One of the great questions we have to deal with today as the Church is how to relate to our culture. This is a complex question that resists simple solutions, yet it is a vital part of learning to think and act missionally. In the midst of a rapidly changing world, we can find ourselves vacillating between various postures: “going with the flow” (you can’t change City Hall), actively building walls of separation, or ignoring what is happening altogether.
Unless we learn to engage consistently, we will not be able to effectively communicate our message to those who most need to hear it. Tim Keller unpacks this for us in his book Center Church, explaining that churches can place their ministries on a continuum ranging from being “overadapted” at one extreme to “underadapted” at the other. His counsel is to find the center. This will be that place where we are able to affirm those values that closely align to those of the Kingdom of God, while simultaneously challenging and confronting those which do not.
Overadapting places us in danger of losing our unique identity as we gradually accept the idols of the culture and lose the credibility necessary to call others to change. Underadapting renders us irrelevant, as no one will listen to us, deeming us to be judgmental, confusing, or offensive. Keller says, “To the degree a ministry is overadapted or underadapted to a culture, it loses life-changing power.” (p. 24)
Church leaders have struggled to find the center from the very beginnings of the biblical record. Old Testament leaders well understood the tendency to overadapt to the surrounding cultures. Despite their love for the Mosaic Law, they struggled constantly with keeping it, as they succumbed to their desire to become more like the nations around them (1 Sam 8:4-9).
These instances of overadaptation resulted in their compromising their unique identity as God’s people. Despite reform movements under faithful kings like Hezekiah and Josiah, Israel typically found themselves slipping back into places of idolatry and spiritual adultery. Given their experience, it is understandable that some of their leaders would underadapt and become more separatists in their views, as the Pharisees were. Yet, this misses the point, too, just in the opposite direction.
The struggle to find the center came to a head in Jesus’ ministry. His focus on the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” consistently placed him in the company of those furthest from God, much to the displeasure of the religious leaders. Fearful of syncretism, they constantly opposed his ministry and saw him as a threat to their way of life. Yet, Jesus was clear in his priorities and understood that reaching out to those who were sick and in need of the doctor didn’t indicate a lack of love or concern for those who were well. His example was (as remains) a clarion call to engagement. He was expressing the need to listen to those who were hurting and without hope, reaching out with the healing touch of a loving God. This was not syncretism—it was pure and unbounded love.
The Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles present a similar picture of a young church seeking to find God’s center. Following the vision of the great sheet containing all kinds of food, Peter reaches out to Cornelius and his household (Acts 10). His explanation to his fellow leaders reflects Jesus’ more nuanced understanding that one could maintain the call to holiness while simultaneously engaging the culture. Barnabas and Paul followed Peter’s lead in Antioch and later took the call to reach the entire Gentile world with the message of the Gospel as their primary mission.
Like Peter, Paul also understood that the call to holiness and the call to engage the culture were not mutually exclusive, but two sides of the same calling. In fact, it is clear that in Paul’s mind, one could not adequately live out his calling unless he was engaging the culture (1 Co 9:20-22). Ultimately, it is this vision that has fueled all of the great missionary movements throughout church history. These questions remain relevant for us today and must be addressed.
The Fresh Expressions Movement that began in the Anglican Church in the UK almost 20 years ago is a great example for us to follow. Pioneer planters began establishing relationships with micro communities that would never darken the doors of their churches. Biker gangs, prostitutes, skaters, and hip hop artists are just a few. The emphasis for them began with listening. Each of these groups represented a sub-culture that had developed its own ways of thinking and communicating. Each of them had little or no relationship to the Church. To communicate the Gospel, they reasoned, they needed to first understand the other’s language. To do this, they had to establish relationships first, gain trust, and gradually earn the right to be heard.
These relational bridges are “pre-evangelistic” and need to be strong enough before the Gospel can be shared. The key is to be sure the bridge is strong enough to hold the weight of the message. Today more than 10% of the Anglican Church in England is made up of these Fresh Expressions who were previously far from God and completely disconnected from the life of Christ and from the Church. All of this became possible because faithful missionaries stopped waiting for them to come visit their churches and decided to go to find them in the highways and byways of their communities.
As our churches grapple with finding the center, we too need to master the art of listening and learning how others think and what they believe. There are vast differences which must be bridged. In a recent meeting, the Missional Planning team from All Nations DC recently articulated it this way: “Who do we want to be? In working towards our goals, are we catering to who we currently have in the congregation or tailoring for who we want to reach?” Excellent question! Another way to ask this might be, “For whom are we doing our ministries: ourselves or others who need to receive what God has given to us?”
The faithful Church in the twenty-first century must find the middle ground, the solid center, where we are unapologetically faithful to the One who has called, redeemed, and is sanctifying us while also building bridges and sharing the Gospel with those who do not yet know or follow Him. This is the fullest expression of our discipleship.