Niebuhr problematically defines culture as the sum of human activity in the world, a social construction based on human achievement, for human purposes, that is essentially good for humanity. This is problematic because he equates culture with the absence of God’s presence and work, leaving “the world” devoid of any sanctity or value. In this context, Christians must choose a response to culture in light of their faith.
According to Niebuhr’s model:
- Christ against culture means that believers are faced with ‘either-or’ decisions based on keeping themselves separate as a holy people.
- Christ of culture indicates a basic agreement between Christ and culture—that Jesus is the hero of culture and leads civilization towards God’s will.
- Christ above culture makes Christ “discontinuous as well as continuous” [[H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1951), 42.]] with culture—lifting followers above society in a transcendent sort of way.
- Christ and culture in paradox is a paradigm wherein believers are citizens of two worlds that are fundamentally opposed to one another, and must live in the balance.
- Christ transforming culture, or the “conversionist” solution, [[H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, 43.]] means that Christians recognize the dissonance between Jesus and the world, but rather than run from it or hope for its eventual salvation, believers experience Christ as the redeemer of people within their culture and society
One of the central difficulties with Niebuhr’s typology is that culture is understood as one independent dynamic force to which Christ must of course correspond to in some way. The final option of Christ transforming culture often seems the most reasonable and desirable to American Christians who hope for a Christian ethic that engages culture without completely abandoning it. The only question that remains under this paradigm is, “How will Christ, through the Church, transform culture?” There have been two dominant answers to this question. [[It should be noted that while the largest polarization of Christians in Christendom has been between “conservatives” and “liberals”, the answers to the question of culture I am describing here really each exist within a sub-polarization amongst those typically defined as conservatives. Another distinct polarization would be those who firmly link salvation with social justice, believing the primary way Christ transforms culture is through the work of Christians towards bringing justice to the world.]]
The link between salvation and understanding culture
In the story I told above, there was a clear disconnect between what I was trying to convey and what these parents took away. This disconnect, I submit, is the result of several hundred years of a polarization in how “culture” has been understood by Christians. What we must realize, however, is that these polarized understandings of culture flow out of an equally-polarized understanding of what salvation entails.
On the one hand, there are those for whom salvation is basically synonymous with moral purity. True Christians, these folks have been told, are those who don’t do such and such. They have learned essentially that the church is safe and good and everything outside the church—culture—is dangerous and evil. Often this understanding comes from wrongfully equating culture with “the world,” as in “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of Father is not in him” [[1 John 2:15 (NIV).]]. This sort of “piety” leads primarily to a fearful, standoffish, and condemnatory posture toward culture. While Christ is perhaps understood as the transformer of culture, it is a culture that is fundamentally bad and must be transformed from a distance.
On the other hand, there are those who understand salvation basically as the idea that those who “say yes to Jesus” get to go to heaven when they die. Those who understand salvation like this are quite justified in using any and all means (including being culturally relevant) in order to solicit an audience to whom they can present the opportunity to “accept Christ into their heart.” Unlike the former group, the focus for those in this camp isn’t so much moral purity or piety as it is simply being with Jesus in heaven. There is no real understanding of culture other than as a means to an end. In this view Christ is again understood as the transformer of culture, but this transformation comes with Christianizing any and all expressions of “secular” culture.
The link between engaging culture and spiritual formation
The issue isn’t just that we have misunderstood culture; it’s also that on account of these polarized understandings, we also have polarized ways of engaging culture. Each of the groups mentioned above, with their particular understanding of salvation and corresponding understanding of culture, engages with it differently. This is important because how we engage culture determines how we are spiritually formed, something we far too often neglect or perhaps are ignorant of altogether.
In the first instance, where culture is fundamentally understood as something to be avoided, there is typically only a negative sort of engagement. Often, this comes in the form of condemning those who are blind to the effects of culture. Spiritual formation then, as the first set of parents typified, comes through removing oneself from evil cultural influences. If one is really to push into what it means to be spiritually formed in this category, it might mean becoming the sort of person who can expertly defend why the Christian way is right and good and the worldly/cultural way is wrong and bad.
On the other hand, if culture is simply a means to an end (as with those on the other end of the spectrum), the most logical way to engage it is to use it by Christianizing it. This can mean anything from creating “Christian” hard rock and rap music, to using culturally embedded –isms like consumerism and individualism as ways to attract unbelievers. Spiritual formation, under this paradigm, means becoming increasingly successful at blending in with everyone else while still holding onto your beliefs.
Both of these polarized ways of understanding and engaging culture were represented by the parents who spoke to me after what I thought was a fantastic meeting. They are part and parcel of the legacy of modernity and its effects on our theology. But it was not always so. While I want to press on to a NEW way to understand and engage culture, I want to be very clear about two things. First, I am not proposing a middle ground, some sort of meeting place between the two ends of the pole we have been considering, but rather an entirely different paradigm. Second, the NEW ways of understanding and engaging culture that I aim to unpack here are not new in the sense that they are novel or creative. Instead, they seek to recover what has been lost (as is often the case in Clark and Powell’s Deep Design paradigm). The best way for us to explore this is to reconsider the gospel story from which they emerge.
NEW: A kingdom perspective of understanding and engaging culture
The culture of God
There is an intrinsic relationship between creating and culture. When someone decides to create something, (for example, music, literature, a building, or a relationship), “culture” is the term we give to that which emerges as a result. At the same time, “culture” is also the name we give to the environment or circumstances out of which things are created. So when we boil it down, culture creates culture.
Scripture would have us believe that a long time ago, God created. Thus, any and all cultural expressions are linked to God in some way or another. [[I find it incredibly important here to mention that theologically, we are far better off talking about how all cultural expressions are in God as opposed to God being in them. That God is “in all things” is a sort of pantheistic notion, whereas Paul (using a bit of poetry from the culture in which he was working) would have us believe that it is in God that “we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28, NIV).]] He created the sun and the stars, water and land, birds and fish, plants and animals, and God created people, man and woman, Adam and Eve, who were given the responsibility to “be fruitful and increase in number…” [[Genesis 1:28a (NIV).]] God created a culture that, like him, would be reproductive. The man and woman, who alone were created in the image of God, were given charge over this whole cultural enterprise.
Long story short, Adam and Eve were fruitful and they did increase in number, but in the process things went horribly wrong. Our ancient mother and father became responsible for this thing we call sin, and ever since then everyone’s relationship with God, with others, and with all of creation has been sadly and painfully damaged. The culture of Shalom [[I choose the word Shalom, meaning flourishing, here because it communicates wholeness, completeness, fulfillment, well-being, and harmony.]] that God had created and set in motion—a culture in which everything and everyone existed in its intended relationship with God—was shattered.
But then comes the rest of the Older Testament, the story of God’s mission in and through his people to restore the sort of culture God had first created. Through Abram, God creates again. He creates a people who are to be a blessing to all the other nations, indeed all of creation, by embodying and proclaiming the sort of culture that emerges from worshiping God above all else. Sadly, Israel, the nation of people created by God and called to this responsibility, was not always faithful to this calling. God worked in and through other people and by other means to move all of creation back toward its cultural intent of Shalom. Thus, a certain sensitivity and humility was (and is) required of God’s people in order to discern the full scope of what God was (and is) doing in the world.
Church as the Creator of Culture [[Though I speak of the Church as a creator of culture, I do not mean to imply that there is only one cultural expression of Christianity. Rather, as churches engage their particular local context, there will invariably be differing expressions of the culture created, but a rootedness in Christ should always unify those expressions.]]
The church today bears these same responsibilities. Grafted into the nation of Israel, [[See Romans 11.]] we are God’s family, called to inhabit a culture marked by a right ordering of relationships—to God, to others, and to all of creation. The great calling of the Church is to live out the salvation offered to us in and through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God calls on us as his people to be and do for the world what Jesus was and did for us. As the body of Christ, we ought to create and cultivate the sort of culture which can only emerge from those who confess Jesus as Lord and live in the reality of the reign of God in the world.
As Jesus was the physical embodiment of what I earlier described as the “culture of God,” the culture which we aim to create stems from his example and our connection to him through the Holy Spirit. The culture of the people of God should reflect actions like deep forgiveness, selfless generosity, love of enemies, identifying with the poor and oppressed, and hospitality—the very things that set the church apart from the world by the way it engages the world. [[See 2 Corinthians 5 for Paul’s thoughts on our engagement with the world as the “ministry of reconciliation.”]]
Church as the Discerner of Culture
The creation of a God-centered culture is not the only task of God’s people. While we are to live lives in the Spirit of Christ as a “kingdom of priests” and a “holy nation,” [[See 1 Peter 2:9.]] we must never forget that God is present and active throughout the entirety of the world, not only the Church. In fact, we would probably all agree that at times it has been God’s presence in “the world” that has brought correction to the sinful tendencies of “the Church”. Therefore, one of the tasks of the church, expressed all over the world in local communities of faith, is to identify the presence and activity of God in all cultural forms and expressions. The only way to do this faithfully, however, is to be constantly engaged in the journey of becoming the sorts of people and communities God intends us to be. To use a simple analogy, the better you get at playing the guitar, the more you will be able to discern the strengths and weaknesses in the ways others play.
Kevin VanHoozer, in his recent book Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends, notes that the “mission of the church is to witness to the truth of the gospel by participating in God’s building project, realizing the well-wrought world redeemed in Christ.” To this end, he argues for church communities that are able to read “the world behind, of, and in front of cultural texts.” By becoming what VanHoozer calls “cultural agents,” able to interpret these various dimensions of culture with regard to the ways in which they distort, reflect, or ignore God’s design, we are then able to more faithfully live out the sort of missional calling he describes. [[Kevin J. VanHoozer, et al. Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007).]]
It is when the church as the Body of Christ is able to accept these twin responsibilities of creating and discerning cultures that it is truly able to serve the rest of the world as God intends. It is here, in this tension of being in the world, but not of the world, for the sake of the world, that the church experiences and announces salvation.
HOW: Helping students understand and engage culture
To wrap up and move toward a more practical application of all this, it’s necessary to go back to where we began. I have been trying to make the case that our understanding of salvation tends to determine our understanding of culture, and that our understanding of culture determines how we tend to engage culture and therefore how we are spiritually formed. If, rather than understanding salvation as either moral piety or giving assent to certain beliefs, we understand salvation as living within the Kingdom (or culture) of God, then we are in a much different starting place. [[The online journal entitled The Other Journal is a resource which starts from this sort of cultural position.]] All of a sudden, culture is neither to be feared nor to be used as a means to an end. Instead, it is something to be created and cultivated as well as something to discern.
From this starting place, new questions emerge. Not, “How do I keep my students away from culture?” but, “How do I help my students create a Kingdom culture?” Not, “How do I use culture to draw a crowd?” but, “How do I help my students discern the presence and activity of God in the world?”
Beginning by asking questions like this helps us teach students how to engage Scripture more as a story of what God is like and what he has been doing in the world since the beginning of time than a “rule book” (which tends to make salvation about moral piety) or a “love letter from God” (which tends to make salvation about me and Jesus). From here, this needs to be fleshed out by moving from a purely programmatic style of ministry (which typically results from the aforementioned takes on salvation) to a more relational one where students are invited to live as a part of this story along with others.
As a youth pastor, I was confronted with all sorts of cultural questions. “What sort of music do I play in the van on the way to where we are going?” “What movies are really okay for me to see with my students?” “When we go swimming, do the girls get to wear 2-piece bathing suits?” After years of wrestling with questions like this, I am convinced that there are no pat answers. Questions like these are often situation-specific and need to be thought through in the context of community. What helped me most was the realization that the way in which I was going to help my students become truly spiritually formed into the image of Christ was neither by playing moral policeman nor by going along with everything students wanted to do for the sake of maintaining their interest and enthusiasm. Instead, I began to understand that my role in the spiritual formation of my students was to demonstrate and guide them into the sort of reality that God envisions for all of creation.
My sincere hope is that we will be encouraged to help our students experience and embody the sort of culture that stops the rest of the world in its tracks and forces them to ask deep questions and come to grips with deep longings. I hope that we will walk with our students into the world in the courage and grace of Christ as we teach them to discern both who God is and what God is up to.
- Perhaps like me you assume your parents and/or leaders see things the way you do. Consider getting your key leaders and parents together to have an open discussion about everyone’s understanding of church, culture, and the relationship between them. Maybe you can use this article or a part of it to spur or guide discussion.
- Guide your students through a study where you are able to ask them what they think God’s dream for culture might be. Brainstorm how you together might be catalysts for the things that come up.
- Ask students to suggest, bring or present various cultural expressions (movies, music, magazines, art, etc.) and lead a discussion on what that particular cultural item is communicating and what sorts of ideas/events/experiences might have given rise to it. It would probably be helpful to demonstrate this first by giving an example.
- Help your students conduct an actual survey of how their friends who have no meaningful connection to a church community view the relationship between Christians and culture. Debrief and engage the results with them.
- In general, be proactive in your conversations with your students about encouraging them to think of the common, everyday stuff in terms of its relationship, positive or negative, to God and God’s Kingdom.
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