What is the Church's interest in culture?

Ken Myers, host of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, shares his thoughts on some of the basic issues the Journal seeks to address. Click Subscribe above to order a subscription to the Journal!

  • Description
    Defining the relationship between the Church and the thing we call “culture” requires an understanding of the nature of the Church and its mission.

    Defining the relationship between the Church and the thing we call “culture” requires an understanding of the nature of the Church and its mission. It also requires discernment about what cultures could and should do, as well as what the actual cultural forms that we live with are doing.

    Christian teachers and writers frequently speak of “engaging the culture” or “reaching the culture.” Such phrases, however well-intentioned, obscure the kind of thing a culture is. If a culture is best understood as a way of life, how might one “reach” or “engage” a way of life? The use of the word culture in these phrases seems to denote a group of people rather than the way of life shared by those people.

    Such rhetoric also seems to presuppose that the Church is only the bearer of a message to these people. The Church is assumed to be like an educational, journalistic, or advertising institution committed to conveying an abstract (and relatively short) set of propositions or claims. Furthermore, these claims concern only personal sin and personal salvation, not a present way of life.

    By contrast, Lesslie Newbigin has asserted: “A preaching of the gospel that calls men and women to accept Jesus as Savior but does not make it clear that discipleship means commitment to a vision of society radically different from that which now controls our public life today must be condemned as false.”

    In reading the whole of the New Testament—including Christ’s own commissioning of the Church before his ascension—one sees that the Church properly understands itself as a people: not a club or a clinic or a show or a service provider, but something more like a nation, a polis. The Church’s task is to cultivate its members into disciples, who observe everything their Lord—the Lord of heaven and earth—has commanded. The Church is eagerly active to bring in new members, but it sustains a way of life into which they are brought—a culture which is in keeping with its Lord’s work in Creation and Redemption. The Church’s way of life—its practices as well as its beliefs—will frequently be out of synch with the ways of the world. In baptizing its members into Christ and into his body, the Church calls them to abandon their old allegiances. And in sending its members out into the world, it commissions them to confront dehumanizing cultural institutions in favor of forms that will honor their God and those who bear his image.

    Discipleship is a work of alternative enculturation. As theologian Andrew Davison puts it, “To present the Christian faith is to present a new way to understand life and the world in which we live. Put another way, Christian faith is a new way to understand what is real.” And this alternative understanding is incarnated in alternative cultural forms that are sustained across generations, and (when possible) shared with our neighbors.