This question has been on my mind a great deal in the last week as I continue to process all the events of Catalyst with my consulting work with churches. On the one hand, there is the powerful call to the simplicity of the Gospel, as so clearly articulated by speaker after speaker. When we are obedient to God's calling and follow His command to live out the Gospel, we will see lives changed by the simple, powerful proclamation of the Word.
But on the other hand, the Church today pulses with the heartbeat and power of a new energy, based on the power of the gospel, led by the Spirit, and articulated in methods almost beyond imagination: multimillion dollar complexes that cater to the every need of a participant; music and technological productions that rival (and often exceed) the best Hollywood and Broadway have to offer; community/social/fellowship “third places” that take their cues straight from the corporate menus of Starbucks and the like. Have we crossed over the culture line?
Over 50 years ago Yale professor H. Richard Niebuhr delivered a series of lectures that resulted in his book Christ and Culture – still one of the most influential Christian books of the past century. Niebuhr’s five classifications of Christ and culture continue to serve as the foundational thought and reference point about the intersection of Christianity and culture. Here’s a very simplified version:
- Christ against culture – the world outside the church is hopelessly corrupted by sin; God calls His people to come out from the world and be separate.
- Christ above culture – all good in human culture is a gift from God, but requires Christian revelation and the involvement of the church.
- Christ transforming culture – nothing is outside of Christ’s dominion, and all of society is to be reclaimed in His name.
- Christ and culture in paradox – Christians live in tension knowing that God ordained worldly institutions, but God’s kingdom is in the world here and now.
- Christ of culture – there is a harmony of both, with Christians seeking the highest moral and spiritual common ground between the two.
Christ and culture in paradox immediately resonate with me. As soon as I see the words, I connect with Jim Collins’ book “Built to Last” with his powerful chapter on The Genius of the “And”. In business, he found that successful companies no longer were forced into an either/or situation. Instead, they embraced the paradox of both/and.
That leads me to the sower parables of Jesus: God plants wheat in the field, but his enemy comes along and plants weeds. The natural thought is to pull the weeds as soon as you can distinguish them, but the wise farmer lets them both grow to harvest time.
God calls us into the difficult world of the paradox, where values, intentions, and visions often compete with the world. But we also have faith and hope that His promise will come about, and what is confusing now will be crystal clear then.
Continue to plant wheat, but beware of the weeds, and wait for the harvest.