Euthanasia, war, the next US president - these are just a few of the widely debated issues in today’s society. You probably have some kind of response to each of these topics. But how do we respond God’s way?
When I was born again at the age of thirteen, it wasn’t only a spiritual conversion, it was also a cultural conversion.
My first year as a Christian was a process of flipping a cultural switch. Up until that point I’d listened to a lot of loud, angry music (great for those angst-filled moments after arguing with your parents). After I came to Christ I purged my CD collection – quite literally throwing it in the bin – and wrote an email to a Christian radio station asking for recommendations of like-for-like Christian bands: “I used to listen to Metallica, what’s the Christian alternative?” I asked.
I lobbied my parents to allow me to switch over to a Christian school. Eventually, they did. It felt like I was escaping the compromised environs of secular education. I even made that most typical of all Christian purchases - I bought a Christian t-shirt. I can’t remember exactly what it said. It was something to do with training, or running the race. It had a basketball on it, I know that much.
But whatever the message, I wore that shirt with pride. I may have even worn it at my Christian school.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this was counter-culturalism. I was acting under an assumption about my relationship as a Christian to culture; that the art I enjoyed, the education I received, and the fashion I modelled should all be explicitly Christian, rather than ‘worldly.’ I figured that I needed to cut myself off from the taint of ‘The World.’ Any contact should be minimal, and mainly for the purpose of seeing other people brought into this counter-culture of Christianity.
This view has a long history in the church, in a far more nuanced form than my adolescent self could have articulated it. Monastic orders, Anabaptists, and Two Kingdoms proponents have all embraced it in different ways. It’s a position which takes a pessimistic view of culture, and which calls Christians to provide a radical alternative.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is transformationalism. You’ll probably be familiar with transformationalism if you pay attention to Christians who make it onto the 6 o’clock news. In this view, Christians are to actively engage with culture in the hope of Christianising it.
Sometimes, this can develop into the mind-set of conflict and battle. Think of the culture wars in the United States - clashes over same-sex marriage, debates over bathroom access for transgender people, or violence against those who carry out abortions. These are zealous skirmishes, with the aim of winning the ‘soul of society.’
The idea is that God wants culture to reflect biblical values, so we need to do all we can to see that happen.
Back to Scripture
Like any spectrum, there are many stops along the way between the extremes of counter-culturalism and transformationalism. But which direction should we be encouraging our Christian brothers and sisters in, as well as pursuing ourselves? How should the teachers, businesspeople, labourers, engineers, and artists in our churches relate to culture?
I find Jeremiah 29 a helpful lens to view this question through. At this point in their history, the Israelites have been exiled to Babylon, dragged off from their homeland by a marauding empire. They have every reason to despise the Babylonians and to believe the society they’ve found themselves in the midst of is going to hell in a hand-basket.
Perhaps it’s time to check out of society and build a pure and holy community apart from it. Or, perhaps the approach should be to take over and to war against the godless paganism which is on display in Babylon.
Well, God has other ideas. He tells the Israelites to settle in for the long haul - to build houses, plant gardens, start families. Ultimately, God tells them to, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29: 7).
I know this is a specific command from God to a specific people in a specific time. But there are many parallels to our own time that we can draw. Peter describes Christians as people living as exiles in the world (1 Peter 1: 1). We too live in a society whose values and practices can be confusing, and in some examples, even repulsive.
And as much as the state of the world can sometimes tempt us to isolate ourselves in a holy huddle - to build walls and live as those awaiting evacuation - I don’t think this chapter gives us that option. We’re to “seek the welfare” of the society in which we find ourselves. Before we consider what this might look like today, I think there are a couple of mindsets that we need to reflect on.
We need to consider that with the best intentions, “seek[ing] the welfare of the city” can subtly become twisted into standing over culture as those who know what’s best for everyone. As Christians, we’ve far too often sought cultural change through aggressive, unloving, and even violent means, because we are uneasy with the way something is happening.
Andy Crouch, the author of Culture Making, suggests that for those with a more transformationalist bent, ‘changing the world’ can actually become a temptation, a kind of substitute for the real heart-change of discipleship.
He writes: “If our excitement about changing the world leads us into the grand illusion that we stand somehow outside the world, knowing what’s best for it, tools and goodwill and gusto at the ready, we have not yet come to terms with the reality that the world has changed us far more than we will ever change it. Beware world changers – they have not yet learned the true meaning of sin.”(1)
We need to acknowledge these temptations, and be willing to challenge them when they arise. There may well be situations which we would wish to be different, but we need to learn how to act and engage with compassion and gentleness.
Alternatively, we can end up making a god of ‘relevance’ - we become so keen to keep on good terms with others, to maintain relationships, and to avoid rocking the boat that we place this desire above any other conviction. It’s a real temptation for us to compromise on the core teachings of Jesus even as we seek to see change. But this should never be an option for us.
“Seek the welfare of the city” - faithful presence
We need to engage with culture smartly, and passionately, but with humility. And essentially, I think, we need to acknowledge that only God can really bring true change. We will always live with the reality of brokenness and sin, not only in our culture, but in ourselves too. If we can hold onto the reality of sin in our culture and sin in us, we will engage on a level footing. Issues will become far less of a battle of ‘us vs. them,’ and more of a case of seeking the good for all.
James Davison Hunter outlines an incredibly helpful approach in his brilliant book To Change The World; that of being a faithful presence within culture. When it comes to how we as Christians engage with the world, he frames it like this: “...where and to the extent we are able, faithful presence commits us to do what we can to create conditions in the structures of social life we inhabit that are conducive to the flourishing of all.”(2)
We are to be quietly radical in whatever sphere God has placed us, and to use what power we have for the good of all. The resonance with Jeremiah 29 is obvious. Hunter has far more to say about how cultural change occurs, and his book is well worth reading.
In my time as a pastor, I’ve come across a few encouraging examples. In my own church, I’ve been blessed to get to know Kim Workman, who has spent his life working in the criminal justice system. To me, he’s a good example of someone who has been a faithful presence within a challenging part of our society. He’s used his influence to advocate for restorative justice, living a quietly radical life in his sphere of influence (he’d probably debate the quietly part).
I’ve met teachers who are committed to pointing to Christ through their compassion and love for their students, builders who look for opportunities to simply witness to their faith in opportune moments, and businesspeople committed to running their business ethically, with more than just profit margins as the measure of success.
I believe that every Christian has a vocation to be a faithful presence wherever God has called them.
When it comes to the topical issues of our world today, whatever they may be, my pastoral advice on these things is often just this: Don’t freak out. Engage. Be compelling in your engagement. But don’t make winning on a cultural issue the be-all and end-all. Never let winning an argument trump acting with love and humility.
Jesus calls us to be full of grace and truth, together, at once. I think Andy Crouch sums it up well: “So we are confronted with a paradox. Culture – making something of the world, moving the horizons of possibility and impossibility – is what human beings do and are meant to do. Transformed culture is at the heart of God’s mission in the world, and it is the call of God’s redeemed people. But changing the world is the one thing we cannot do. As it turns out, fully embracing this paradoxical reality is at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian culture maker.”(3)
Story: Rhett Snell
Rhett pastors Epuni Baptist Church in Lower Hutt, Wellington. He’s married to Sarah and together they have three kids, with another on the way. He loves reading, music, and complaining about Arsenal.
1. Andy Crouch. 2008. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (p. 200). Madison. Intervarsity Press.
2. James Davison Hunter. 2010. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (p. 247). New York. Oxford University Press.
3. Crouch (p. 189).
- Are there any issues that have been in the news recently that have unsettled you?
- How did you process this? Did you do anything about it?
- Consider the spectrum of counter-culturalism and transformationalism. Where do you think your responses generally fall?
- Are there times when you have been overbearing in desiring change? Or are you someone who has perhaps allowed a desire to be ‘relevant’ to overtake your convictions?
- Take some time to talk with God about this and consider how he might be calling you to respond.
- Get together with others. How would someone else answer these questions on your behalf? Consider your ongoing response.
Photo Credit: Andrés Carrió
Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.