Culture in Your Church

A church’s philosophy of mission is greatly influenced by how she views the culture around her. How a church views the culture around her will deeply impact how she responds to the community in which she is placed.

For centuries, Christians have debated what our response to the world around us should be. During the 1940s, Yale professor Richard Niebuhr gave a series of lectures on how Christians have responded to culture. His lectures became a classic book titled Christ and Culture. In the book, Niebuhr explains five common Christian responses to the world around us. While my brief take on the five common reactions to culture might differ somewhat from Niebuhr’s original lecture, I give him credit for providing a great framework for discussion. There are elements of truth in each view, but there is great danger in fully adopting most of the views. Your church operates predominantly from one of these views.

Christ above cultureThose with this view believe that Christians are above the culture; therefore, they do not need to engage the culture. While surely the values in Christ’s kingdom are more beautiful and praiseworthy than the values embraced in any earthly one, this view taken to an extreme leads to isolationism. While those who disengage from the world believe they are obeying God, they are living the antithesis of the gospel and Peter’s challenge to live good lives among those who do not know God (1 Peter 2:12). A church with this view will seek to offer a Christian equivalent for everything the world offers with the hope of removing people from the trappings of this world.

Christ of cultureWhile the first view often swings to fundamentalism, the second tends to swing to liberalism. People who adopt a “Christ of culture” view believe that Christ is fully in the culture. They believe because He is in every thought, every movie, every conversation, and every song, the culture can be fully embraced. While the first view compromises the mission of Christ, this view violates the holiness of Christ (James 4:4). A church with this view will see little distinction between the people of God and those who do not know Him.

Christ against culturePeople who are against the culture insist they have an assignment from God to attack the culture, to expose everything that is wrong with the context in which they live. They are similar to the “Christ above culture” group, but instead of choosing isolation, they picket and protest. While the spiritual life is portrayed as a battle throughout Scripture, the battle is against our own desires and against the powers of darkness, not against people (Ephesians 6:12). While there are times we must stand against cultural norms, those who live predominantly with this view fail to love people well.

Christ and culture in paradoxThose with this view attempt to live the paradox between citizenship in two kingdoms. During some moments, they live as citizens of God’s kingdom. At other moments, they walk as citizens of the world. Their values change with their surroundings. This view taken to extremes results in a schizophrenic faith.

Christ transforming culture: People with this view deeply believe that Christ is the missionary God who has the power to transform people and even cultures. Transformers neither isolate (above culture) nor compromise (of culture), but they seek to transform others.

One can see the five views at work in many situations. Let me give a hypothetical example to illustrate. Imagine a strip club or sex store moves into the community where the church abides. How do you respond?

“Christ above culture” (which as a daddy I understand) would print alternative driving directions in the bulletins so church members can avoid seeing the seedy spot. “Christ of culture” would not struggle with the establishment and may even embrace it. “Christ against culture” would picket. “Christ and culture in paradox” would simply live with the tension of two kingdoms colliding. “Christ transforming culture” would pray and seek wise and loving opportunities to serve those involved and affected by the establishment.

While there are times to speak against culture and times to avoid culture, I believe the dominant view for a church must be “Christ transforming culture.” The God who stepped into our culture to redeem us calls us to be a church on mission. A local community does not exist for the church’s sake. A local church must exist for the sake of the community.

Read more from Eric here.

Download PDF

Tags: , , ,

| What is MyVisionRoom? > | Back to Vision >


Eric Geiger

Eric Geiger serves as the Vice President of the Church Resource Division at LifeWay Christian Resources. Eric received his doctorate in leadership and church ministry from Southern Seminary. He is also a teaching pastor and a frequent speaker and consultant on church mission and strategy. Eric authored or co-authored several books including the best selling church leadership book, Simple Church. Eric is married to Kaye, and they have two daughters: Eden and Evie. During his free time, Eric enjoys dating his wife, playing with his daughters, and shooting basketball.

See more articles by >


What say you? Leave a comment!

Mr. will mancini — 10/23/12 6:06 am

This is a great summary of Richard Niebuhr's classic articulation. Thanks Eric!

Recent Comments
comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright
comment_post_ID); ?> "While I understand the intent behind this phrase" Expound please. What do you understand to be the intent behind that phrase?
— Ken

Clarity Process

Three effective ways to start moving toward clarity right now.