From Potter to Gaga: Responding to Culture

Culture is unavoidable and experienced by every person. Before divining into the waters that be culture, let’s give due time to what it is. Culture has been defined by Dr. Young (President of Denver Theological Seminary) as, “the organized and integrated expression through a set of agreed upon symbols for a group of people’s perceived common good.”[1]  Another says, “more or less integrated systems of beliefs, feelings, and values, and there associated symbols, patterns of behavior, and products shared by a group of people.”[2] From these definitions, we can begin to grasp a few key attributes of culture. We see that culture encompasses agreement of actions and structures within a community. There is shared values and actions demonstrated in participation and not individualism.

For years, Christians have had mixed opinions about culture, particularly for conservative evangelicalism in the United States. Conservatives have typically viewed culture as evil or something to avoid or misinterpreted a culture, leaving the gospel minimally effective. Whether it has been boycotting a popular children’s movie producing studio or standing in a picket line of a concert of a most hated music performer, there is a fear of the culture they live in. Why the avoidance? Perhaps Christians run from culture because of the possible negative influence. However one feels about culture, we must realize that this avoidance of culture has unnecessarily slowed missionary efforts. The culture avoider must reinterpretation culture and its meaning within Christianity in order to bolster their own missional efforts. We can no longer depend on individuals to walk through the church doors when they are ready.

What should the conservative evangelicalism response be toward culture? It is too embrace culture as there mission field and expressed images of God. Dr. Kreider (Professor at Dallas Theological Seminary) has noted that, “The fingerprint of God is seen in culture.” Since we all have been created in the image of God, his thumb print is all over. Culture should not be feared, but interacted with and accepted with Christ like attitude. Although culture avoiders fear culture, it is a necessary avenue by which the gospel must travel. Again, Dr. Young summarizes well, “We understood the gospel in a cultural setting, and every generation also will understand the gospel in a cultural setting.”[3]

Appropriate responses toward culture:

  1. Response of Servanthood and Love: Philippians 2:4-8 “Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but about the interests of others as well.  You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross! (NET)” It is no mystery that Christ was sent as a servant to those who did not deserve to be served. Christians are called to serve people founded in culture different from their own. Christians are also called to love their neighbor. Shunning or avoiding a culture is simply unbiblical, for Jesus was continually intercepting his culture. How can we reach out to those who we know nothing about? How can you reach out to that person sitting in the chair at Starbucks, serve the person in another cubical, or help a neighbor you have never met?
  2. Communicating the Gospel: Christians have to know the culture where they live in order to communicate the gospel. The majority of the bible is narrative, which were associated with cultural customs. Contemporary culture has different customs, which need the same truth from the stories of the gospel. Knowing the culture gives Christians the opportunity to connect with unbelievers in friendship, which allows for trust. The gospel message is much more palatable with trust. What cultural popularity can you acquaint yourself with in order to connect with others?
  3. Allow for cultural secondaries: It is troubling when missionaries, in a culture foreign to their own, forfeit the Gospel in keeping with secondary Christian practices. Economic and social structures, pointing toward the common good, contradict a Christian’s firmly held conviction from scripture i.e. drinking, dancing, or music with drums. When planting a church or doing ministry in another culture, one must be aware not to make social qualifications for being a Christian. Social and economic structures may be so strong as to dwarf the new church, giving Christianity a weak voice in the community. Likewise, Christians must allow for the transforming power of the Word of God in a believers life. Giving suggestions to new believers and guiding their spiritual growth is excellent. Christians must allow for the Word of God to be interpreted and understood in other cultures.

[1] Mark Young, “Models of Culture: Video 1,” in Unit 12: Video 1 (2007).

[2] Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement : A Reader, 3d ed. (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1999).

[3] Young, “Models of Culture: Video 1.”