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April 4, 2016

4 Ways Christians Respond to Culture

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When it comes to taking a position on culture, Christians, in my experience, tend to fall into one of four groups. I first pondered this after reading a book by Richard Niebuhr, who taught at Yale and wrote Christ and Culture in 1951. Niebuhr outlines the four buckets differently (and adds a fifth bucket), but it’s the same idea. 

1. Withdraw from it.

Christians in this first group think that culture is so worldly and so wicked that the only way to preserve their spiritual purity is to avoid participating in the culture as much as possible. They may critique culture among themselves or they may simply try to cocoon themselves apart from it. But in any case, they don’t want to have much to do with it.

Social media evidence: They may not be on social media, but if they are, everything they’re posting involves other Christians. In other words, their social media won’t change much in heaven or on earth.

Implications for work: People with this attitude toward culture usually think that the only way to activate the gospel at work is to take a job in a Christian company or organization. If they work for a “secular” company, their only “sacred” objective is to get a chance to talk about Jesus with coworkers and customers; the job itself is just a means to a paycheck.

2. Look down on it.

Andy Crouch wrote, “If we are known mostly for our ability to poke holes in every human project, we will probably not be known as people who bear the hope and mercy of God.” Rather than turning their backs on culture, Christians in this second group look down their noses at it. These people take a superior attitude toward what’s going on in the general society and engage in “culture wars.” In a way that’s often more unkind and arrogant than they realize, they like to point out what is wrong in the culture around them and why their way is better. (It’s not an attitude that’s well received by non-Christians!)

Social media evidence: These are culture war posters—shouting at the enemy of secular culture from a distance with a bullhorn. “Look how bad the world is!”

Implications for work: Those who take this position with regard to culture are not going to have much influence within their companies, since others will see them as the opposite of team players. What they’re offering isn’t constructive criticism but merely criticism. They are branded for being negative and judgmental, and often have a hard time keeping a good job.

3. Go along with it.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the first two groups are those Christians who actually take their lead from culture. These may be uncritical folks, never having taken the trouble to examine culture biblically. They may simply prefer to avoid the hard work and potential conflict of doing things differently from the mass of humanity. They may even have theological reasons for arguing that the current trend of culture (whatever that may be at a given time) is what God wants. In any case, they endorse and embrace pretty much whatever is going on in society.  This is dangerous because, as Russell Moore writes in his book Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, “A church that loses its distinctiveness is a church that has nothing distinctive with which to engage the culture. . . . A worldly church is of no good to the world.”

Social media evidence: These folks don’t stand out from the culture around them on social media. The kinds of things they talk about, link to, and share reflects their alignment with modernity more than their faith.

Implications for work: The go-with-the-flow types aren’t going to ever stand out from the crowd with their faith and convictions. Their motivation for all things work, performance, and identity is made of the same fiber as the culture itself. They have plenty of audience but very little message when it comes to gospel delivery in any measure.

4. Transform it.

Finally, some followers of Jesus, rather than holding themselves separate from culture (group 1), trying to make others feel badly about culture (group 2), or accepting culture unquestioningly (group 3), try to transform culture—that is, infuse it with the truth and values of Jesus. They understand that they must be enough like their culture to have audience but enough different to have message. They live and work with the catalytic vision of being salt, light, and the sweet perfume that, over time, changes everything it touches.

Social media evidence: They’re constantly sharing good and influential ideas.  Some of these will be faith-based but all of them will be challenging and born out of a desire to improve things, not simply to say things. They want to add value, and they aspire to leave each day improved by their digital touch points.

Implications for work: The position toward culture that these people hold opens up all sorts of potential for doing good. Christians in this group recognize that work is, in itself, good. They also try to bend the ways they go about doing it to make it even better, bringing God’s common grace to bear for the common good—and bringing uncommon glory to God in the process. 

They’re asking the questions of “How can we use this to improve lives?” in a way similar to what Tim Keller says in this Q conference talk: “Culture making is taking the raw material that God has made, and the potentials in that material, and drawing the potentials out and rearranging the material for human flourishing and human thriving as God defines it.”

Andy Crouch, in his book Culture Making, reminds us that culture is really made up of lots of specific artifacts—music, clothing, books, movies, ads, automobiles, food, furniture, architecture, humor, and so much more. Therefore, through the goods and services we create in our work lives, we have an opportunity to add positive cultural artifacts to the total. It’s all about going into work with the attitude of a joyful creator and cultivator. So, Crouch asks, are we thinking about what we can do to create our cultural artifacts in such a way that Jesus is honored?

Richard Niebuhr wrote about the role of each perspective in history and the value of each position.  (You can read more on his work here.

As Chuck Colson once said, “Christians are called to redeem entire cultures, not just individuals.”

What is your approach to engaging your culture? 

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