September 25, 2018 Jenson Metcalf

Should the Church Merge with Culture?

What is the current relationship between church and culture?

This question has been asked many times throughout history and is not a new subject per se, but rather a question that supersedes the general relationship of church and culture. This question is specifically orientated for the church and its current cultural context. We stand in a vital cultural moment where the church’s impact extends beyond the local community into spheres of the world where high-class celebrities are proclaiming not only Christ, but their membership to a church. It’s truly an amazing time, but some remain concerned over how the Church relates to culture in this consumeristic modern world.

We stand in a vital cultural moment where the church’s impact extends beyond the local community into spheres of the world where high-class celebrities are proclaiming not only Christ, but their membership to a church.

To advance the initial question more purposefully: does the relationship between church and culture perpetuate materialism in the church?

Richard Niebuhr’s theory on “Christ and Culture” has been around for several decades, but present discussion should be held contextualizing this idea. In his book Christ and Culture, Niebuhr discusses multiple different perspectives on how we as the Church may interact with culture around us, then presents how he believes we should be doing so. The two theories from his writings emphasized in this article are “Christ of culture” and “Christ transforming culture.”

“Christ of culture” suggests that the church and culture should have no tension between their relationship. It’s the idea that the church should participate in culture because Christ is “the great enlightener, the great teacher, the one who directs all men in culture to the attainment of wisdom, moral perfection, and peace.” We should trust that culture shifts in the way that Christ would have it.

“Christ transforming culture” is based around the idea that God’s sovereignty controls culture, but that sin has corrupted it, and thus requires a constant transformation through the healing grace of Christ. Neibuhr believes this theory to be the correct way of viewing the church in relationship to culture.

In the church today, we can see an attempt at practicing a “Christ transforming culture” method of ministry, but, in reality, it falls into a “Christ of culture” mentality. We see this in the form of materialism caused by the churches who participate in the consumerist nature of society. When you walk into a modern charismatic church of today, you may see young individuals wearing “trendy” fashion, visual spectacles that imitate a U2 concert, and an overall imitation of pop-culture amenities. It’s understandable to believe that these characteristics are intended to create a relevant environment that attracts the contemporary American, but at what cost do we participate in such a form of evangelism? We see an example of this in an interview conducted by Vice News with a certain “celebrity pastor,” as we may call them now.

In the church today, we can see an attempt at practicing a “Christ transforming culture” method of ministry, but, in reality, it falls into a “Christ of culture” mentality. We see this in the form of materialism caused by the churches who participate in the consumerist nature of society.

Here is what was said:

Interviewer: “Do you think Jesus would have worn Rick Owens?”

Pastor: “Often people ask about that, the fashion stuff. And the only reason why they ask [is] cause they they’re just not used to seeing a church where people look like normal people. So, if you come into our church, we already win, because I look just like you. I have regular stuff on.”

Interviewer: “You have Rick Owens on, we talked about this.”

To give perspective, Rick Owens shoes are designer shoes with the cheapest shoes for men on their website being $400 sandals. Later in the conversation they talk about the church’s role in culture and the pastor is then quoted saying, “Just because we connect to culture, doesn’t mean we’ve sold out to culture.” American society, though, and particularly pop-culture, is built on the foundation of consumerism and a desire which coincides with materialism. Therefore, living in excess individually and especially as the Body of Christ IS selling out to culture.

American society, though, and particularly pop-culture, is built on the foundation of consumerism and a desire which coincides with materialism. Therefore, living in excess individually and especially as the Body of Christ IS selling out to culture.

Many of the churches where we see such behavior taking place (large amounts of excess in personal and church activity) are successful in terms of attendance, chiefly in cities within the Western world that are considered “secular” hubs. But, are we stewarding these communities well when we do sell out to cultural habits such as materialism? How can we then reach culture while truly not succumbing to it?

An example of a pastor and church that is trying to accomplish such a task is Francis Chan and his “We are Church” movement. Despite one’s views on Chan’s theological standpoints, Pastor Chan presents a perspective on church and materialism that is clear and concise to how Jesus has called Christ-followers to be disciples. The “We are Church” movement only meet in houses with groups no larger than 30-50 people. When they reach a larger capacity, they start another house church. One of the main purposes for doing this pertains to financial means. Wearechurch.com says regarding these home meetings,

“Far too often, reliance on buildings means a big budget increase in order to have church growth.  By meeting in homes and having no church building, we have the option to scale exponentially without increasing our budget by much.  We also set ourselves up for using our financial resources more strategically for local and global missions.”

This exemplifies how the corporate church can exist to transform culture in the simplistic way of living how Jesus calls us to. It is important that we also recognize the individual responsibility we have with the Body of Christ to live simply as an attempt to continually transform culture. Jesus is clear with how and why we must do this in Luke 12:33 and Luke 14:33. We also see Jesus giving a strong emphasis on the same topic in the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 6:19-24.

It is important that we also recognize the individual responsibility we have with the Body of Christ to live simply as an attempt to continually transform culture.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s dissection of this portion of Scripture is lasting commentary that still holds true today. He states,

“Worldly possessions tend to turn the hearts of the disciples away from Jesus. What are we really devoted to? That is the question. Are our hearts set on earthly goods? Do we try to combine devotion to them with loyalty to Christ? Or are we devoted exclusively to Him? The light of the body is the eye, and the light of the Christian is his heart. If the eye be dark, how great is the darkness of the body! But the heart is dark when it clings to earthly good, for then, however urgently Jesus may call us, His call fails to find access to our hearts.” (The Cost of Discipleship, Pg. 174)

As a church and as individuals within the Body of Christ, the intent to contextualize Jesus’ message contrary to a materialistic church must actualize. A healthy church can exist apart from participating in consumeristic activisms that revolve around outward expenditures toward more lights, more trendy clothing, and more digital outputs. While these expenditures might be coming from right motivations, it is the church’s responsibility to evaluate if they align with Jesus’ core message. We need not side closer to materialism merely to be relevant or to be acceptable spiritual advisers in the eyes of Christ. In the same way, the church would do well to ask themselves this question: has our loyalty to the cultural trends trumped our loyalty to the simplistic living of being a disciple of Christ? Through the leading of the Holy Spirit, Scripture, and dialogue, it remains the church’s obligation to determine where their values lie in relation to culture.

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Niebuhr, H. Richard. Christ and Culture. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. London: SCM Press, 2015.

Luke 12:33, 14:33 (NIV)

Matthew 6:19-24 (NIV)

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About the Author

Jenson Metcalf Jenson Metcalf is a Practical Ministry student in the Barnett College of Ministry & Theology at Southeastern University. Along with being an editor for Ecclēsiam, he is also a graphic designer for the external marketing department at SEU. Jenson is an advocate of simple living and minimalism, coffee enthusiast, and loves his home state of Arizona.