How should the church relate to the culture of people entering faith? There are at least three possibilities:
- Imperialism: the church can impose its culture on them. This happened with some missionary work in the past, and is now rightly rejected. Dress, types of music and other concerns can drown out the heart of the gospel. Christians' taste can be confused with God's will.
- Syncretism: the church can surrender to their culture. It can embrace the culture of non-believers in an uncritical way. Christians can go so far in accommodating a different culture that they lose their distinctiveness. The culture isn't challenged by a church living out the counter-cultural dimensions of its faith.
- Inculturation: the church engages with culture. A two-way transformation occurs. The church is changed as it enters a different culture. The culture changes as it is challenged by the gospel. Jesus provides the supreme example of inculturation.
God has immersed himself in human culture
Not least through the incarnation. 'Culture' can mean the whole way of life of a people. When Jesus became a first-century Jew, the culture of the day moulded his life – from the language he spoke, to the clothes he wore, to the social pattern of his relationships. He was shaped by his mission context.
The water of baptism and the bread and wine of communion remind us that Jesus - through the Holy Spirit - is still involved in the stuff of everyday life.
Not only is the Spirit present in the sacraments, on entering a person's life the Spirit in a profound sense enters the culture of that person. 'To be filled with the Spirit' is to experience the Spirit touching each aspect of your everyday existence.
Christians also speak of the Spirit being active in the world, which includes the idea that the Spirit is present in the different cultures of humanity.
The Church Fathers spoke about the passion of the Spirit. Just as Jesus shared human suffering on the cross, so - in sharing human life - the Spirit experiences the sufferings of men and women. As well as enjoying the delights of human activity, God's immersion in everyday life causes him pain.
Fresh expressions take this cultural immersion very seriously
If God's mission involves the Son and the Spirit dwelling in human cultures, the church - as an agent of this mission - must do the same. 'The gospel can only be proclaimed in a culture, not at a culture' (Mission-shaped Church, Church House Publishing, 2004, p. 87).
Listening to the culture of the people they want to serve, and allowing the form of church to be shaped by that culture, is fundamental to fresh expressions. Take this cultural sensitivity away and fresh expressions are nothing. One hallmark of a fresh expression is that it genuinely fits the cultural context.
Legacy XS is a good example. Legacy XS, a youth congregation in Essex, holds its meetings in a purpose-built centre used as a drop-in throughout the week.
Facilities at the centre were designed in response to the needs of teenagers in the local community.
There is a skate park, café and computer room, all of which are used for education, discipleship and fun. Skateboarding sometimes forms part of the worship..
Does entering today's culture involve selling out to culture?
Some Christians fear that the gospel's distinctiveness will be lost if the church gets too immersed in contemporary culture. The church should challenge consumerism and other aspects of the modern world rather than compromise with it.
We would entirely agree. When Jesus entered the culture of his day, he also provided a challenge. He challenged the profiteering in the temple forecourts. He opposed how Pharisees interpreted the law. He called the people to a new way of life centred on him.
The other side of the coin to cultural relevance is praying for ways to help improve society - to tame the excesses of consumerism, for example, and to create inclusive rather that exclusive communities. (See God seeks to transform society.)
This requires a particular type of holiness
A holiness based on being different rather than being separate. The holiness of Jesus was not based on being separate from the world. Rather, he threw himself into everyday life. He loved parties. He loved tax collectors, prostitutes and others whom respectable society despised.
The Jewish leaders were appalled because he challenged their conception of holiness. They tried to be holy by separating themselves from people whose sin - they feared - would contaminate them, just as some in the church today are afraid of engaging too closely with culture lest they also be contaminated.
Jesus modelled a way of being holy that entailed being different in the midst of a culture rather than being different by withdrawing from the culture. He retained his spiritual purity despite enjoying the company of people who were less pure. He lived a distinctive life while being socially engaged.
Like Jesus, fresh expressions seek to be both culturally relevant and culturally distant. They seek to be holy not by separating themselves from modern culture, but by being a critical voice within it.
This calls for discernment
What aspects of today's society should Christians affirm and what aspects should they seek to change?