The Church: A New Culture?

Not too long ago, I sat listening to a fairly well-known conservative evangelical pastor speak to the matter of race within the church. His text was Ephesians 2:11-18, and the sermon was, in the main, excellent. His points regarding Christ humbling and disarming rival ethnic groups through the gospel were edifying and God-glorifying. He was right to state that current views on race have much more of a secular (Darwinian?) feel to them than a biblical one. He helped believers see that the gospel contains all the racial reconciliation man needs.

Where I began to register a sense of discomfort was when he began to suggest that the new man of Ephesians 2 is actually a brand new culture. The logic was: There was a Jewish culture, there was a Gentile culture, but since Christ has torn down the wall of partition and made both groups into one new man in the church, we as Christian churches have a new culture.

Now certainly there is such a thing as Christian culture. (Some might put that last sentence in the past tense.) Certainly Christian culture is a new kind of culture, relative to pagan kinds. It is true that the church is in many respects a new entity, distinct from Israel, and from ancient pagan culture. And it is true that within churches, a worldview and a set of loves and values increasingly take shape. Churches are largely responsible for receiving and communicating the culture that is Christian. But this is not the same thing as saying every local church is an instance of a new culture.

This notion would appear to be a rather glib and naïve view of culture. On the surface, it seemed as if the speaker believed that every local church can develop its own culture from scratch, independent of, and without reference to, the past. It seemed as if he believed that culture is rather like a kind of editorial process: something that can be put together rather eclectically, so long as the guiding norm is the Bible. And in fact, as I observe from a distance, it seems his ministry philosophy bears that suspicion out. Hymns, gospel rap, expository preaching, gospel hip-hop concerts, and sound doctrine are all blended together, in the name of new culture. It is as if some evangelicals believe that by declaring your church to be a new culture, you make it so. They seem to believe that culture is something that can be assembled at will, like a machine or a meal. They imply that they possess the power to filter out or co-opt cultural elements as if they are perfectly immune to their effects and meanings, simply because they are Christians. To this view, I’d suggest two corrective thoughts.

First, there is no such thing as a culture completely distinct from, and immune to, the cultures surrounding it. A local church does not begin its life with a blank sheet of paper, culturally speaking. A church is made up of people. These people come with decades of cultural influence. They have been influenced by the wider popular culture. They possibly have ethnic  cultural influences. If they come from other churches, they have been shaped by the views and tastes and values within those churches and their denominations and associations. In an electronic age, they have probably picked up some brand of Christian culture. Finally, they come with all the beliefs and sensibilities and loves imparted to them by their immediate and near families. The blend of people within your local church is made up of all this. You can no more insist that your church is a completely new culture than you can claim that all your people have precisely the same accent.

As much as the church is meant to re-shape and re-form the beliefs, views, loves, tastes and moral imagination of its members, it is naïve to think that one does this so successfully and completely as to constitute a completely brand new culture within the church. The past is not overcome in a day. Nor can one seal your people off from the wider culture, even if that were desirable. The local church is meant to be the messenger and purveyor of a worldview and set of affections that is thoroughly Christian, but it exists as a relatively small house in the shadow of a mountainous wider culture. For pastors to lead effectively, they need to acknowledge that their churches are not hermetically sealed off from the world merely because the gospel has made us into one new man. Pop culture, remnants of folk culture, evangelical or fundamentalist culture are in our churches, because our churches have people. They make up our church cultures.

Second, every culture builds with what it has been handed. A culture is never created from scratch. Every culture takes something of what it has received, and modifies, develops and changes the form to suit its worldview. (Indeed, the church built on very Jewish forms of worship and gathering). To illustrate this point, try to think up a new cultural form to use in church worship. You won’t be able to think of one, you will only be able to think of ways of modifying what already exists: music, poetry, the spoken word.

No church invents its culture. In other words, every church has a tradition. Every church takes some form of existing material, and chooses whether to use it as it is, or modify it, or omit it altogether. And this is where the church-as-new-culture idea gets dangerous. Being a new man in Christ does not mean that each church is starting the whole process of cultural formation anew, as if we are baking a new cake with every local church.

A right view of culture is going to understand that the process of receiving, modifying and preserving forms consonant with Christianity took many centuries. The sensibilities, tastes and affections of thousands of Spirit-controlled believers were involved in producing hymns, music, prayers, architecture, and ministry methods that seemed to best represent and preserve a Christian understanding of God, the world and ourselves.

Since we do not invent cultural forms, but are handed them, humility ought to ask questions like, “Why was this kind of hymn treasured by the church for centuries?” “Why did the process of the church’s growing understanding result in this kind of music, but not that kind of music?” “Why has the church resisted that approach to ministry, but pursued this approach?”

If we think of each of our local churches as new cultures, we might think that we have carte blanche to reject what we have been handed, as if we bear no responsibility to the church of the past. We might be tempted to act like we are authorities over the church of the past, since we are a new man. We might think that since we are supposedly beginning again with each church, we can cherry-pick hymns, music and other things to make up our new culture. This is naïve, and ultimately, untrue.

In this sense, I do not want to think of my church as a new culture, because it isn’t one. While the church is made of new creations, they come to us very connected to the old man, old world and old ways. And while we seek to preserve and communicate a culture that is Christian, we recognise that we are a very small drop in a very large ocean.

Instead, I want to think of my church as seeking to connect with a very old culture: Christian culture. While the church is a new thing, it has a very ancient pedigree.Churches are not independent new cultures. They ought to be oases, where the thirsty believer, traversing the desert of popular culture, can stop and drink in some of what makes up the very old and tried and tested Christian culture.

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One Response to “The Church: A New Culture?”

  1. Chris Ames Says:

    If we ought to have learned anything in the last two millennia, it’s that every time a church tries to do anything but adopt the NT culture, it ends up looking just like the world around it. Good thoughts: you’ve succeeded in giving me something to meditate on again.

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