Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Cultural and Countercultural: Negotiating the Tension

In my last blog post (Why I am Obsessed with Change) we discussed how the gospel is at least in part closely tied to culture in that it came to us in a culturally relevant, contextualized package. In other words, the gospel is packaged in a way that culture can relate to, understand, and connect with. It is designed to adapt, in terms of its expression, to various cultures while its message remains unchanged. Likewise the church that is spawned by the gospel is meant to adapt to culture (1 Cor 9.19-23), at least to a degree.

And those are important words: “at least to a degree.” Cultural influence upon the church, while not only unavoidable but actually necessary, should only go so far. For while the gospel message is designed to be expressed culturally, and cultural relevance is vital to the actually integrity of the gospel, the gospel and the church are also countercultural. In many ways, the gospel is the very antithesis of culture.

For example, culture—especially Western culture—values traits such as pride, individualism, self-sufficiency, strength, self-assertiveness, success, power, and even consumerism. Jesus, however, taught his disciples a very different value system. Instead of pride, it is the poor in spirit, the meek, humble, the pure, the peacemakers who are blessed (Mt 5.3-9). In fact, Jesus described himself as “gentle and humble of heart” (Mt 11.28-30). He was “crucified because of weakness” (2 Cor 13.4) and “became poor that we might become rich” (2 Cor 8.9). Paul had to learn that true strength lies in weakness, for when we are weak, then we are strong (2 Cor 12.5-9).

Instead of self-sufficiency, Christ asks us to surrender to and depend completely on him (Jn 15.5).

Instead of self-assertiveness, Jesus calls us to deny the self (Lk 9.23).

Instead of worldly success, it is the poor who are called (1 Cor 1.26-31; Jas 2.5).

Instead of power and authority, it is those who serve who are first in God’s eyes (Mk 10.41-45).

Instead of the individual, it is the community—one another—that is more important (1 Cor 12; Phil 2.3).

Instead of consumerism (the constant drive to obtain more, to receive, to get, to acquire), it is giving that is exalted in God’s eyes (Lk 12.33; 14.33; Acts 2.42-46; 20.35).

The very essence of the gospel message—that we are broken, helpless sinners in need of salvation through God’s grace, powerless to save ourselves—runs counter to the culture of the world. The world teaches us that we are inherently good, that guilt is an illusion, that we can earn our way into God’s favor through our good works, that we can achieve virtually anything by our own power. So while the gospel is foolishness to the world and those who accept it are looked on as weak (1 Cor 1.18f), “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (vs.25).

And herein lays the tension between culture and the gospel. While the gospel is meant to be packaged in culturally meaningful ways, and the church must (in fact, cannot help but to) adapt some of its forms and styles to the prevailing culture, it must at the same time remain countercultural. Yet we have not always negotiated this tension well. Too often Christians have surrendered to culture in the very areas where we should be countercultural, while simultaneously refusing to adapt to culture where we ought to adapt. Have we remained, for example, as prideful, individualistic, self-sufficient, and consumeristic as the world, while stubbornly holding onto archaic styles, formats, and methods of doing church and teaching the gospel? Have we isolated us ourselves in our “holy huddles” while simultaneously looking little different in our personal lives? Do we emulate culture where we ought to be countercultural, while at the same time being countercultural where ought to be culturally relevant?

I think these are important questions that every church and every Christian needs to answer. I am not suggesting it is easy to negotiate this tension, but if the church is thrive it is imperative that we do so.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Why I am Obsessed with Change

I recently posted a quote on my Facebook page that called for a need for visionary leadership that "drives beyond our headlights" and looks to the future rather than the present or the past to model how we do church and how we express the gospel. This sparked a dialogue in the comments in which the phrase "obsessed with change" was used. I greatly appreciated this comment because it helped me to realize that, in fact, I am obsessed with change. It even kept me awake and so here I am writing this blog post at 3:00 a.m. when I have to get up early to play a hockey game in the morning. But it's true. I am obsessed with change. I own up to it. I confess it. I admit it. And I stand by it. Here are my reasons why.

First, the changes that I believe need to be made in our churches are not merely about a response to changes in culture. Yes, they are somewhat about culture, and culture has been the spark to a call for change. As our culture dramatically changes, the church is called to change in order to stay contextual and "relevant." Dare I use that dirty word “relevant”? Let's just say, in order to stay meaningful. The gospel first came to us in a very culturally meaningful, contextual package or medium. Jesus, for example, came and lived among us as a fellow human being, incarnating (enfleshing) the message within the culture of humanity—making the message relevant to us (Jn 1.14-18). The gospel was first lived, then spoken, then later written down—but in the common, ordinary language of the day, the koine (common) Greek, which was the rough, spoken language of the common people of that culture so that it could be understood. And when the gospel, as it was being lived out, crossed the boundaries of Jewish culture into the foreign Greek or Gentile culture, it adapted it's styles and forms to the culture, as we see with Paul's practice (1 Cor 9.19-23). The gospel was in every sense contextualized into culture. It adapted to culture.

And so today as we witness and experience perhaps the most dramatic cultural change in Western history, a shift from modern to postmodern, from Christian to post-Christian, and even from post-modern to post-postmodern, the church needs to adapt its expression of the timeless and unchangeable message so that it will be understandable and meaningful to new generations—generations that find our way of "doing church" so foreign that it is not only unattractive, but almost unintelligible. We can’t get the message across if we speak a foreign language.

But it’s not simply about forms and culture and models of doing things. It’s about function. It’s about meaning. For example, millenials or postmoderns or new generations or whatever you want to call them desire a less institutionalized, more relational, organic way of living out the gospel in our communities. They call for a less hierarchal and more participatory form of leadership and ministry. They call for a less consumeristic and more active form of faith. These are not mere forms. These have to do with function, with meaning, with the purpose of the gospel and the church. So here’s the irony. The changes that need to be made in order for us to stay “relevant” in a changing world are changes that will actually make us more Biblical. Postmodernism is actually doing a great service to the church by calling us back to a more Biblical form of the gospel itself.

In fact, here is the real issue, and here is the second reason I am obsessed with change. It really is not just about changing the form or the medium of the message. It is about the message itself. It is not merely our forms that need to change to become more Biblical—it is our message. The church has reduced the message of the gospel down to individual salvation, leaving us unconcerned about the issues of the day that impact our communities. We have seen the gospel as simply getting our personal ticket to heaven punched while we sit in our secluded communities (“church”) isolated from and unconcerned about the culture and community around us. We have lost sight of the full mission and message of the gospel. Younger generations recognize that and they want no part of it. They want to hear a message that is not just about ideas and beliefs and doctrine (as important as these are), but one that is lived out in our neighborhoods and cities and in our world. That is, a message that is as relevant to this life as to the next. And this is the very essence of the incarnation, the gospel lived out in the flesh by each one of us. And they are right. And that is why I am obsessed with change. It is because I am obsessed with the gospel. If we don’t present the gospel in a way that is understandable to a changing culture, they won’t understand it. But more importantly, it won’t even be the gospel.