Ministering To Our Culture

by Rick Shrader

Who cares how many boxes of cereal can be sold via television? We need to know if television changes our conception of reality, the relationship of the rich to the poor, the idea of happiness itself. A preacher who confines himself to considering how a medium can increase his audience will miss the significant question: In what sense do new media alter what is meant by religion, by church, even by God?       Neil Postman

Arthur Hugh Clough once wrote, ‘‘Grace is given of God, but knowledge is bought in the market.’’ I doubt if anyone would wholeheartedly agree or disagree with that statement. If the goods sold at such a market are the expressions of a contemporary culture, most Christians would realize that some expressions are good, some are very bad and many are simply neutral. Good cultural expressions can be made bad.  Neutral things can be used for noble or ignoble purposes. Bad usually remains bad.

The church remains in a dispute over where one category ends and another begins. Like the colors in a rainbow, we all see different colors but it becomes difficult to tell where they change. Where does music cease being a good cultural expression and become merely neutral? And where do we insist it is simply bad? Where do we change from being fully clothed and ‘‘modest’’ to being unclothed and ‘‘immodest?’’ We could add similar analogies from art, theater, literature, refreshments and entertainments.

We could further complicate the question by asking at what time in history such evaluations would be made and though cultural expressions change with time, should our definitions of good, neutral and bad change? Allan Bloom points out that the very concept of culture, as we speak of it, began with Immanuel Kant to evaluate the motivations of the bourgeois and from this came our definitions of moral and immoral.  ‘‘Honesty is the best policy. Thus he corrupts morality, the essence of which is to exist for its own sake.’’ He is asking, do we have a solid foundation for morality or does it float with the culture?

If you have stayed with me this far, I can proceed to my purpose (for which you are grateful, I know). I have noticed that the way one answers these questions about culture largely determines how he goes about ministering to the culture in which he lives. Many have noticed the same thing. Leith Anderson wrote, ‘‘If your answer is that culture is the enemy of the gospel of Jesus Christ, you will become a separatist. If your answer is that culture is the friend . . . you will become a contextualist.’’ He is the latter. But, then, as I pointed out, saying that culture is an enemy or friend is not so clear cut. It may be easier to turn the procedure around. Observing the way you go about ministry, reveals how you have actually defined such terms. I see three definite approaches to ministry related to our culture.

1. Infiltration. This is the ‘‘User-friendly’’ and ‘‘Seeker-friendly’’ method, or the ‘‘Contextualization’’ of Leith Anderson. This approach sees culture as amoral, neutral and basically friendly. The infiltration method, therefore, will build strategy on the latest polls and market studies and strive to adapt to the cultural norms. Ed Dobson asks, ‘‘Who are we trying to reach? What kind of service is most likely to reach them?’’ He further preaches, ‘‘To reach the nonevangelical generation of our day, we must break out of our tradition-bound isolation and relate the gospel to people where they are.’’ In an infiltration ministry, you would see dress, hear music and even visit a building seeming more like the local mall than a traditional church.

2. Dissociation. I do not mean simple ‘‘separation’’ from the world while being in the world. Dissociation is to see almost every aspect of culture as bad and therefore to be avoided. Some, like the Amish, are extreme in their dissociation and leave their generation altogether. Others may choose to stay only one generation behind or to stay permanently in a comfortable place like the Fonz who said, ‘‘If I had my way it would be 1955 forever.’’ Gene Edward Veith sees dissociation as a viable alternative for believers in a postmodern culture and calls it the ‘‘ghettoization’’ of Christianity reminiscent of the Jews retreating from the Nazis to the ghettos for their own preservation.

A more thoughtful kind of dissociation is theological in nature. There has been a revival of Reformed thinking which emphasizes elective grace and the inability of man’s will. In many ways these men have been a blessing in writing about the Charismatic movement and related things. But the dissociation is seen when, for example, John MacArthur said on the radio of his Lordship Salvation position, ‘‘I’m not concerned about getting the elect saved. I’m concerned about keeping the non-elect from thinking they are saved.’’ This produces a more guarded procedure for evangelism often emphasizing dissociation from the culture.

3. Confrontation. This approach sees culture as basically neutral but highly expressive of that generation’s attitude toward God. This view is often expressed by secular educators such as Allan Bloom, Neil Postman, Gene Veith, who are in a hostile environment and by men like the late Francis Schaeffer who traveled into those environments. Schaeffer criticized Christianity in the 1960’s for dissociating themselves, on the one hand, from the culture and for accommodating the culture on the other hand. Either position, he said, ‘‘Leaves the destructive surrounding culture increasingly unchallenged. It is easy to be a radical in the wearing of blue jeans when it fits in with the general culture of wearing blue jeans.’’

MacArthur, criticizing the infiltration method said, ‘‘Instead of confronting the world with the truth of Christ, the market-driven megachurches are enthusiastically promoting the worst trends of secular culture.’’ Schaeffer would say, ‘‘The evangelical church has accommodated to the world spirit of the age.’’ To confront the culture, therefore, is to insist on the highest levels of its expression seeing that all things come from God. Music, art, literature and oratory expressing cultures that have glorified God should be emulated while not capitulating to cultures that have expressed an anti-God message.

So what? A bumper sticker that so aptly described our generation said, ‘‘It Don’t Matter.’’ Many are concluding the same and their speech usually betrays them as well. Sadly, our churches and our pulpits often give the same message. You may find yourself in each of these categories to some degree or strongly attached to only one. Personally, I travel in approaches two and three and I have friends in each of them. But I think it is wrong of us to suppose that culture doesn’t matter or to think that the expressions of that culture are harmless. That’s why we all draw the line–somewhere!