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Culture and the Church

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Should the church adapt to its culture? This is the question many concerned Christians are asking as they struggle for relevance in the world.

The Emerging Church Movement answers this question with a resounding yes. Its leaders would rather embrace culture than run from it, which is what many Christians appear to be doing. They say the traditional church is not reaching the lost, and it’s hard to argue with them. The percentage of people who call themselves some type of Christ has dropped more than 11 percent in a generation. When it comes to New Testament churches, we have not even been able to keep pace with the U.S. population, growing an abysmal 1.6 percent since 1980. Emergents say Christians must look more like the world around them if they are going to reach the lost.

The idea that God’s people need to adapt to their culture is nothing new. At the end of the period of the judges, Israel approached Samuel in his old age and said, “Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations” (1 Sam. 8:5). Samuel read their request as a rejection of his leadership, but God revealed that it was more than that. “They have not rejected you,” he said, “but they have rejected me” (1 Sam. 8:7). It seems, at least from this example, that God’s people must consider more than culture as they approach their world. In some cases, embracing culture means rejecting God.

When you think about it, culture is a shaky foundation for churches. Our world is constantly changing. What happens to the church that adapts to its culture when the styles change in twenty years? When culture is the main consideration, Christians lose their footing.

Furthermore, there is the problem of compromise. The church is necessarily caught in a tension of trying to reach the world without becoming a part of it. Jesus knew the challenge, calling his disciples to be in the world, but not of the world (Jn. 17:15-16).

Perhaps we should listen to the strategy of the most successful evangelist in history, the apostle Paul. Writing to the church at Corinth, he said, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). At first this sounds like adapting to the culture is Paul’s primary concern. But then he says, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:23). Here is the secret to how far we may go in our quest for relevance. We must not forget the reason why Christ left us in the world in the first place. We are here to preach the gospel. If we adapt the church until it becomes another part of the world, we have failed our mission. The gospel is our anchor in changing tides. As long as it is central to our efforts, we won’t make the mistake of our Israelite forerunners.

Looking for new ways to reach the lost is fine. We just need to keep our mission before us so that we don’t find ourselves in a senseless exercise of attracting our neighbors by reject the God who sent us to rescue them.