[Q] In what concrete ways do Christians serve as salt within our culture? Note that salt, when used as seasoning, shouldn’t call attention to itself, but rather the food that it makes savory. Such is the case with light, too—it’s supposed to call attention to that which it illuminates. Where in our culture are Christians serving as light, dispelling the darkness?
If time allows, ask your group members to describe how they are being light in the world.
In the final analysis, we are to be light to our culture, not to expand our own power or influence, but so that people “may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
Teaching point five: Christians are to spread the gospel in the world (culture).
In order to fully understand the parable of the Sower (see Mark 4:1-9, 13-20), we have to know how seed was sown in Jesus’ time. A farmer would sow seed, then someone else would come along and plow under the seeds. Some seeds would germinate, grow, and produce fruit; other seeds would not grow at all; and still other seeds would grow, but for one reason or another they wouldn’t become productive.
Jesus seems to be telling his disciples to sow the gospel anywhere and everywhere, not worrying about what the results will be. Someone else will come along and plow the seeds under. And later, what produce there is can be harvested.
Some missiologists see this parable as an apt description of how Christians should live in our culture. We embody and share the gospel through acts of mercy and testimonies of faith. We don’t need to worry about whether the ground on which we are “broadcasting” the gospel will produce. Some “seeds” will take hold and produce fruit; some won’t.
In order to sow the seed, however, we have to use whatever “soil” presents itself to us in our culture. We have to use the language, the concepts, the art, and the musical idioms of the culture in which we live in order to embody and share the gospel within it. This is why, for instance, the church throughout history has used musical idioms of the day in its worship—not just to be “contemporary,” but to incarnate the gospel in ways the world could appreciate.
While the gospel never changes, its communication can be adapted to the cultural forms or any given culture. This is sometimes referred to as the incarnational or enculturation model of evangelism.
[Q] How might we use the cultural forms of our own society in order to communicate the gospel? Where do you see examples of it already happening? What are the dangers of using secular contemporary forms in order to communicate the gospel?
Apply Your Findings
Stackhouse summarizes the five major ways in which Christians have responded to culture, as presented in Niebuhr’s classic work, Christ and Culture (1951). Together as a class, review each of these types briefly. Perhaps it helps to give each a one-word label: separatist, accomodationist, synthetic, paradoxical, and transformationist.
[Q] Then ask the class members to place themselves in Niebuhr’s typology: Which one best suits you?
[Q] Which of the biblical principles above are reflected in each of the types? Does one type seem to reflect more biblical principles than others do? If so, which one and why?
If time allows, continue your discussion along all or any of these lines:
[Q] What would be lost, for instance, if there weren’t some Christians who emphasize the lostness of the world and separation from the evil of the world?
[Q] What would be lost if there weren’t some Christians in the world committed to transforming the world through missions, health care, education, business, politics, and the arts?
[Q] If each one of these positions has some necessary, perhaps even biblical, emphases, what are the downsides of each type?
[Q] Stackhouse maintains that the Christ-against-culture stance—the sectarian impulse—has been characteristic of fundamentalists who want to maintain separation from the world. The Christ-of-culture type, he says, characterizes some evangelicals who blur the lines between allegiance to God and country and see America as either a Christian nation or a place where we should work to realize our Christian ideals. Do you agree with Stackhouse’s assumptions here? Why or why not? Do you see examples of Niebuhr’s mediating positions—those between these two extremes—evident among evangelical Christians?
Stackhouse maintains that paradox is a difficult place for evangelicals to occupy. Evangelicals prefer the binary oppositions of light and darkness, the church and the world, the spirit and the flesh. Stackhouse himself seems to prefer the “Christ and culture in paradox” position, concluding that “we might also recognize that God has called us to lives of difficult paradox, of painful negotiation between conflicting and competitive values, seeking to cooperate with God wherever he is at work. Such a position, full of ambiguity and irony, is also full of faith and hope.” What do you think of Stackhouse’s argument? Can you think about instances in your own life when you were forced to make a difficult moral decision in which, perhaps, there may not have been black and white alternatives, only different shades of gray? If time allows, give the class opportunity to share such incidents with each other.
In a trenchant critique of Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture typology, John Howard Yoder argues that culture isn’t monolithic. Even the Amish, for example, aren’t anti-culture; they accept some aspects of the dominant culture while developing alternatives for other aspects. Some aspects of any given culture Christians will be able to use and accept; others, they will need to reject. This calls for discernment that takes place in the context of the church, the body of Christ, informed by Scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This discernment will lead Christians to reject some aspects of culture, adopt and adapt other aspects, and work toward the transformation of still other elements of culture. Unfortunately, Christians today are divided over which aspects of our culture are acceptable and which ones aren’t—although this isn’t unique to the church today.
[Q] “Culture wars” have been present within the church almost from the beginning. For discussion: How does your congregation serve as a place of discerning what is right or wrong about culture? Identify elements in our culture that illustrate these three responses to culture: rejection, acceptance, transformation. For example, pornography would be an obvious cultural expression to reject, yet art as a whole can be used and/or transformed. Think of examples in your life of these three responses to culture. In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, there has been a great outpouring of American patriotism. For Christians, could participation in this patriotism amount to an example of the accomodationist or the synthetic stance toward culture? Is there a danger that such patriotism can be idolatrous for Christians?
Study prepared by Christian Centuryassociate editor and former Christianity Today associate editor Richard A. Kauffman.
A Handout for Further Study
Culture: Love It, Leave It, or Transform It
Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture is 50 years old—
and still has something wise to say to evangelicals.
In the coming week, be especially mindful of the values communicated in two areas: advertising and mass media.
What goodness (light) do they reflect?
What evil (darkness) is reflected in advertising and the mass media?
Then think about how the gospel is “good news” for the darkness of our culture as you see it in these two arenas.
How might the gospel be communicated or embodied using the same cultural forms of the advertising and media worlds? Can you help with this kind of evangelism?
In the World, but…
Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture is 50 years old—and still has something wise to say to evangelicals.
By John G. Stackhouse, Jr., for the study, “Culture: Love It, Leave It, or Transform It.”
The theological world owes a great debt to Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Texas, which invited Yale professor H. Richard Niebuhr to deliver the lectures that resulted in Christ and Culture (1951), one of the most influential Christian books of the past century. Perhaps no other book has dominated an entire theological conversation for so long. Niebuhr’s famous “five types” continue to serve as the launching point for most discussions of the interaction of Christianity and culture.
To mark this 50th anniversary, HarperSanFrancisco has reissued Christ and Culture with a winsome foreword by Martin Marty, a lengthy and strangely defensive preface by ethicist James Gustafson (Niebuhr’s student and friend), and a bonus essay, “Types of Christian Ethics” (1942), in which Niebuhr began to work out his analytical framework.
Like Christians of other persuasions, evangelicals have often used Niebuhr’s book as a point of departure to define how we should—and should not—interact with contemporary culture. Evangelicals have inhabited all of Niebuhr’s types. And, given the varied circumstances in which evangelicals have sought to serve Christ, each type can be seen to offer its own integrity—despite Niebuhr’s own sometimes jaundiced view of this or that option.
Niebuhr’s first type, “Christ against culture,” characterizes the sectarian impulse. In “Types of Christian Ethics,” Niebuhr calls this the “new law” type. Christians in this mode see the world outside the church as hopelessly corrupted by sin. The kingdom of God comes to supersede it—currently in the purity of the church, and ultimately in the messianic kingdom. God calls Christians to “come out from among them and be ye separate” in communities of holiness. Mennonites, Baptists, Christian Brethren, Pentecostals, and most types of fundamentalists have included individuals and congregations that fit this model.
At the other end of the typology lies the model of “Christ of culture,” in which the absolute conflict of one against the other gives way to a harmony between them. Christians in this mode seek to discern and then champion the highest moral and spiritual common ground between the teachings of Christianity and the noblest values of contemporary culture. Niebuhr identified this model with Germany’s “Culture Protestantism” of the late 19th and early 20th century, with American Whigs such as Thomas Jefferson, and with Victorian liberals such as John Stuart Mill. Evangelicals have manifested this type whenever we have closely associated God and country and assumed that our nations are Christian, or “almost,” so that with enthusiasm and effort we can realize that ideal.