Gospel and Culture

As leaders in Christ’s church, the Gospel must always be at the very center of all that we do, say, and think. We know this to be true, yet we also know that what we do with the Gospel – how we bring the Gospel to people – can be, at times, confounding. Because while the Gospel is unchanging, the people we are called to bring the Gospel to are anything but.  Nations differ, regions differ, neighborhoods differ, families differ, people differ!  What resonates in one culture is offensive in another; what sparks passion in one person spurs anger in another person.

I recall a Human Genome lecture I attended several years ago where the speaker said that because no two people are alike, each person is in essence a unique culture unto him or herself.  So, how exactly do we go about trying to reach over seven billion people, all of whom are unique in countless ways, with the singular, all-encompassing Gospel of Jesus Christ?

Thankfully, no single person or church bears the burden of reaching seven billion people, but we are called to reach people we are in proximity to, and to actively support global missions. And beyond reaching people for Christ, we are to help people become more like Christ. Our call is to venture both wide (“Go …”) and deep (“… and make Disciples”) – in combination.

Easy enough, right? Umm, not so much!  But we do it because we want people to have the same assurance we have, and to experience the same journey we are on – a slow, steady, and at times sideways march toward becoming who God created us to be.  We do it because we know that only Christ can set a person free from the stronghold of sin, and the permanence of death.  We do it because we want what is ultimately best for people, and we get frustrated when they don’t see what we see, and don’t grasp what we grasp.

But I wonder if we’re working out of the wrong paradigm.  I wonder what would happen if instead of trying to figure out why people don’t see what we see, we took the time to try to figure out what they see – their interests, their fears, their beliefs, their doubts, their values, their circumstances … their culture.  Because if it’s true that the Gospel is for all people, then it’s equally true that any success we have in advancing the Gospel message is very much tied to our understanding of, and willingness to engage, people in their own unique setting – in their own unique culture.

This brings us to the crux of the problem, namely that most of us aren’t adequately tuned in to the culture around us.  Is this important?  Vitally so. And it’s biblical too – Paul carried the same Gospel wherever he went, but how he presented it varied according to the culture he was seeking to reach.  But what about us?  The truth is that most of us aren’t sure how to engage the culture, or even whether it’s appropriate to engage the culture.  And certainly, assimilation for the sake of assimilation isn’t the answer, but ignoring the culture altogether isn’t either.  Can we find a middle ground, one where the Gospel is proclaimed and advanced in ways that meet people where they’re at, instead of where we think they ought to be?

Tim Keller addresses this question (and many others) in his brilliant book, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Keller affirms the centrality of the Gospel, but makes the point that Gospel movement is contingent on appropriate engagement with the culture. Keller points out that if we over-adapt to a culture, we won’t change people because we won’t call them to change, and that if we under-adapt to a culture, no one will be changed because no one will listen to us.

Finding the right balance, the right middle ground, between over-adapting and under-adapting to a culture is worth striving for. Why? Because when the power – the movement – of the Gospel sweeps through people and churches, the surrounding culture can’t help but be swept up as well.  And as Christians, we have it in us to spur this kind of movement, not on our own, but as called and equipped ambassadors for Christ. May it be so.