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church and culture

In a recent E4U class on the book of Acts, I talked about how the apostle Paul varied his method but stayed true to his message.

A good example of this is in Acts 17.  While in Thessalonica, he visits the synagogue and uses the Hebrew Scriptures to proclaim Jesus.  The Jewish synagogue was a familiar place to Paul, who was raised as a “Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee of Pharisees.”  With a primarily Jewish audience, Paul uses methods familiar to his audience.  Even though his methods/reasoning reflected his audience, his message remained simple: Jesus is the Christ.

Later in the same chapter, he stops in Athens and finds himself in the marketplace of ideas. I love how Luke describes the Athenians: “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (Acts 17:21).  Sounds like a typical Dr. Phil audience.

In his address to the Athenians, Paul tells the story of creation without quoting the Genesis record, he acknowledges their religious curiosity without condemning it, and he even pulls a quote from their own pop culture.  Yet, his message ends with a clear call to make a decision about Jesus.

Two places, two cultures, different methods, same message.

Churches have historically wrestled with what to do about culture and have opted for one of three basic approaches:

  1. Withdraw from culture altogether.
  2. Dive into culture completely.
  3. Use what is good from culture and stand for what needs to be redeemed, reformed, or simply thrown out.

The difficulty lies in knowing what is negotiatable (musical styles, places, times) and what is non-negotiable (virgin birth, resurrection, authority of Scripture).  We get into trouble when we take something from the negotiable bucket and make it non-negotiable.  It’s why we may walk into a worship service and feel like we’ve stepped into a time machine and walked into the 1950’s.

We also get in trouble when we take items from the non-negotiable table and put them in the negotiable category.  What a person or church believes no longer matters; all opinions are equally valid.  Jesus may not be the only option, just a good option.

Healthy churches live in the tension between methods and message, between what is good in culture and what needs to be challenged.  It’s a tension that ought to be welcomed because it keeps us from getting lazy — from just assuming what we’ve done will always work.  It forces us to continually make a sound case for what we believe.

It’s not always easy, but it’s always worth it.