right focus

One final post and the plan is to move on from this discussion of church and culture. It seems to me that a third step we might think about in overcoming the difficulties that differing cultures present in our churches is to have a clear focus on the mission. It is notable that when Jesus’ final words in Matthew are not a command to propagate culture, but make disciples of all nations. If we unite around that vision I think it makes a huge difference to the role that culture and our cultural differences play within a church.

First, a focus on mission (by this I mean more than evangelism, but making disciples) will necessarily put culture in a secondary position. In a recent article in Evangelicals Now, Marcus Honeysett helpfully points out that there are two positions that a church can stand in, maintenance or mission. Maintenance is about preserving a culture. Mission turns away from a preservation mindset and is about moving forward and seeing the church built in quality and quanitity. In effect, mission can become the new dominant culture that we all grab hold of.

Second, a focus on mission will leave, or should leave, no time for petty arguments about cultural things. Am I being naive and ignoring the reality of our sinful natures? Or is it true that if our attention is taken up with the pressing matter of how to reach our communities with the gospel and how can we encourage one another to grow in Christ we are not going to be so concerned about whether the music was a bit livelier last Sunday or the chairs have been moved around.

Third, a focus on mission gives us a reason to overcome our differences. According to Jesus love is the badge of discipleship (John 13:35). How will an unbelieving world see that the gospel is real and relevant? One of the chiedfways is by seeing the love that Christians have for eachother. If we are serious about mission, we will be serious about unity because without it how can think of reaching a dying world?

One last thing. Don’t we need God to help us with this:

Oh God, may I submit to your will for the church. May I love people who are different to me, who see things differently and do things differently. Help me to remember that I am not accepted before you because I do things in a certain way, but because Jesus died for me. Help me to think of others in that way as well. Help me to be humble and realise that there are many different ways of doing things, my way is not the right way and other way the wrong way. Help me to have such a passion for mission, a passion to engage people with the gospel and see people growing in the Lord Jesus Christ, that I am willing to let go of my preferences and my cultural assumptions and live for the honour of Jesus and for the good of others. Amen
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right character

What might be the next step in mapping a way forward in overcoming the difficulties that our different cultures cause in church life? As we did last time I want to take my lead from the Bible and suggest that just as right theology is important here, so is right character.

When I think of unity in the church two passages in Paul’s letters quickly spring to my mind – Eph 4:1-6 & Phil 2:1-4. Both of them are calls for the church to be united, and both of them emphasise humility as key to that unity. As I have thought and faced the problems that culture can cause in the church I have found these verses to be so helpful and so necessary. If we want unity despite our cultural diversity we need humility.

I want to suggest three ways in which this is important. First, we need the humility to acknowledge that much of what we do and the assumptions that we have are culturally conditioned. I remember spending a year at University in America. I didn’t expect to have a culture shock when I went there, but I did. There were several differences and one that stood out to me, although it was so small, was the way the traffic lights worked. In the UK they go red, red & amber, green. In the US they go red, green. As I missed home this became an issue to me and in my pride I wanted to shout out, “YA’LL ARE DOING IT WRONG!!!” But of course that is not true. It was just different.

There are many areas in church life where we need the humility to accept that someone elses way is not wrong, it is just different. It is not wrong to sing in a different style. It is not wrong to make decisions in a different way based upon the same biblical principles. It is not wrong to preach in jeans and t-shirt. It is not wrong to not meet at 11am & 6pm on a Sunday, but to do Sunday another way. It is not wrong to have Saturday meetings, or not to have Saturday meetings. It is just different. But that takes humility to recognise. Often pride and a satisfaction with our culture blinds us to this.

Second, we need humility to compromise with each other. One of the lessons that I have learned in marriage is that if we are to live together in harmony there needs to be a good deal of give and take. The same is true in the church. Paul points this out, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” (Phil 2:3). The problem is that this is not always easy or always the case.

I have found this to be particularly in churches where a dominant culture has existed for a long time. New people come in and are welcomed, but often on the condition that they fit in with what is already there. However, is that a biblical approach? Obviously church is not about conforming to the wishes and desires of every newcomer. That would be impossible and deny the need for compromise from those who start coming to a church. Yet, is it right to insist that for someone to be part of a church body they must conform with the cultural practices of the church and not just the biblical principles on which they are based? I would answer no.

We need to accept that one way of doing things that encourages one group of people may not encourage another. We need to understand that while our needs might be ‘being met’ by the way we are doing things others needs may not. We have to grasp that while I may understand what is being said others might not because of the cultural barriers that exist. This takes humility.

Third, we need humility to be patient with each other. Paul writes, “bearing with one another in love” (Eph 4:2). I don’t know about you, but I need people to bear with me in love. I get so much wrong and I am slow to understand others.

One area where I think this is needed today is in the relationship between the young and old and the use of language. I have friends on facebook of varying ages and in looking at their communications I have noticed that words once used to express strong feelings are now common place. Similarly phrases that were once used to give offence are now used as the norm between friends. These are cultural differences that can easily cause real problems between people as offense is taken where none was intended. We need to bear with one another, think the best of each other and seek to understand one another.

As we come together from different cultures, thinking differently and liking different things there are many areas where friction can easily be fostered. However, much of this can be avoided if we approach eachother with humility.

right theology

As I’ve reflected over the last few weeks on the issue of culture and the church I’ve grown in my conviction that if we take the teaching of the Bible and ‘live it’ then local church should be a body of people that transcends culture. The Gospel is an amazing message that cuts through cultural boudaries and calls people everywhere to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and from everywhere they do and are saved.

However, it is also clear to me that in the nitty-gritty of church life this might be seen as the ideal rather than the reality. Our differences often militate against the kind of biblical community that we pray would be realised among us. So, is it really possible? Should we simply abandon this and form churches where we exist only with those who are ‘like us’? I don’t believe that is the answer for one minute and I want to move now to map out some of my thoughts for a possible way forward.

The first step is the need for right theology. I think Paul makes this clear in the incident recorded in Galatians 2. Paul rebukes Peter for separating himself from the Gentile believers. But how does he do this? He doesn’t plead with him not to be unkind. He brings him back to the gospel, and particularly the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Is there a lesson here for us? If we are to work for and live together in culture transcending churches we need to grasp more fully and be more deeply rooted in the wonderful truths of the gospel.

What did Peter need to remember? First, he needed to remember that he was accepted before God, not on the basis of nationality of keeping certain Jewish customs, but through faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ. His culture was not a contributing factor to his salvation. The same is the case today. We are not right before God because we sing Townend & Getty songs, go to meetings of the church regularly, pray every day or believe a certain view of the end times. We are accepted before God through faith on the basis of the finished work of Jesus.

Second, he needed to remember that others are accepted before God through faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ and not on account of a cultural allegiance or religious activity (Gal 2:15-16). Again, this has not changed. Someone is not a Christian because they sing Wesley Hymns, use a certain Bible version, dress a certain way, are verbal or non-verbal as the sermon is preached, stick their hands in the air or not, eat meat potatoes and veg or something different. They are right with God through faith in Christ and are fully accepted before him on that basis alone.

I think that if we are to be churches that transcend culture it is vital that we grasp this truth, because it puts culture in it’s right place. Culture is not the main thing in any sense of that word. It is not an essential thing and should never be made one. But we will only live like that if we have grasped justification by faith alone. By that I don’t mean merely know it., Peter knew it, we need to live it.

culture wars

I finished my last post on church and culture arguing that if the gospel is a message that transcends culture then we should seek to reflect this within individual local churches. The church in Antioch (Acts 11:19-30) would be a good example of this. Here you find people of different backgrounds worshipping Christ together as one in the Lord.

However, I am not unaware that such a church does not exist without struggle, conflict and friction. This was the case in Antioch, r(emember Galatians 2:11-13 where problems were caused as Peter’s cultural background kicked in to the exclusion of the other Christians). But, why is it so hard? I can think of three reasons.

First, much about our cultures is wrong. I have already alluded to this here, but it is worth stating again, culture is not infallible. I grew up going to church, my parents are Christians and this had a profound effect on my upbringing. Yet, I also grew up in late 20th century England, received a mainly secularist education and have been influenced by the media of my day. In many ways I have been shaped by the cultural assumptions of my time.

Yet, I have grown to see that these assumptions are not all biblical. For instance, I have an inbuilt sense of indiviudalism and a reaction against authority, something that is found in abundance in the culture around me. These do not sit easily with the corporate nature of the church or the biblical command to submit to Christ. The result is this. As I examine myself against the Bible I find myself constantly being laid open and that is not comfortable or pleasant.

The sense of discomfort is increased when the culture being challenged is so-called ‘Christian’. I think that I’ve got it right, it’s the way we’ve always done it in the church, but God keeps chipping away at it. The result, we try to wriggle out from underneath it and rebel against it. We like the way it’s always been, we know where we stand with it. It is not uncommon for this to become a point of conflict as we react against God’s word, or more specifically the new ideas that are coming in.

Second, it is not easy for a local church to transcend culture because if we have different cultural roots we approach things from different starting points. This is an issue that I have observed and known between the young and the old in churches that I have belonged to. As someone brought up in the last few decades I have known a life where change is a continual reality. Only tonight I was talking to some people about the rapid change in technology that has taken place in my lifetime. Mobile phones, which were only mobile if you owned the truck to put them in 30 years ago, are now small enough to fit in the palm of your hand and so much more than just phones.

For me, life and the way we live it has been in a continual motion of change. To me change is a good thing and something I am comfortable with. It is different when I talk to people of an older generation whose early life was not impacted in the same way by positive change, but perhaps shaped more by the catastrophes of WWII. I often find that there is a fear about the changes they see in the world and a great reluctance to change in the church. To these people, I know this is a generalisation, change is not a good thing. These assumptions are completely opposite and as such can cause real friction in decision making if they are not understood.

Third, it is not easy for a local church to transcend culture because we like different things. One obvious example of this would be styles of music or instrumentation in the worship service. I remember listening to an argument between two men that I deeply respect and look up to in the Lord about the use of drums in a church service. One, the older of the two, referred to drums as ‘of the devil’ and should never be used in a service. The other saw them as legitimate and usable.

Looking back I have realised that it wasn’t a biblical argument, but a cultural one based on likes or dislikes. It would be very hard to prove from the Bible that drums, in and of themselves, were from the devil and should never be used in worshipping God (Psalm 150 seems to blow that one out of the water). The simple fact was that the older man didn’t like them and they didn’t fit with the style of service he preferred. In that sense he was culturally different to the younger man.

If we have people of different cultural outlook together in the same church there can be many flashpoints where the cultures don’t lay comfortably side-by-side, but rub up against eachother. However, if what I have already said is right we should not avoid creating this situation in our local churches. That would be the easy way to avoid the conflict. We could have local churches with a single culture. Churches based on nationality, age or any other differential. Yet, that would not be the biblical way. If the gospel truly transcends culture, our local churches must do as well. So how might we do it?

the picture explained

Finally I’ve managed to sit down and begin to get my head into some sort of order on the subject of culture and the church. This stems from a point that I made in a recent sermon that the church is something that transcends culture. The verse I was referring to was Revelation 7:9 (see post). Some people asked me if I would spell this out a bit more so I decided to run a series of blog posts on the subject.

So far, I gave a definition of culture I found on the web (it’s not something easy to define) and posted a warning that not everything about culture is right or should be transferred in the church. Today, I wanted to give some space to explaining what a cross-cultural, or better put a culture transcending, church would be like.

With the amount of technology that we enjoy today the world has become a very small place. It is easy for me to switch on my computer and watch live streaming of conferences in the US or listens to sermons from around the world. I still remember the first time that I watched a message given by Mark Driscoll. The building didn’t look like a ‘church building’, the platform didn’t look like a ‘church platform’ and what was that he was wearing? To the eye it all seemed wrong, but if I shut my eyes and ignored the references to ultimate fighting etc. I heard the Bible being preached faithfully and the gospel proclaimed with authority and with passion. Here was a church, faithful to God’s word, but it looked so different.

While at University I was part of Leeds Reformed Baptist Church. As students we were invited out every Sunday to the homes of church members and fed all we needed to get through the following week. On one Sunday I met Erroll Hulse and he was relating stories from his travels around the world preaching at conferences, BIble colleges and church services. He would speak of christians, their love for the Lord and their gospel work, but as he spoke of their services and the way they did things it seemed so foreign and alien.

Why do we see this difference? It is not because the Bible is different in different places. Nor, in these cases, is it a lack of commitment to biblical principles. The reason is culture. In each of these places there are different assumptions about life, what is polite, clothing, music etc. In some places a built in reservation, in others a built in freedom. When you add these things together, while all these groups of people serve the same God, hold to the same gospel and seek to be in line with the same Bible, they look visibly very different. At first sight this might seem strange, but there is something very exciting about this difference. It reminds us that the gospel of Jesus Christ is so great that it is real to people of every culture in the world, not just one group of people.

As we look around the world we see that the gospel does transcend culture. You don’t have to become British to be a Christian. You don’t have to have a stiff upper lip, wear a shirt and tie or go to a building with a spire to be part of God’s church. Yet, my argument the other Sunday was that this should not merely be true of the world-wide church, it should also be true of the local church.

Do we really believe that the gospel truly transcends culture if our local churches are not reflections of this truth? Shouldn’t our local churches be groups of people where a Christian from any culture is made welcome and included as a real part of the fellowship? Shouldn’t our local churches be groups of people where young and old, with all of their cultural differences, are found together in the Lord Jesus Christ? Shouldn’t our local churches be groups of people that transcend division of nationality, language, place of birth, upbringing and education? Shouldn’t our churches be groups of people where people are Christians first and valued and accepted because of that?

it’s not infallible

In thinking a little about the impact gospel and it’s trancendence over culture, the first thing that struck me was the need to remind myself that culture is not infallible. Local churches should be a placse that encompass people of many cultures, true. But before we can seriously think about the struggles that this presents or the solutions that recognising the impact of culture might give us, it is vital that we recognise that all of our cultural identities are a mixture of good and bad. There are things that fit with the Bible and things that don’t. In no way would I suggest that the fact that something is in our culture makes it right to be in the church.

For example, as we see from passages such as Galatians 2:11-14, it was customary in 1st century Jewish culture to avoid any meaningful contact with Gentiles. This was accepted and expected behaviour. Yet, the book fo Galatians and other passages in the scriptures show this cultural value to be irreconcilable with the gospel. It had to go.

I could think of many areas of my own culture (21st century UK) that would need a smiliar treatment. I was brought up with schooling that promoted sexual exploration and permissiveness. That clearly does not fit with the Bible (1 Corinthians 6:18). Similarly, UK culture is becoming more and more geared to getting what is best for me, often at the expense of others. Again, something that is contrary to scripture (Philippians 2:4).

It is true that the church is made up of people of many cultures and there should be no expectation for people to completely extricate themselves from their culture. The gospel does not demand the Chinese woman to become a British woman in order to be part of the church. Yet, there are many things in all of our cultures that do not fit with the Bible. Where this is the case, we must boot the cultural value, expectancy, action, art or whatever it is into touch. Surely culture should never be the Christian’s governing principle. As God’s people shouldn’t God’s word take that place in the church?

culture

This morning I was preaching about the church and made this point, “The Church is something that transcends culture”. This was based on the language of verses such as Revelation 7:9 where we see a great host from every nation, tribe, people and language. The word nation there is easy – it speaks of geography. Yet, the other three appear to me to be deeper than that and speak more of cultural or ethnic identity. The point I made this morning is that the gospel overcomes even these divisions and that local churches should be places that transcend our cultural identity. I want to think out loud about that over the coming days – what it means and how, with God’s help, we do it, but for now I wanted to post this definition of culture as a starting point:

culture is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society. Edward B Taylor