Already Engaged: Churches Can’t Avoid Culture

Churches are either engaging culture effectively or ineffectively, but they are always engaging. It is a myth to think that a church can be above cultural engagement, free from it, or neutral to it. Every church, no matter its size, location, or philosophy of ministry, is culturally shaped. Churches that are opposed to cultural engagement or who resist the idea are not less shaped by culture, they are just being influenced more passively and therefore most likely less effective in communicating the gospel to the culture around them.

Some will disagree with the assertion that all churches are practicing some form of contextualization. They will say that they are pure and free from the influences of our fickle culture. They will insist that they are shaped by only the Bible. But I want to suggest that contextulization is actually inevitable. Tim Keller writes:

There is no one, single way to express the Christian faith that is universal for everyone in all cultures. As soon as you express the gospel you are unavoidably doing it in a way that is more understandable and accessible for people in some cultures and less for others….What should we conclude from this? If there is no single, context-free way to express the gospel then contextualization is inevitable. As soon as you choose a language to speak in and particular words to use within that language, the culture-lade nature of words comes into play. We often think that translating words from one language to another is simple – it’s just a matter of locating the synonyms. The word God is translated into German as Gott – simple enough. But the cultural history of German speakers is such that the word Gott strikes German ears differently than the English word God strikes the ears of English speakers. It means something different to them. You may need to do more explanation if you are to give German speakers the same biblical concept of God that the word conveys to English speakers. Or maybe a different word will have to be used to have the same effect. As soon as you choose words, you are contextualizing, and you become more accessible to some people and less so to others. There is no universal presentation of the gospel for all people. (93-94, Center church).

Don’t misunderstand Keller. He is not suggesting that there is no universal gospel for all people, that there is no universal truth. Rather he is suggesting that the way you present that uncompromising, universal truth of the gospel will always be contextually bound. Truth transcends culture, but our presentations of it are rooted in the culture.

The failure here is in our own blindness to cultural influence as much as it is into our own lack of adaptability. Without intentionally thinking about how to contextualize the gospel in your immediate context you will be unconsciously contextualized to some other context. Some churches who resist cultural relevance today are actually still culturally relevant, just to the context of the 1950s. But along with this come dangerous assumptions that the gospel and Biblical Christian living are synonymous with their cultural way of life. They don’t see how they are already contextually bound and therefore assume any variation in the way church or gospel presentation is done will compromise truth. Keller writes:

The subject of contextualization is particularly hard to grasp for members of socially dominant groups. Because ethnic minorities must live in two cultures – the dominant culture and their own subculture – they frequently become aware of how deeply culture affects the way we perceive things…In the United States, Anglo-Americans’ public and private lives are lived in the same culture. As a result, they are often culturally clueless. They relate to their own culture in the same way a fish that, when asked about water , said, “What’s water?” If you have never been out of water, you don’t know you are in it. Anglo Christians sometimes find talk of contextualization troubling. They don’t see any part of how they express or live the gospel to be “Anglo” – it is just the way things are. They feel that any change in how they preach, worship, or minister is somehow a compromise of the gospel. In this they may be doing what Jesus warns against – elevating the “traditions of men” to the same level as biblical truth (Mark 7:8). This happens when one’s cultural approach to time or emotional expressiveness or way to communicate becomes enshrined as the Christian way to act and live. (96)

Blindness to our cultural adaptivity may mean we have confused gospel truth with personal preference. That is indeed a dangerous place to be.

Of course along with this, come the obvious ways in which we fail to communicate the gospel to different cultures. We must be willing to contextualize our message to the people we meet. Otherwise we will completely miss the relevant questions of their culture and start answering things they didn’t ask. And in the process we will unintentionally suggest to them that the gospel is irrelevant. Every culture has a set of questions that they ask about life, self, death, etc. If we don’t know what those questions are, and how the universally relevant gospel answers those questions, then we will miss an opportunity. Contextualization is inevitable, but if we don’t do it intentionally we will be ineffective in ministry.

You can’t resist cultural engagement. You are already doing it, and you always will. The real issue to address is what culture are you engaging and how are you doing it. Tim Keller’s book Center Church is a great resource in helping you answer those questions and adjust your ministry. Whatever you do, though, don’t assume your own neutrality. You are always culturally engaged!

Comments

  1. It’s true that every church is influenced by the culture it’s in, but trying to stay relevant is certainly a mixed bag. Too many that try to stay “relevant” end up as rock concerts, entertainment hours, and all about the “what do I get out of it” factor.

    This is sadly relevant: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3RJBd8zE48A

    • Pastor Dave Online says:

      Yeah, that is an excellent point, Nephi. In his book Keller offers help on how to be Biblically balanced with contextualization.

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