What is your understanding of the proper relationship between church and culture, as well as your understanding of the paradox of being in the world but not of it? Also recalling the panel discussion in Week 6, how are church and evangelism impacted by specific cultural contexts?
The relationship between church and culture begins with a Trinitarian doctrine of creation which describes the common ground of all existence and, therefore, the “raw material” of church and culture. Psalm 33:6 reads, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth.”1 For Pentecostal scholar Amos Yong, this passage reveals how “things are what they are because they are created by the Father [sic], through the Word, by the power of the Spirit.”2 As created “things”, church and culture find their ideal “concrete form or pattern” in Christ, the divine Word, and rely on the Spirit to be “the power of [their] actualization and instantiation.”3 This starting point reveals how church and culture share – at their core – in the same fundamental reality which finds its origin and destination within the gracious Trinitarian life of God. Both church and culture are designed by God to be transformed into the image of Christ as they are brought to life by the Spirit. This is important for affirming the inherent goodness of both church and culture as expressions of divine presence and activity.
However, “church” and “culture” are not creations in the same sense as a human individual. They are derivative, secondary creations which require organized human effort and ingenuity and which exist dynamically across time and space. As products of individual and corporate human will and purpose, church and culture share the same tendencies toward sin and evil which afflict humanity and lead it towards death. God is graciously present and active in both church and culture but only in varying degrees of incompletion. The reign of God is a reality to be “entered and received”4 through Christ by the Spirit; both church and culture refuse this invitation in a myriad of ways and neither one holds a monopoly on God’s grace.
While church and culture share these two fundamental characteristics, a vital distinction must be made between them. First, it should be noted that church is a form, a particular instantiation, of culture; sometimes a sub-culture, sometimes a counter-culture, and other times barely distinguishable from culture. In any case, church and culture belong in the same socio-anthropological category and always exist in relationship with one another. So what is the difference between church and culture? When Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane, he describes how his followers are “in the world” but do not “belong to the world, just as [he] does not belong to the world.”5 However, Jesus specifically asks that they not be taken out of the world; he prays that they would be sanctified – made holy – in the truth of Christ’s life as they are sent by Christ into the world “that they may become completely one” in order to be a demonstration and overflow of God’s love.6 As Elaine Heath states, holiness is about being “in partnership with God in God’s mission… to redeem all creation” – culture included.7 “Church”, therefore, is the holy people of God who respond to God’s saving work in Christ and, by the Spirit, join God’s work to redeem all cultures and bring them to their uniquely good completion in Christ who is “the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.”8
The church relates to culture the way an experienced jazz musician plays a classic song. The church takes up the culture’s instruments, draws from the culture’s repertoire, yet creatively improvises its tunes towards new life in harmony with the key of Christ’s holiness as it follows the syncopated, life-giving rhythms of the Spirit. The song is still recognizable, but it has been deeply and fundamentally transformed for good.
In this light, the practices of evangelism and church renewal point towards two processes which must be held in tension as the church lives in and among its particular culture. Evangelism highlights the need for the church to know its culture intimately. The church cannot improvise on a repertoire it does not know by heart. This kind of knowledge requires real relationships and, to the greatest extent possible, authentic appreciation for and participation with a culture’s ways of life. The church does not replace culture or impose its own will; it exists for culture as its priestly servant. At the same time, the processes of church renewal emphasize the ways in which the church is called to stand apart from its culture. The church sings in a different key and follows a peculiar beat; sometimes this music is misunderstood, rejected, ignored, and – at times – silenced. In order to maintain this posture, the church in all cultures needs to be reminded of its story again and again; it needs continual training in the peace, justice, forgiveness, and reconciling love of God as it seeks to be God’s ambassadors. The church holding these tensions well in an ethnically diverse, low income inner-city neighborhood will look and sound very different from a mono-ethnic, middle class church practicing evangelism and renewal in the suburbs but these cultural differences should be welcomed – not avoided or lamented. All of these divergent beats and discordant tunes in the church may seem confusing, but it is the work of the Spirit to bring all this cultural diversity into glorious and beautiful harmony that reflects the image of God intended for all creation.
1 Ps. 33:6, NRSV.
2 Amos Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s): A Pentecostal-Charismatic Contribution to Christian Theology of Religions (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 116.
7 Elaine Heath, The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), Kindle loc 139.