Text: Matthew 5:13-16; 1 Corinthians 1:22-25 | Listen to Message
It’s the most oft-repeated summary of a Christian’s relationship with culture: “We are to be in the world but not of it.”
On its face, this simple statement implies some level of engagement balanced with some level of separation (or Christian distinctiveness). So far so good. But in countless everyday activities extrapolated out over many years, that one basic principle has been applied many different – even mutually exclusive – ways by good and godly people.
Rather than claiming to know who’s right and who’s wrong, we prefer to recognize the kernel of biblical truth in each position, point out some dangers inherent in the extremes of each position, and determine to pursue a biblically balanced and nuanced approach to culture.
First, it’s probably helpful to note that Christians don’t even have a settled language that defines all of the possible responses to culture. H. Richard Niebuhr lists five in his foundational work Christ & Culture, while other influential Christian authors list as few as three or as many as six or eight.
Tim Keller lists four “models” in Center Church: Two Kingdoms, Relevance, Transformationist, and Counterculturalist.
For the sake of this brief survey, we’ll mostly reference Andy Crouch’s four “postures” in Culture Making: condemning, critiquing, copying, and consuming.
Perhaps one of Crouch’s most valuable observations is to point out that each of these responses is appropriate under particular circumstances, but that none should be the only way we know how to respond to culture. In other words, these are all useful as gestures but dangerous as settled postures.
For example, it’s completely appropriate for a Christian to condemn sex trafficking, abortion on demand, or a public policy that reinforces race-based discrimination. But if you’re always and only condemning and critiquing, you’re not being faithful to your Gospel calling to be salt and light, an ambassador for Christ, and an agent of hope and grace. In fact, you’ll just come across as arrogant, close-minded, and shrill.
On the other hand, because of common grace there are plenty of things a Christian can either consume or copy from culture. You are free to enjoy beautiful art and architecture, delicious cuisine, public works for the common good, and acts of charity – even if they were produced by non-Christians! But if you’re always and only consuming and copying, you will find yourself celebrating and enjoying things that God has called you to be set apart from.
So beware taking a simplistic, dogmatic, reductionist approach to any of these positions, models, or postures. Seek biblical wisdom about when to confront and when to affirm – or even enjoy – culture. As a rule, without compromising the Gospel, err on the side of being winsome, curious, positive, and engaged.
Next, learn to exegete Scripture and culture side by side. First and foremost it is your business to know the heart and mind of Christ. But you also need to be a student of the world around you. What questions are your neighbors asking? What stories are they telling? How do they make sense of the pain and brokenness of our world? What do they believe is the solution? Who are their heroes and villains? And why?
Your goal in immersing yourself in both the Word of God and culture is to give a clear, attractive, biblically faithful, Gospel-centered answer to the questions, hopes, and beliefs of the culture.
Finally, recognize that a Christian response to culture goes beyond reactive gestures, no matter how appropriate they might be. We are called to proactively cultivate and create new culture that embodies the hope and values of Jesus!
Christians today are best known for what we’re against, not for what we’re actually for. That in itself is an indication we’ve done too much criticizing and condemning and not enough cultivating and creating. If we are to be a city on a hill, we must create both a distinctly Christian counterculture and cultural artifacts that are formed for the common good. Ultimately, we’re not trying to win a culture war; we’re trying to invite others to repent and believe in Jesus.