One of the major discussions among Evangelicals today focuses on the importance of understanding and engaging the culture, of doing cultural exegesis, etc. I affirm the significance of this discussion. However, I also fear that for some it may become the central discussion at the expense of the one that is to be of first importance, the gospel.
For Evangelicals who have become somewhat enamored with being cultural savvy or astute in our attempt to be relevant, it would be wise to listen carefully to those who have trod this path before, those in other churches and denominations who followed a similar course. It certainly does not mean that we ought not to engage with culture. We must, since the gospel transforms people who influence and impact culture. But we must do so wisely and discerningly.
I was reminded of the importance of this again recently by something written by William Willimon. He serves in a place where the culture has consumed the gospel and writes about it in The Culture is Overrated. He begins,
When I recently asked a group of pastors what areas they wanted help with in their preaching, most replied, “To preach sermons that really hit my people where they live.”
At one time I would have agreed this was one of the primary purposes of Christian preaching—to relate the gospel to contemporary culture. Now I believe it is our weakness.
In leaning over to speak to the modern world, I fear we may have fallen in. Most of the preaching in my own denomination struggles to relate the gospel to the modern world. We sought to use our sermons to build a bridge from the old world of the Bible to the modern world; the traffic was always one way, with the modern world rummaging about in Scripture, saying things like, “This relates to me,” or, “I’m sorry, this is really impractical.” It was always the modern world telling the Bible what’s what.
This way of preaching fails to do justice to the rather imperialistic claims of Scripture. The Bible doesn’t want to speak to the modern world; the Bible wants to convert the modern world.
Importantly, the gospel is a culture and creates a culture, which makes the people of God counter-cultural. In many ways, Christians are against the culture for the culture, for its common good (language that is used today). And Willimon writes of the importance of not becoming impatient or apologetic of this gospel-formed and gospel shaped culture.
When we speak of reaching out to our culture through the gospel, we must be reminded that the gospel is also a culture. In the attempt to “translate” the gospel into the language of the culture, something is lost. We are learning that you have not said “salvation” when you say “self-esteem.” “The American Way” is not equivalent to “the kingdom of God.”
You cannot learn to speak French by reading a French novel in an English translation—you must sit for the grammar, the syntax, and the vocabulary and learn it. So you cannot know Christianity by having it translated into some other medium like Marxism, feminism, or the language of self-esteem. Christianity is a distinct culture with its own vocabulary, grammar, and practices. Too often, when we try to speak to our culture, we merely adopt the culture of the moment rather than present the gospel to the culture.
Our time as preachers is better spent acculturating modern, late-twentieth-century Americans into that culture called church. When I walk into a class on introductory physics, I expect not to understand immediately most of the vocabulary, terminology, and concepts. Why should it be any different for modern Americans walking into a church?
In conclusion, Willimon illustrates how counter-cultural and yet culture forming and shaping the gospel is, and the importance of the church and preaching in that culture.
The other day, someone emerged from Duke Chapel after my sermon and said, “I have never heard anything like that before. Where on earth did you get that?”
I replied, “Where on earth would you have heard this before? After all, this is a pagan, uninformed university environment. Where would you hear this? In the philosophy department? Watching Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood? No, to hear this, you’ve got to get dressed and come down here on a Sunday morning.”
It is a strange assumption for Americans to feel they already have the equipment necessary to comprehend the gospel without any modification of lifestyle, without any struggle—in short, without being born again.
The point is not to speak to the culture. The point is to change it. God’s appointed means of producing change is called “church”; and God’s typical way of producing church is called “preaching.
This is an excellent “testimony” and reminder about the centrality of the Word of God, and that the Word of God creates a culture itself, the people of God, who have been transformed by the gospel and are to impact the culture. This testimony comes from one within a movement that has, for the most part, given lip service to the Bible, the gospel, and become preeminently focused on the culture. Evangelicals have become quite enamored with cultural matters.
My point: it is absolutely necessary to understand culture, to exegete culture, to educate and equip believers to live life in this culture, to be in this world – but let’s make certain we remember the rest of Jesus’ statement as well, not to be of the world (Jn. 17; cf. Matt. 5:13-16). I am convinced of this. But we must also remember the vital, foundational place for the gospel that works outward to transform people, who then in turn influence and impact the culture. It is a matter of both/and with the gospel being that truth of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:1-5) of which we are not ashamed (Rom. 1:16).