Culture and Contextualization
If you currently serve in church leadership, you are most likely aware of the term culture. This term colors many conversations ranging from relevance to competency and usually links to the idea that believers should integrate their faith into daily life.
In simple terms, culture is our values, priorities, and belief systems. Contextualization puts these language items into context — rather than treating them independently of each other. For our discussion, this leads to two helpful questions: Can the Gospel be presented in culturally relevant ways, and Biblically speaking, can cultural relevance be accomplished?
Can the Gospel be presented in culturally relevant ways as we explore the question? We draw our attention to one of the leading theologians on the subject, H. Richard Niebuhr. In his book, Christ and Culture¹ (first published in 1951), Niebuhr explores how Christian principles have shaped American Culture. He placed his findings into five facets:
- Christ Against Culture: Meaning culture outside the Church is viewed with high suspicion and as irreparably corrupted by sin. Loyalty to Christ and the Church entails a rejection of culture and society. Dr. Bruce Riley Ashford, in his book Every Square Inch², states: "The bubble of legalism can't keep sin out of the Church, and it hides one of God's most useful tools — us."
- Christ of Culture: This Means cultural expressions are accepted uncritically and celebrated as a good thing. In theory, little or no conflict is seen between culture and Christian truth. Participants in this thought often build churches that are mirrors of the culture.
- Christ Above Culture: Regards cultural expressions as basically good, as far as they go. However, they need to be augmented and perfected by the Christian revelation and the Church's work, with Christ supreme.
- Christ and Culture in Paradox: Sees human culture as a good creation that's been tainted by sin. The tensions in the human experience of faith and life in the world. Embrace the good and reject the bad.
- Christ, the Transformer of Culture: It recognizes human culture as initially good and subsequently corrupted by the fall. But since Christ is redeeming all of creation, the Christian can and should work toward transforming the culture to God's glory. Affirms the good and seeks to change the bad.
Niebuhr is a leading theological reference on this subject — and Christ is a common thread in each of these entities. To answer the question: Biblically speaking, can cultural relevance be accomplished? It makes the most sense to reference the Bible and start at the beginning in Genesis.
In these early chapters, the words establish the importance of culture and even draw focus on conflicts between opposing views. Jumping ahead a few hundred pages, we see that this discussion [or tension] is still a focus. Jesus is now teaching us (Matthew 5) that our lives light up the world — and we should let others see this light. Putting on the researcher's cap, we continue to read the book of Matthew.
After several unique stories, we find ourselves face to face with the now Risen Christ. We note several things about Jesus: He is relational, conversational, and more alive than the disciples ever imagined.
His words are loving, and the approach welcoming:
“Now go in my authority and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Teaching them to follow all that I have commanded you faithfully. And never forget that I am with you every day, even to the completion of this age.”
The context of these words in Matthew is essential to our ability to connect Christ to culture. Jesus, newly risen, reveals himself to his followers. Author Bob Goff describes this scene: "When Jesus rose from the dead, He didn't make a speech, he made breakfast for His friends."
Jesus knew that the disciples would listen/connect over a meal. These meals were a place of common ground, and even their last meal together became a covenantal agreement between them and future generations of Christ-followers.
Both Niebuhr's findings and Christ's words are probing, and we can easily find ourselves in these words. These revelation places can connect us to the Father's heart and deepen our awareness of culture and how Christians can fit in the puzzle of faith and everyday life.