What's the Big Deal about Culture?
Every so often I hear pastors express frustration over the seemingly unceasing dialogue about "culture" and the church. "Jesus didn't die to save cultures; He died to save individuals," they say. "Jesus didn't say, 'Go, therefore, and Christianize cultures, baptizing . . . ' He said, 'Make disciples," and so on. And for a while, I couldn't quite pinpoint the error in their logic. But it's clear to me now.
It's true, Jesus commissioned His disciples to make more disciples, until all "nations" have been evangelized. However, He said more than this. More fundamental to Jesus' message was His proclamation that the Kingdom of God had "come." It had been inaugurated, yet awaited consummation at His Second Coming. He taught His disciples, and continues to teach us, to pray, "Thy Kingdom come." He did not call us to usher in the Kingdom or work to bring it about. He said, "It is here. And it is coming."
In the pioneering book, Missional Church: a Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (pub. 1988, before the term "missional" became faddish and abused), Darrell Guder and others observed that the fundamental calling of the church is "to represent God's reign as its community, its servant, and its messenger" (p. 102ff). Representing the Kingdom of God is the "mission" of the church. Evangelicals often get the messenger part right, and fairly often the servant part. Many of them are attempting to embody Kingdom community through small groups, but anyone who has been a member of a small group knows that they are a poor substitute for genuine community. Community, rather, is "dwelling together in unity." It is coexistence and interdependence. And if it is missional, it involves the other two components of the mission: service and proclamation.
As missional communities "show and tell" the gospel—first to one another (allelon), then to the world—they begin to embody a particular sort of culture, a uniquely gospel-shaped culture that reflects Kingdom values. These values stand in stark contrast to the values of the "elements, powers, and principalities" of this world.
Now let us return to the original question: What's the big deal about culture? Must pastors be faithful exegetes of culture in order to be faithful to their calling as shepherds of the flock of God? The answer is yes, on two levels. First, he must be an exegete of his own congregation's culture. Is the culture of the church truly a Kingdom culture, or does it reflect the values of the world, values which are in direct opposition to the Kingdom of God? Second, he must be an exegete of the world's culture (or more accurately, cultures) in order to know the difference! He must be skilled at identifying the principles and idolatries incarnate in the worldly culture in which the church is embedded in order to prophetically call the church back into faithful witness to the Kingdom of God. Furthermore, the culture of the community at large is a good barometer of the effectiveness of the church at incarnating (representing) the Kingdom within that community. Jesus said we would be "salt and light" and that implies more than simply difference or spectacle. It implies redemptive influence.
This flips the conversation about church growth and effectiveness on its head. Rather than asking the question, How much have our membership, programs, and budget grown over the past X years? the missional question is, What kind of redemptive impact are we having in our community? Societal redemption follows ecclesial redemption which follows individual redemption. People produce culture. Redeemed people produce redemptive culture. So ask yourself, Are we doing that? That, I believe, is the question for the church in our day.