Those of you who know me, upon reading this blog post, will simply laugh. I’ve been known to be particularly anti-Church culture, meaning that I think the culture of Christianity cultivated in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s is mostly garbage hindering the Church from fulfilling the Great Commission (with exceptions, of course). I’ve been a bit vocal on this issue around Austin—just ask my poor roommates.
But it’s clear that there’s got to be a line between the art and culture of our churches and the art and culture of the world, and I’m going to spend some time looking for that line in this blog; in other words, I’ll be stepping on the other side of the aisle today, speculating about the boundaries which should divide redeemed forms of art and culture from its unregenerate counterparts. For questions, comments, or spasms of profanity directed against me, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What, Exactly, Is The Issue?
Culture. Culture is key. In all of your relationships, in all of your classes, in every situation you’re in, take a week and observe how established culture plays a part in determining what tone and what nature the interactions between members of a social group take. In a class with a professor who asks for student participation, the culture becomes open to response during his lecture; the students are more alert, more attentive, and there’s a sense that any questions may be asked freely. In a class with a closed professor, the students react to the culture which has been set up by the instructor and become closed as well.
Also, take your friendships: If you set up a friendship where you’re subtly teasing a friend, a culture of sarcasm and put-downs in the name of a good laugh, you will reap what you sow. Godly growth rarely comes from such relationships—they generally harm both sides. But if you take the time to watch your tongue, carefully cultivating a respectful, uplifting friendship, both parties will benefit.
Thus, culture. But what importance does this principle have for the Church today?
The Movement to The World
Christianity has noticed its own false, superficial church culture (which I mentioned in the first paragraph). Now, the Church is shifting away from that and pursuing a new culture—one based more on the institutions of the world. In some ways, this is good. Paul says clearly that change on the part of a missionary to model the target culture is necessary for a mission to be effective. But in other ways, it’s possible for the Church to go too far.
Of course, this should be obvious. As a servant to a group of international students around whom the debate concerning missional contextualization rages, I’m familiar with the verses: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matthew 5:13). What does this mean, other than that the Church must be distinct from its parent culture?
And again, in Revelations 2:6, in Christ’s letter to the Church in Ephesus: “But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” There is disagreement about this, but it is believed by most that the Nicolaitans were a group of believers which had blended with their parent culture to the extent of losing the salt that should have been their witness through their godliness. Christ says that He hates over-contextualization. Again, the Bible is clear.
So Where Is The Line?
I think there are three places where over-contextualization could become a problem for the Church in its current spasm of identity crisis. The first is art, and by ‘art’ I mean all forms of art—painting, writing, musical expression, filmmaking, blogging, etcetera.
I believe the line for art must be hope. There is a false idea within the world: The idea that expressions of hopelessness are what makes art beautiful. This is simply false, yet it is prevalent throughout academic society, and it bleeds into the paradigm of the common man. This, in turn, bleeds into the Church. Christian artists may be under the false impression that they need to replicate the hopelessness of the world in order to create art that is beautiful.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. It should be the joy and hope expressed through our music which sets us apart, as through our books, paintings, films, etcetera. Hopelessness does not make an artist great—it makes him fruitless. Just ask the Lost Generation. It is Christ which makes a Christian great, and the hope which Christ has given us.
Second is in our interactions with one another within the Church. The bar for these interactions must be purity—absolute, diamond-clear purity. The world picks on its friends, says things that it doesn’t mean in a slighting way to get a laugh, or values comedy or coolness above the sum of a relationship’s love.
But the Church has been called into its own service. Every Christian on the planet is required, by the bonds of Christ’s sacrifice, to serve his brothers and sisters as he would have them serve him—this means no false words, no fake love, and no coolness. So pay attention to the cultures of your relationships. Are they truly God-honoring? If Christ were standing next to you rather than ‘merely’ living inside you, would you act the same?
Third may be a surprise: prayer. I believe that these days it’s possible for a Christian to consider prayer in the same way he would consider a bank transaction—I deposited my check, now it’s in my account and I’m done. I asked for it once, so the transaction is complete. This is nothing more than secularism, with a root sin of unbelief.
When you read about an old dead saint who God used to do something great, prayer always stands out in their life. I guarantee it. I don’t mean popcorn prayer for a few minutes every hour, and I don’t mean half-distracted prayer while they were grocery shopping (both of which are forms of bank transactions, I think). I mean they had two, three, or four hours every day that they set aside to pray to God about everything happening in their life without distractions, just them and the Lord on the mountainside (but with friends too, often—corporate prayer is a beautiful thing).
Is it possible that Christians today have secularized our prayers? Why don’t Christians pray for one thing over a period of weeks anymore? And I don’t mean prayer for a material object, I mean a focused pursuit of one aspect of the Holy Spirit which they want to incorporate into their life, or the salvation of a friend. Why don’t we take a week to pray for more love, or take a week to pray for Jim to come to Christ?
So this is my challenge to you, Christian: If you make art, make art with the hope of Christ. It may take time to get it good, but you have time—generally, the people reading these blogs are in their early twenties. We have plenty of time to give, if the Lord wants to take time with us.
And another challenge: Watch your cultures, and have the courage to change them. Set all of your friends on a path to Christ rather than coolness. Be bold, and pray. Christ will be with you always.
And a final challenge: Pick one principle and one friend and, starting tomorrow, pray for those two things every chance you get for a solid seven days. Meditate on them both day and night. Memorize verses regarding the principle; reach out to the person by asking them to be with you for coffee or something to give legs to your prayers. And God will work in your life, guaranteed.
Lord Jesus, please humble me. Show me the true nature of my relationships, and glorify Your name in my life—I pray that I would become true salt and true light to the world. Please break me down, that You might build me up in Your Spirit. Lord, I submit my entire life to You. Please make me new. In Jesus’ name,