Culture and the Cross

On January 27th in a graduate class entitled Ethnotheology, a professor explained the relationship of the church to its surrounding cultural influences. Echoing Paul’s sentiments that Christians are to be in the world but not of the world, his steady hand drew two circles, a smaller circle representing the church inside of a larger circle labeled culture.

To indicate the magnitude of influence the world tends to exert on shaping the church, a thick arrow led from the sphere of the world to the church. Conversely, a thin arrow emanating from the realm of the church to its surrounding culture described that the reign of God must seek to impact its surrounding culture. Yet, here was realistic acknowledgment that the force of culture would often be greater. After arguing that the proclamation of the gospel must rise above culture he proceeded to teach, “Our presentation of the gospel has been too parochial or local. There are attempts to make Christianity blend with the local culture. Will the local interests divide the body?”

Today what cultural pressures threaten to shape the church into its own parochial image instead of Christ’s? As those immersed within our culture, how strongly does the tug of culture shape our perspectives? Consider the following thin slice of the cultural pie.

A new generation of Christians have grown up in the wake of the “Me Generation” where marketing campaigns exalted “Have It Your Way” and glossy magazines such as “Self” filled store racks. Rock lyrics have blared, “…this is my life. Leave me alone” while the incessant drum beat “Its all about me” sought to provide the summum bonum.

Should we be surprised that such a culture would produce Christians whose measuring stick would be their own opinions? In such a self-aggrandizing climate, should we be shocked that for some their own simple assertion, “I do not think doctrine is important,” settles the matter for them? Is it not predictable how these cultural forces would cause people to rationalize about the worship assembly? As if self-expression is the goal within the Lord’s assembly and numerical growth pandering to self-centered tastes should be allowed to run rough shod over higher priorities, culturally-trained voices, genuinely motivated but blind to the current carrying them along, will resonate with the idea: “When young people with instrumental talents come to our church, it is no wonder that they move on because there is no avenue in worship for them to express their abilities.” To be sure, although they will perceive such doctrinal perspectives to be buttressed by grace and freedom in worship, the fact remains, where such culturally driven discussions have erupted, often the heart of the issue has remained obscured to the impoverishment of the theological exchanges.

Near Caesarea Philippi Jesus taught, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”/1 Confronted with his own desires running contrary to the cross looming ahead, Jesus won the conflict as he cried out, “May this cup be taken from me. Yet, not as I will, but as you will.”/2

Years after Jesus died, a pen scurried across parchment to write: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”/3 “He died for all that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for him who died for them and was raised again.”/4 “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”/5 This struggle of power between Christ and the world for whose influence will dominate us vividly springs to life through the words: “As I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things.”/6

The cross we are to bear is not merely some difficulty in life or illness, our cross consists of nothing less than the death of our will in order to serve God’s. The message of the cross penetrates beyond significant but superficial wranglings to drive to the heart of the matter. Whose will reigns in my heart? What compass will guide how I make decisions? These are the questions of life and worship.

Accordingly, will my understanding of morality and ethics be shaped by my thinkums or God’s? Will my decisions be driven by “what will this do for me” or by “how does God want me to serve in this situation?” Should I approach worship with the buffet mentality of shopping for what I like most and how I want to express myself or is my role to seek to serve God as he has requested?

Unless we first die to our desires in order to hear God’s will, God’s voice will be paralyzed by our specious rationalizations and speculations. Perhaps a starting point of reflection for the church is, what should hold the greatest transforming power over our lives and worship – our culture or the cross of Christ?
1/ Matthew 16:24
2/ Matthew 26:39
3/ Galatians 2:20
4/ 2 Corinthians 5:15
5/ Colossians 3:2-3
6/ Philippians 3:18-19

The message of the cross penetrates beyond superficial wranglings to address the heart of the matter regarding life and worship.

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Barry Newton

Married to his wonderful wife Sofia and a former missionary in Brazil, Barry enjoys trying to express old truths in fresh ways. They have two boys attending university.

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