Finding a better way to approach cultural change
Culture is dynamic. Fluid. Fickle. Culture changes over time. Sometimes with extreme pendular swings. Popular culture is reflective of shared beliefs, values, and social norms.
Each swing of culture has its own trends like currents within an ocean or sea. These trends are movements within the larger cultural context.
People tend to respond in one of three general ways to pendular swings in culture — to reject, embrace, or engage each swing. Only one of these approaches is effective in bringing helpful change or productive dialogue.
These pendular swings have one fixed point — human nature.
Though these swings may be wide or wild extremes, it all pivots on self — our basic nature. Not our identity but our being — our innate essence which centers around self-preservation.
Cultural swings have one fixed point — human nature
On the surface, self-preservation makes sense. It’s expected. Natural. But when the self is corrupt or fragmented it’s not so good. At its basest level, self-preservation and self-preference are bound to be in conflict with others.
These conflicts disrupt whatever might be shared culturally and result in culture clashes.
These culture clashes are more noticeable in the cross-cultural situations global missionaries experience but also happen between and within sub-cultures — the smaller currents within the larger context.
Rejection of Cultural Shifts
This is the preferred approach of those who oppose a culture shift, especially when it impacts them personally. It’s not just resistance but rejection — an unwillingness to accept or consider a cultural change.
It’s a defense of what was — an attempt to turn back the tide of change.
On the surface — to those who are opposing the change — it seems gallant and right. It takes on a sense of righteousness. And indeed, it may very well be a righteous stance.
an attempt to turn back the tide
It’s not hard to find exceptional examples of resistance to evil. The prophet Daniel and his three cohorts — Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego — refused to worship anyone else but their God — the Most-High God — the Living God (Dan 3:12–18, 26; 6:10–23, 26).
Their stand would cost them their lives but God intervened.
Lessons from history
But taking a righteous stand against evil requires a willingness to die for righteousness sake. And God doesn’t always intervene.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a modern day example of this. He was a Lutheran pastor and theologian who stood up to Nazism and paid for it with his life. His testimony is enlightening and relevant to resisting and rejecting an evil cultural and political trend.
Not all resistance and rejection of cultural change is so righteous or wise. The Jesus People Movement and the Charismatic Renewal of the mid-’60s and early 70’s — parallel moves of God’s Spirit in America — was resisted and condemned by the established churches of that time.
The resistance proved foolish and fruitless. It reminds me of what Gamaliel, the famous Jewish rabbi, warned Jewish leaders about contending with the followers of Jesus —
…if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it — lest you even be found to fight against God (Ac 5:39)
This serves as a lesson to consider when attempting to resist and reject present cultural trends.
Bonhoeffer’s resistance — as with others like him in the German Confessing Church — did not stem the tide of the evil wave of Nazism. Only a world war overcame it. And yet, the Nazi mindset and influence lives on.
The Jesus Movement and Charismatic Renewal did prevail and reshape the practice of Christianity during the cultural upheaval of the Sixties and Seventies.
It impacted American culture in a powerful way but sadly, this influence faded. What was once a powerful cultural influence morphed into the present common approach to culture.
Embracing Cultural Shifts
The flip side of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the German Confessing Church’s resistance to Nazism is the German Christian movement. This movement was composed of fanatic Nazi Protestants — a politicized church movement devoid of the Spirit of God.
This movement embraced the political-cultural wave of Hitler’s Nazi regime. They reshaped theology to buttress their nationalistic beliefs and distorted the gospel and their portrayal of Christ into their own racist image.
Another spiritual movement in America during the Seventies and spilling into the Eighties was a hybrid smorgasbord of eastern religions and amenable philosophies.
This broad spiritual spectrum of quasi-religious groups became known as the New Age movement — a full embrace of the countercultural social revolution of the Sixties.
It epitomized what became known as the Me Generation of the Seventies.
A personal shift
Towards the end of 1969, I began to move out of my wanderings through what the emerging New Age offered in pursuit of Jesus. I became one of many in the Jesus People Movement of the Sixties and Seventies.
My wife and I — each on our own journey — came into a personal relationship with the Lord as we pursued our own relationship. I remember the day we married for a lot of reasons but especially since it marked my own departure from a time of darkness and wandering into the light of God’s kingdom (Col 1:13).
As the Seventies progressed, the difference between embracing and engaging culture became evident. The Me Generation fully embraced and typified the main attraction of the New Age movement — a mystical pursuit of self.
the New Age movement — a mystical pursuit of self
It’s ripple effect built to the current cultural wave — the I-Generation — young Gen-Xers, Millennials, and Gen-Z’s. Some may see it as the idealized-self but the idolized-self seems more apropos.
In too many ways, evangelical Christianity in America tends towards opposing or embracing the current cultural wave. Both approaches fail to have their intended effect.
Fighting culture wars is a losing battle and the if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them approach is futile and foolish. Does this seem too harsh of a judgment?
Consider this. Mere opposition and rejection of the cultural wave builds a wall neither side can or is willing to climb. Pursuing this approach results in the inability — perhaps unwillingness — to reach out to younger generations.
When well-intentioned Christians embrace the cultural flow of expressive individualism — the I-Generation — they stop being light and salt to the world (Matt 5:13–15).
Instead of influencing the culture for good, they get swallowed up with the cultural tide. This leads to a shallow, compromised, pseudo-Christian faith.
Engaging People within Cultural Shifts
Engaging people within the culture means we neither fight nor embrace the culture itself. The key is engaging people. Remember, culture is dynamic — it will change over time. It’s conceptual or theoretical.
People are people — our basic nature doesn’t change from generation to generation. Internal change only takes place when a person’s basic nature — their soul — is transformed with new life.
This is what Jesus referred to as new birth (John 3:3–8) — something God brings about by His Spirit touching our spirit — our nature. The Lord produces this spiritual transformation in us as we personally trust in Him and surrender our lives to Him.
Jesus the great engager
Jesus was a master at engaging people within their culture — whether they approached Him as friend or foe. He related to people without typical cultural filters. Even His primary followers had different backgrounds and livelihoods.
A classic example is Jesus engaging a woman of questionable character at Jacob’s well near Sychar in the region of Samaria. It was unexpected and culturally inappropriate for a Jewish man to engage a Samaritan woman in conversation.
Consider His disciples’ reaction as they return from a shopping excursion and find Jesus talking with this woman —
At that time his disciples returned. They were surprised that he was talking to a woman. But none of them asked him, “What do you want from her?” or “Why are you talking to her?” (John 4:27 GW)
As the story continues — and it’s a great story — Jesus uses this opportunity to train His disciples to follow His lead. He wanted them to see how and why He engaged people of different ethnicities and cultures (John 4:31–42).
When confronted by Jewish leaders about an adulteress caught in the act, which required stoning her according to Jewish Law—Jesus used the situation as an opportunity to display His discernment and wisdom (John 8:1–11).
Somehow Jesus convinces these leaders of their unworthiness to judge this woman —
When they persisted in asking him questions, he straightened up and said, “The person who is sinless should be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then he bent down again and continued writing on the ground.
One by one, beginning with the older men, the experts in Moses’ Teachings and Pharisees left. Jesus was left alone with the woman. (John 4:7–9 GW)
He doesn’t excuse or overlook the woman’s sin while showing her great mercy.
Then Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Where did they go? Has anyone condemned you?” The woman answered, “No one, sir.” Jesus said, “I don’t condemn you either. Go! From now on don’t sin.” (John 4:10–11 GW)
We also see how wisely and graciously Jesus engages people in His encounter with a rich young ruler. Jesus listens to him first and allows the young man to declare his moral goodness (Mark 10:17–27).
When Jesus tells the young man something difficult to accept, He shows compassion for the young man —
Jesus looked at him and loved him. He told him, “You’re still missing one thing. Sell everything you have. Give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then follow me!” (Mark 10:21 GW)
Examples abound of Jesus engaging a variety of people in unexpected ways throughout the Gospels. He shows us how we can engage people in gracious and respectful ways.
Reaching younger generations within a cultural shift
If the Evangelical church wants to reach younger generations with the gospel, it needs to engage younger people in dialogue, develop genuine relationships with them, and do this with respect and love — just as Jesus did.
Years ago, a friend of mine — a well-known career missionary — shared a message at a missions conference on the importance of dialoguing when sharing the gospel.
He used the example of Jesus as a young man in the Temple (Luke 2:41–49). My friend pointed out three things — Jesus sat among the teachers, He listened to them, and asked questions.
If you or I want to engage people, we need to spend time with them, listening, asking and answering questions, and do so with humility.
A message to boomers
I’m a holdover from the Jesus People movement and a baby boomer — so I say this as a boomer to boomers — we need to do more listening than talking. We don’t know everything.
Even when we think we do, we need to follow the example and lead of Jesus — in the Temple, with the Samaritan woman, with the adulteress and her accusers, and the rich young ruler.
I believe dialogue was an important element of the fruitfulness and influence of the Jesus Movement. It was for me.
I remember many conversations with people who were patient and gracious with all of my questions. They helped me move past less fruitful conversations.
But I also remember when I was approached with prepared, one-way presentations of the gospel. When I realized these people weren’t interested in engaging me personally, it turned me off.
And then there was the time I was thrown out of a church because of my challenging questions. Needless to say, this hindered my acceptance of the gospel.
A monologue approach coming across as self-righteous or self-important didn’t work then and won’t be effective now. Personal engagement and humility are far more effective.
If you’d like to consider these thoughts further — here are three more sources I’ve found helpful —
Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age — by Alan O Noble
God of Tomorrow: How to Overcome the Fears of Today and Renew Your Hope for the Future — by Caleb Kaltenbach