We can debate for days when Christianity began to take that deep dive into a lack of influence. We can ramble statistics, point to a presidency, or even start blaming society for the downward spiral of our cultural influence. For as long as I can remember, all I have heard from the Church is “counter-cultural this” and “we need to stand counter-culturally against that.” Did we ever stop to think that all this counter cultural mumbo jumbo is actually hurting our message of the grace of God, rather than helping it? The truth is we were never called to be counter-cultural. We were called for something else.
Let me lay some quick groundwork here before anyone gets it twisted. I am not saying the Church should bend to every whim of culture’s call. There are certain things scripture calls us to stand against, but it never calls us to stand against culture as a whole. Rather it calls us to influence it and impact it.
I’m not here to talk about singular topics today. I’m here to talk about our overall stance as the Church. (Not a church, the Church as a whole).
The standard Christian go to for counter culturalism comes from a misinterpretation of John 17:16 when Jesus says,
They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.
We have taken this to mean that since we are not of the world, we condemn and stand against everything that is. The church has used its misinterpretation to build four walls around itself, and segregate itself from the very culture it is meant to influence. The problem that has arisen is that we have taken this piece of scripture out of context, and failed to read it in light of the preceding text (v15).
I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one.
Jesus was saying “stay put in your culture.” Paul put it even clearer when he said it this way,
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. – Ephesians 6:12
We are not fighting against music, politicians, or plants that make you see pink elephants. We are fighting against the darkness and evil forces that seek to hinder and destroy the Kingdom of God.
If we are countercultural, how come we do almost everything the rest of culture does? We buy the latest Iphone, go to the same grocery stores, buy the same clothes, and on, and on. In The Patient Ferment of The Early Church (p96-97) Alan Kreider shares a quote from Tertullian in reference to the very idea of not being counter cultural, but permeating culture.
We are not Brahmans, naked sages of India, forest-dwellers, exiles from life. We remember that we owe gratitude to God, the Lord, the creator. We reject no fruit of His labors…So, not without your forum, not without your meat-market, not without your baths, shops, factories, your inns and market-days, and the rest of the life of buying and selling, we live with you—in this world [in hoc saeculo]. We sail ships, we as well as you, and along with you; we serve in the army [militmus], go to the country, to market with you. Our arts and yours work together; our labour is openly at your service. – Tertullian
We are called to be ambassadors of heaven, and bring heaven to earth. How can we effectively influence a culture with heaven’s reality when we are always bashing it?
In her book Changing Signs of Truth (p28) Crystal Downing put it this way:
For only by loving culture can we become effective communicators within it. – Crystal Downing
Missionaries don’t go to another continent to bash the culture they are trying to reach. They learn the ways of the culture and speak to the people through it.
The culture in which Jesus lived was a socio-political-religiously saturated one. Everything in the Jewish society that he dwelt within was about the elevation of the Religious elite; the separation of the socio-religious “muts” (Samaritans); and the hatred of the Roman political system.
He didn’t attack the culture He lived in. He rebuked the spirits of elitism, sectarianism, judgmentalism, and the systematic oppression of the very nature of God from the people of God.
He rebuked the spirit of elitism and sectarianism as He loved, touched, spoke with, and most importantly ate with the social outcasts of His day.
He didn’t condemn politics. He showed the role of political leaders within the earthly realm, but challenged it by pointing his listeners to a kingdom that was here, but not yet. He pointed them to a spiritual reality that they would become the very ambassadors of.
He rebuked the spirit of judgmentalism by defending the adulterous woman in the street, eating with prostitutes and tax collectors, and fellowshipping with the “least of these.” He didn’t condone their behavior, but called them to a higher spiritual reality. He called them to follow his life, the highest life, the zoe life.
Jesus’ actions spoke louder than his words on the issue of culture. His whole life was a parable of cultural interaction.
Thermostat And Thermometer
Culturally speaking, the church should be both thermometer and thermostat. A thermometer reads and tells you the temperature of something, while a thermostat actually regulates and influences the temperature it is reading.
We should read culture as a thermometer, but also influence and change it as a thermostat. — Historically the church read and influenced culture through art, writing, architecture, business, and speaking.
Today, the church has lost that influence as a thermostat. It is reading culture after it things have been in circulation, and trying to play “catch up,” instead of influencing its direction by leading from the front.
In his book Nudge (p55), Leonard Sweet shares the importance of Christians to be the very interaction and influence upon culture.
Nothing is without a witness to the divine; everything that exists praises the Creator. If Christians are not the best at giving voice through art, poetry, and music to these unspoken voices, then something is wrong. – Leonard Sweet
We aren’t just here to take up space, use up oxygen and then some day go to heaven when we die. We are here to influence the culture we live within, and the world around us. We are to impact and permeate the music, media, art, writings, and expressions within this world for the purpose of showing God’s glory and bringing His reality to earth.
Once again in Nudge (p43) Len shares this thought:
If God can speak through a burning bush, through plagues of locust, through Balaam’s ass, through Babylon, through blood on doorposts, through Peter, through Judas, through Pilate’s jesting sign hung over the head of our Lord, and through the cross itself, then God can and will speak through art deco architecture, abstract expressionism, classic literature like Virgil’s Aeneid, mass media, disease, Disney, Hunger, Twitter, etc. The question is never, “Is God using this?” Rather the question is, “What is my/our invitation upon hearing?”
God can and will use these outlets as a means to speak his eternal truths, and to bring the reality of heaven to earth. The question is not if He will, but how will we answer the call to stop being counter cultural, and start being a cultural influence?
Remember, we’re not against the culture, we are against the spiritual forces attempting to wreak havoc behind the scenes. Let’s start telling the story of Jesus better through art, writing, media, architecture, music, etc, rather than standing diametrically opposed to the very culture we are trying to reach.