Category: Gospel and Culture

Books & Engaging Culture thru Missional Communities

I had a nice time with some church leaders in our area this evening. They invited me to talk to them on the topic of cultural engagement. I’ll note the resources I referred to under each heading. The talk unfolded along three lines of thought.

What is Culture and Why Care About it?

This is a mash up of Ken Meyers and my own Anthropological training. In his insightful book, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes (its much better than it sounds), Meyers says culture is “What we make of the world.” It’s a double entendre. Culture is ideas and products, assessments and artifacts.

Developing a brief biblical theology of culture, I cited Mark Noll’s commentary on evangelicals from The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind:

For an entire Christian community to neglect, generation after generation, serious attention to the mind, nature, society, the arts — all spheres created by God and sustained for his own glory — may be, in fact, sinful

Paradigms for Engaging Culture

Here I pointed the foundational work of Richard Neihbur’s Christ & Culture, but advocated a simpler and more flexible paradigm from the lesser known Lamin Sanneh, an African missiolgist who teaches a Princeton. In his Translating the Message, Sanneh suggest three-fold approach that is not sequential but overlapping and flexible:

  • QUARANTINE – holy seclusion from the world through spiritual disciplines and moral decision-making. What we quarantine from may change over time and we mature as Christians in matters of conscience (e.g. Acts 15 versus 1 Cor 8 on the matter of food sacrificed to idols).
  • SYNCRETISM - Syncretism refers to those theological and ethical issues that are no longer normative but are open to conscience, emphasizing holiness and responsibility in the world. It is the first step in contextualization.
  • REFORM - Reform is a prophetic stance that attempts to keep one foot the kingdom of the world and another foot in the kingdom of heaven.  The result is not a condemnation of culture (though that is one possibility), but instead it focuses on the continual reformation of ethics and behavior thus celebrating, condemning, and critiquing culture while anchored in the text.

These can be simplified into REJECT, RECEIVE, REDEEM but using these terms loses some of Sanneh’s nuance.

Missional Community Questions 

1 PEOPLE: What people is God sending you to? Where do they live and hang out? How could we re-orient our lives to be with them. Go to community spots, where people gather in your area: parks, gyms, bars, libraries. You can’t engage people you’ve never met.

2 LANGUAGE: What “language” do they speak? Are these people young families, business professionals, hipsters, etc. Read their Literature. Watch their films. Learn their language, where values are embedded. Language is the passageway to the heart.

3 VALUE: What is most important to them? Success, money, relationships, independence. Ask 2nd  Level questions about people’s history. Most of only know people from a recent period forward. Know their past and how it has formed them. Ask 3rd Level which inquires into the why of their hopes, fears, dreams, concerns. It slices vertically into their horizontal history to understand them more.

4 GOSPEL: How is the Gospel good news to them? How does it address their values? How is the Gospel better than what they value most right now. Build bridges to what they values and apply the gospel specifically to broken or inordinate values.

5 NEEDS: What are their needs? How does Jesus meet those needs? How can we be a part of meeting their needs in a way “shows” the Gospel.

The Consequences of Dislocation

In our first year of marriage, it was not uncommon to find me steadily peering down toward my lap whenever we had guests at the dinner table. I had to be prepared. If the conversation remained superficial or became dull, I would discreetly turn my eyes from our guests, and to my wife’s horror, begin reading the book of choice, placed carefully in my lap.

I was present but absent.

Everywhere but Nowhere

This is, perhaps, an apropos description of modern life. Head down and heart disengaged, our thoughts are elsewhere. We are “dislocated”, as Jeremy Writebol posits in his new book, everPresent. Teeming with technological distraction, or simply absorbed with Self, we are often missing from the present. We have lost the wisdom of Seneca who warns, “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”

Consequences of Dislocation

The consequences of dislocation often go uncalculated. Jeremy does some of the math for us. Our sense of place is, perhaps, the first to go. Preoccupation blinds us to the sights and sounds of our surroundings and, as a result, we fail to fully enjoy the gift of the moment. Our environments devolve into means. The inherent value of place is lost on us and, as a result, restoring broken places is often far from our minds.

Worse still, people are affected. In my foolish stints at the dinner table, I dishonored my wife and neglected persons, sent to my home to receive hospitality and love. Fifteen years later, I’ve improved my dinner table conduct considerably, but face a similar temptation with the Smartphone. Dislocation is now socially acceptable. Our children may suffer the most from our disengagement with the present. While we may scoff at the hippies who escaped parental duties in pursuit of a high, our substance of choice may actually take us further away from our children. Certainly, the substance varies from person to person. For some, it is accomplishment. Kierkegaard writes, “Let us never deceive youth by foolish talk about the mater of accomplishing. Let us never make them so busy in the service of the moment, that they forget the patience of willing something eternal.”

Of course, the lure of accomplishment can be cloaked in the eternal. “Ministry” is not immune from our disease. What then is the cause of our illness? Dislocation from God. Jeremy cautions that “soul dislocation is terminal.” This is true not only for us but also for those around us. Our diversion not only impedes communion but also disengages us from mission.

 We desperately need relocation.

 The Gospel Relocates us in the Present

The Christian faith possesses rich resources to remedy this crisis. EverPresent: How the Gospel Relocates Us in the Present transports us to those resources with fresh language and focused practice. It signals profound hope in the incarnate Christ who affirms place, and in the dying-rising Christ, who relocates us back into the all-satisfying presence of God. We do, after all, have a God who is omnipresent, with us and for the world in every moment. Jeremy sensitively and prophetically calls us to join God there, in the present, for our flourishing and the sake of the world.

Why “Unchurched” is Unhelpful

According to statistics, there are a lot of “unchurched” people in the U.S. No county in the US has registered a greater percentage of church persons over the past decade. Church attendance has declined over the past few years by 10%, and the US is the only continent where Christianity is not growing. People aren’t going to church like they used to. So, we refer to them as “unchurched.”

What Does “Unchurched” Really Mean?

Over ten years ago, Robert Fuller made three major distinctions among the so-called unchurched:

  • Secular Humanists
  • Religious but Not Church-oriented
  • Spiritual but not Religious

These distinctions, alone, are helpful in clarifying who our neighbors might be. Yet, I rarely hear church planters and missional organizations explain the unchurched in this way. Instead, “unchurched” remains an amorphous and imprecise term. Why, then, do we continue to use it?

Maybe part of the reason is we call them “unchurched” is based on a hidden, faulty ecclesiology–church equals getting people to attend a Sunday service. In many of the statistics I have examined, this is often the primary criteria for characterizing someone as unchurched. Is the mission of God to get people “into a church service”? The New Testament gives us a much thicker view of God’s mission. It runs deeper and goes further.

Why We Need Deeper Thinking on a Term

We need to go deeper before we go further in reaching the unchurched. We need to ask: “What do they (secular humanists, religious but not church-oriented, or spiritual but not religious people) think of Christianity?” Gabe Lyons & David Kinnaman’s book UnChristian was a popular step forward in taking this humble, missionary posture. To take the conversation a couple steps further, we need to understand what people think Christianity is. Truth be told, they often think of something altogether different than what we think of. As a result, a lot of gospel communication communicates something other than the gospel. For instance:

  • We say “have faith”; they hear “anti-science.”
  • We say “Christ”; they hear “moral example.”
  • We say “cross”; they hear “arcane human sacrifice.”
  • We say “Christianity”; they hear “Republican and anti-gay.”
  • What are people in your part of the country hearing you say?

If we are to love people estranged from Christ and distant from the church, we need to get into their skin, listen to their stories, and begin understanding who they are. To do this, I recommend we view parts of our culture as resistant peoples. 

Resistant Peoples

What are resistant peoples? Missiologist Michael Pocock writes: “The resistant are those who have or are receiving an adequate opportunity to hear the gospel but over some time have not responded positively (Pocock, “Raising Questions about the Resistant”). This means that the resistant are not unreached, though they are often uninterested in church. At least two of Fuller’s unchurched sub-groups could be considered resistant.

To be clear, I am not suggesting you start calling your co-workers “resistant peoples!” Though some would consider it a compliment!

Not unlike the term unchurched, defining the resistant is has its problems; however, Dr. Timothy Tennent helpfully points out that peoples can be resistant in at least four ways: culturally, theologically, ethnically or politically (Tennent, “Equipping Missionaries for the Resistant”). Depending on which area of the U.S you live in, or what sub-cultures you are ministering to, any one or a combination of these four areas may apply. A good missionary will take each one as a lens to discern what obstacles are in front of the gospel.


As I see it, a major challenge to reaching the resistant is to approach our Christianity with redemptive suspicion. We need to question Christianity wherever it places political, moral, and cultural obstacles in front of the gospel. For example, some Christians would insist on that a person change their political views before becoming a Christian. Or that they need to change their sexual orientation before putting faith in Jesus. We need to wisely discern which objections are legitimate among resistant peoples. Then, deconstruct defective cultural views and reconstruct biblical, gospel-centered views in areas such as politics and sexuality.

By rethinking who we are relating to (unchurched or resistant), and how we relate to them (areas of resistance and the gospel), we can remove stumbling blocks to Christ and move the mission forward. To begin, I recommend we take Tennent’s four areas–political, cultural, ethnic, and theological–and begin filling them out with specific reasons, from our contexts, as to why people are not interested in church or the gospel.