Engaging Culture

Do You Change Culture or Does Culture Change You?

As people of faith, we like to think that we actually impact culture.  But the truth is, historically speaking, it’s usually the other way around.  You’ve no doubt read the classic quote: “Christianity began as a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. When it went to Athens, it became a philosophy. When it went to Rome, it became an organization. When it went to Europe, it became a culture. When it came to America, it became a business.”  Over and over, it seems Christianity absorbs the surrounding culture, rather than Christianity transforming culture.

Libraries have been written on that issue, and we can’t adequately cover it here.  But I’m more interested in you.  How has it worked in your own life?   Everywhere I go I see people who have filtered their faith through the lens of rock & roll, Hollywood, business, family values, patriotism, media, traditions, sports, and more.  They live the life they want, and just surround themselves with a customized “lifestyle” edition of the Bible, Christian t-shirts, or the celebrity pastor of the moment.  They pick a local church based on “how much it ministers to me,” and support whatever social cause is trendy.

Culture has changed them.  Their faith is defined only in the context of a greater culture.  And the minute a little persecution happens, it’s the faith that gets tossed, not the rock & roll, social cause, or t-shirt.

I’m wondering what would happen to a generation that actually defined culture through the lens of their faith.  What if we practiced what we preach and stopped worrying if the clothes we preached in were cool?

What if instead of culture changing us, we actually changed culture?  

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  1. I’m so glad to see this discussion! No doubt each of us has been affected by our culture and had an effect too. My prayer is for Christian poets and writers from all denominations to see our work as a God-given opportunity to bring healing hope to secular society and to help the sometimes dis-membered Body of Christ re-member who and whose we are. Perhaps then we can reassemble ourselves and our thinking to receive the restoration we need to be empowered as a forgiven, forgiving, Christ-centered influence in the world, the church, and our own homes.

  2. I so agree!   Perhaps culture is really looking for goodness on a micro level.  One good marriage, a great neighbor, an honest colleague…  (as opposed to “relevant” hoopla).  Going against the mainstream you describe is tough, but rewarding.

  3. There perhaps is a fine line between syncretism and being fluid in the human culture indigenous to where you live. I love what Len Sweet said last week… “We need to be in tune with Jesus and in touch with the culture” where he warned as you seem to be warning many are “in tune with culture and in touch with Jesus.”

    If not change, our only choice seems to avoid it and not be tainted by the world around us. Did Hudson Taylor when he dyed his hair and learned Chinese succumb to culture or did he impact China with the gospel and change culture? So, the question is whether I can do that? I

  4. To “go against the mainstream” is a lost concept in American Cultural Christianity for the most part. It’s easy to rail against “the world”, while being a part of the business-of-Christianity which is prevalent in American faith circles. I suppose that is why so many people do it – all the while missing that the very people Jesus worked hardest to expose were the religious leaders of the day.

  5. When it came to America, it became a business.”

    Some people are so concerned about how eastern culture is penetrating Christians’ ideologies, but they fail to recognize how western culture has perverted the western Christian’s ideology already.  

    Me?  I’m part of a church that is trying to do just what you’ve suggested.  As a community, we have an ongoing conversation about how to ensure that we live lives that affect culture, and are not affected by our culture (to what extent it is possible).

  6. Good post Phil. 

    I like the MESSAGE Bible’s version of Roman’s 12:2. “Don’t become so well adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without thinking.”  Our greatest challenge?  – moving thoughtlessly through an Americanized version of the faith.

    I constantly ask myself if I’m bringing the kingdom to the culture or the culture to the kingdom.  The more aware of that we become and the more responsive to God in the process – the more we’ll change the culture.

  7. Great post!  I just finished a project this week on the media’s effect on culture and what the church’s reponse should be.  I argued that the media through access and repetition does infleuence culture, and that the church rather than try to lure people to it’s doors should meet culture at it’s well, the media (social & mainstream media), and confront it with truth. I also argued that the church has a responsibility to influence culture. David Wells author of Above all Earthly Powers suggests that the church has decided that to be succesful they need to be like the culture. He said that they should instead cognitively confront the culture’s emerging worldview on the basis of theological truth. 

    I also agree with David Wellls that to be like culture the church is shying away from anything overtly Christian or religious in its interaction with culture. It is no wonder we have become ineffective and seemingly irrelevant.  The message of Christ is counter culture and the moment we shy away from being different than the culture around us, and attempt to fit in, we loose our authenticity and any hope of offering culture any viable cure or answer to what ails it.

    We sometimes allow the pressure of cultural shifts and pundits to bully us into diluting truth and altering our personal convictions or moral code.  We are so afraid that if we state truth as presented in the bible that we will be accused of being bigots, loose our audience or popularity. For instance one preacher was hesitant to answer definitively when asked on national tv if there are many ways to heaven. He was hesitant to say Jesus is the only way by which one can receive eternal life. We need to stop being cultural chameleon’s! Culture is not supposed to be comfortable with theological truth.  They never have been. Hebrews talks about people who were persecuted and murdered for their faith. Loosing popularity or being bashed publicly for our faith may be unpleasant and hurt but it is a far cry from being turtured and murdered because of it.  There needs to be a wind of change in the church’s interaction with culture and it begins with each of us in our own sphere of influence. It is so easy to be tempted to be embarrased about what we believe as Christians because it is so foreign to current cultural trends. But with God’s help and a resolve to do so, we can stand up and be counted among them which are sanctified in our everday life. As you may tell you have struck a chord so I will just have to stop here untill next time. 😀  Thanks again for the food for thought!

  8. Wonderfully encouraging!

    It seems a simple thing to “love not the world, nor the things that are in it.” It only seems costly to those who consider the things in this world, and the esteem of this world, of value. Once you realize your backpack is full of dirt, you can set it down pretty easily. It is much easier when you don’t have so much at stake to encourage you to stay with the world. The poor, the old, the wounded–these are blessed to have so little motivation to choose the world.

    It seems (to me) more difficult to live a holy life conformed to God than to live a life that does not conform to the world. This temptation is the plight of even the poor, the old, and the wounded. We can come apart from the world, and still love ourselves, still indulge ourselves, still refuse to deny ourselves and take up our cross.

    In the end, we do need to do both things. To walk away from what tghe world values and to be confoirmed to a life that is holy, loving, generous, unselfish. I can’t tell you why so few do so in every generation. But Jesus knew, and told us, that few would walk that path.

    May God bless your labors, and the labors of those who added their responses.

  9. Very though provoking as always. I truly believe that our job is to follow Christ’s example as closely as possible. The beauty of it all is that we all become a unique interpretation of that model expressed through our ethnicity, cultural expression, attitudes, creativity, education, gifting & so forth. I do not think we can solely impact the culture, but can be effective collectively. As we each engage that which we identify with most. I don’t make it my job to impact all, but to impact some. And be transformational through Christ’s example.

    I think the best way to change the culture is to walk it out amongst them.

  10. I like to think that faith actually has shaped my culture. I’ve gone from the guy always in a suit, rubbing shoulders with politicians and businessmen, to realizing more important things in life as defined by Christ. Putting others first, serving, helping the poor. I’ve become less in tune with what’s happening “inside the beltway” and more with the plight of those in poverty. This has lead me to organizations such as Compassion, Living Water, and TOMS Shoes. It is a very different culture, but one that I embrace, as I was driven to it by faith first.

  11. I think that before we can even begin to think about changing the things around us, we first have to walk our own talk. Words alone end up being just sounds coming out of our mouths, while our actions end up revealing what’s truly in our hearts and minds.

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