I was asked recently, “What role does culture play in determining the church’s ministry?” That is a good question, especially when there are so many different ideas and responses regarding it. I would like to build my response around a review and recommendation of Reclaiming the Center, Confronting Evangelical Accommodations in Postmodern Times, by Millard Erickson, Paul Kjoss Helseth, and Justin Taylor.
I want my response not be read as pro or con, but as a challenge to move carefully and cautiously, following Scripture and developing a biblically sound theology to guide us. We need to dialogue with one another and work through some of these murky waters together. We have much to learn and much to teach as leaders in Christ’s church.
Consider a statement made by George Marsden in his book, Evangelicalism and Modern America. He said, “Sometimes the price that we have to pay for popularity is an adjustment of the message to what the audience wants to hear.” At a recent major youth conference, one of the speakers suggested that one’s goal is not to “preach the Word” but rather to engage the audience. I often use a statement by Cornelius Plantinga to emphasize the need to understand our world: “Suppose we get close enough to secular culture to understand it, to witness to it, to try in some ways to reform it. How do we keep from being seduced by it?”
In a historical perspective, the Church has always struggled to communicate to the people in understandable terms. Especially since the days leading up to and into the Protestant Reformation, communicating with the people has been one of the Church’s goals. By the time the Westminster Divines wrote the Westminster Confession of Faith, the emphasis was definitely on making the Word available in the “vulgar” everyday street language of the people (WCF 1:8). The Divines addressed the need for both the educated and uneducated to be able to read, understand, and apply the Scriptures. They understood well that you couldn’t address people in a cultural vacuum. They also were aware of the impossibility of completely divorcing oneself from this enculturation.
You can observe this in 17th and 18th century theology. At that time the, cultural context was basically determined by Enlightenment philosophy or modernism, as we call it today. That was a paradigm that replaced revelation, supernatural religion, faith, and understanding, with reason, logic and natural religion. Much of the “reformed theology” of that time was done in that context. Hence, many of the theologians were under the influence of Scottish Realism, which attributed man with certain foundational knowledge that he knew with his own mind. Revelation did not play a major role in giving him those foundational “truths.” They simply bought into the language and philosophy of the culture and did their theology in that context. Nancy Pearcey in her book, Total Truth (reviewed in the January/February Equip) sugested that one of the main reasons Western Christianity so completely embraced the philosophy of dualism was because the church failed to develop a consistent language to express their theology but rather borrowed language from the world.
Part of the philosophy of Christian Education and Publications’ training and resources ministry is not only to challenge the church but also to provide tools that will help it understand the Word and the world. David Wells has said, “Not only must evangelicals be trained to understand the context of God’s revelation, but they also should expend some comparable effort to understand the culture they propose to address…. An evangelical theology must involve serious study of one’s culture and its history.”
How can we minister to people in a particular context that reflects an understanding of the culture without changing the message? How much does the way we attempt to communicate truth and the Gospel betray the very message we are attempting to communicate? Marsden raised this question: “Will our attempt to communicate the Gospel truth be done deliberately and controlled or will it be done haphazardly and unconscious of what we are doing?”
As we deal this issue, we walk a tightrope. We can genuinely attempt to communicate God’s truth in a way that takes those universal or absolutes, which mainly, but not totally, transcends one’s culture, or we can carelessly communicate in a manner that relativizes those truths.
How we communicate, even how we worship, must reflect a cultural sensitivity. However, ultimately, our message and worship cannot be audience determined. How we frame “the message” in a particular cultural context is another matter. It is one thing to have an understanding of the audience, which is a must if we are to communicate. It is another to merely accommodate our message or worship to their wishes, desires, or wants. James D. Hunter has written about how evangelicals learned to market their message, insinuating that the message became audience driven. When that happens discipleship is reduced to formulas and checklists. Communicating the Gospel becomes driven by organization and technique. Hunter further indicates that one of the most significant changes that has taken place in evangelicalism is the shift from objective to subjective truth. His research among college and seminary students indicates that we will see even greater accommodation to modernity. The church is cautioned to watch and not to be squeezed into the world’s mold (Rom 12:1,2).
Evangelicalism has always attempted to adjust to its culture. Though there have been different nuisances within that movement, there has been basic agreement on the Bible and Gospel. There has also been much variation in how the Bible and Gospel are communicated but without accommodating to the world’s ways.
One thing is certain; we cannot influence the world by being like the world. We cannot be both in the world and like the world and accomplish any lasting purpose. Within Christianity, especially within the North American church, there has been cultural sensitivity and a genuine desire to reach today’s audience. Reclaiming the Center raises the warning that what may appear to be positive may in fact be accommodating to the point of changing the message. Whether they are called post-conservatives, younger evangelicals, post-fundamentalists, or the emerging church matters not. Labels do not always communicate what they are intended to. Some who would be identified by those labels may not be intending to change or alter the message of the Gospel, but in fact may be doing just that. I wish every pastor, teacher, leader would read this book, especially the chapters by Justin Taylor, D. A. Carson, Douglas Groothuis, J. P. Moreland and Garrett De Weese, and Millard Erickson. Carson’s analysis of Grenz’s writings are most helpful and challenging. Groothuis’s chapter on truth is basic and essential. James Parker’s chapter on the Requiem for Postmodernism, and Moreland and DeWeese’s chapter on foundationalism are highlights in the book. The other supporting chapters add their helpful thoughts.
The title of Erickson’s chapter, “Flying in Theological Fog,” reflects a deep concern in today’s postmodern world. Along with the writers, I wonder if we are flying in a fog and are lacking in the instruments needed to land safely. The new conservatives or younger evangelicals may not be trained to fly in this foggy culture and they may spin out, fly into the ground and die. Erickson and Carson express great concern that some of the newer evangelicals may lack, or at least fail to demonstrate, the historic understanding or perspective to see the implication of their theology. It is one thing to learn about culture and its ideologies. It is another to embrace and adapt them a message that will be altered by them. What we believe must be based on God’s revelation. Therefore, we must have a solid doctrinal foundation that requires carefully choosing our means of expression.
The obvious message is that we cannot accommodate our culture by developing postmodern churches, but rather build biblical sound churches to minister to a postmodern world. Or, to put it in terms of the book, our theology is determined by God’s objective truth, not by the community’s reflection of its beliefs. Objective truth determines the norms and boundaries of the community.
If you have not caught it, Reclaiming the Center, is not only a response to evangelical accommodation, but to the book Renewing the Center, by the late Stanley J. Grenz. Whether you would find yourself in complete agreement with the writers or not, it is important to understand what they are saying about this topic. I think there is much at stake here.
Reclaiming the Center reminded me of the need to be discerning, to understand philosophical thought and development, and to be doctrinally sound. Obviously, many involved in this “new evangelicalism” or “emerging church” have a genuine desire to reach today’s people. Without careful consideration, however, the message intended may not be the message received. It may even conflict with God’s message. Erickson’s closing statement expresses my challenge,
“Our aim is not to tie ourselves too closely to any given cultural situation, but to be prepared to contextualize the message in such a way as to make it more easily understood by our contemporaries. The exact course of evangelical doctrinal formulation is unknown, but we have suggested in this chapter (and this book) some instruments that will help plot the course.”