There’s lots of talk about the gospel and culture / contextualization. Sometimes the discussion is lost on me, particularly when it sounds like we’re just outsmarting ourselves and (seemingly) over-complicating, therefore diluting, the gospel message. That said, understanding the culture that we’re in is quite crucial for effective ministry.
Each of our cities and towns have primary and secondary cultures. We can make generalized statements about regions and cities in our country, but there’s always another set of sub-cultures running around. As our major cities are going through a re-urbanization, the increase of diverse cultures follows. We would be wise to notice the primary and “sub” cultures all around us.
One thing I’ve realized in serving in a predominantly southern (SEC in particular) culture is that the gospel message is often diluted by the veneer of gospel ministries and the assumption of known language. See, language is at the center of the culture, even the major defining factor of a culture. Certainly, from primary languages you can understand more about the specific cultures by their dialects and vernacular speech. We must understand the language of the culture we live in in order to communicate with them the message of gospel that is for every culture on the planet.
Clarity is needed.
Many have said that we live in a post-christian age, and this is on the heals of all the post-modernity speak. I suppose one could argue that the more “modern” we’ve become, the less “Christian” we’ve become…as a society. This may be true in large part, and it certainly exposes the need to be clear in our understanding of the gospel and the definitions of the words necessary to explain the gospel.
Recently I spent a good deal of time in Boulder, Colorado visiting with several church leaders about culture, Christianity, and church planting. What I witnessed and understood more about this eclectic city is just how rabidly individualized the people are, as well as how pre-Christian the culture seems to be.
What do I mean about pre-Christian? In a recent conference call with a pastor in Las Vegas, he attached that phrase to his setting. His understanding of the culture as pre-Christian really intrigued me and it made a lot of sense both descriptively and prescriptively in biblical implication and application. To know that the culture indeed may have a spiritual dynamic, yet knows nothing of Christianity, including her terms, is of vital importance. To preach and live the gospel, no assumptions can be made in a pre-Christian society.
You really don’t have to look much further than the cultures that were addressed in the New Testament epistles. The gospel of Jesus Christ was proclaimed simply and pointedly from the scriptures. Those who wanted to know more were focused on, then some believed and some didn’t. Where there were believers, churches were started with simple structures, but with qualified men. Church was highly relational, messy, and explicitly gospel focused. People knew the culture of their churches because they lived there and loved there. The churches were inclusive enough for all to hear and be welcome, yet exclusive enough for only baptized believers to share in covenant life together. The leaders had to know Christ’s teachings well enough to promote the clear gospel and protect against error…but, while error was not acceptable, the church communities invited people who didn’t have all their theological ducks in a row. Again, robustly biblical, yet messy. Frankly, you can’t out-structure or out-strategize error, meaning you can’t setup some overly rigid structure that rules out error just so everything stays neat and tidy. You have to have simple structures and strategies so real communication and real relationships are fostered, where truth and error are addressed in love.
Enter Cormac McCarthy and Bryan Litfin.
McCarthy and Litfin are both writers. McCarthy has written some of the most graphic period pieces (Blood Meridian, Border Trilogy) and descriptive dystopian works (The Road) that you will find in modern literature. Litfin is a theologian and professor at The Moody Institute in Chicago and has written The Chiveis Trilogy, which deals largely with what would happen if, after an apocalyptic event, the Word of God was freshly discovered and how would it effect society.
Two quick admissions… I’ve not read fiction well, and I particularly loathe Christian fiction. That said, I’ve taken to reading more of McCarthy and have read Litfin’s trilogy. For different reasons I like them both, with Litfin probably being the biggest surprise.
So, why do I mention these authors and their works? Well, it goes back to the original question, “When does post-Christian become pre-Christian?” See, in order to plant churches and revitalize gospel witness in our present cultures, we need to understand something of what we’re dealing with. The thought that occurred to me that to argue if something is “post” or “pre” Christian is likened to arguing over the advancement of technology in a society that has had an apocalyptic event and is devoid of all electricity two generations prior. While knowing the historical facts may prove helpful in restoring electricity, the truth is by the time the discussion is had, the people have learned to live without it.
My contention is that, without over-generalizing, much of the cultures we are dealing with, particularly out west, are pre-Christian now, but have been formerly post-Christian, with the transformation occurring from some culturally apocalyptic events. I won’t take the time here to address the varied events, though they are important, the larger thought is that with the speed of change, technology, and information we have seen much of our country move from post to pre-Christian at a very fast clip.
We must respond with a biblical response. Without using terms like “missional” or “gospel-centered” whatever, we need to be explicitly clear with our terms, unabashedly simple in our church structures, and focused intently on what it simply means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ gathered in local communities call churches.
See, the way we deal with such changing cultures is not to focus on their varied influences, though this has great import. The emphasis is to know who YOU are as a Christian and as a church. You are not going to out-savvy the locals with your cultural IQ and witticisms. You must be biblically distinct in your love for God and His church, while living in and loving where you live. Overly simplistic, I know, but this is what is called for in the cultural confusion of the day.
Two quick suggestions…
1) Where you are… Step out of your sub-culture comfort zone to get some “fresh eyes” on the present situation you’re REALLY living in. Remember what it is about the place that you love and pray for spiritual eyes to love the people in your midst.
2) Where you are going… Maybe you’re moving or heading into a different place to plant a church. First, make sure you are equipped with the Scriptures in truth and love, which will carry you across any culture. Secondly, spend some time in the next context, either in the exact context or one as near it as you can get, to get a handle on what biblical discipleship looks like, sounds like, is perceived like in the new context. This may mean church planting takes longer, and has a slower response rate. Thirdly, love your spouse. Every context has marriage, and even though marriage by biblical definitions is taking cultural hits right now, that doesn’t change that your marriage should emulate the gospel in any context you live in. Lastly, abide. Your love for God (and His Word) is what is necessary for effective ministry and endurance. Read Psalm 19…memorize it, pray it.
I realize this is a much bigger discussion than what’s been posted here, and much of this is merely a conversation starter. However, the need for us to understand our cultures that we live in is important, but HOW you live in that culture as a biblical disciple of Christ is vital.