‘The Redemptive Pretensions of Culture’

By Pastor Mark Anderson  Lutheran Church of the Master, Corona del Mar, CA

       Dr. George Forell, one of the most distinguished  Lutheran theologians of the last century, once wrote; “The culture is the enemy of the gospel. This adversary relationship seems to be a permanent aspect of this complex engagement (between the Church and the culture).”

Rank and file Christians across the United States increasingly voice their dismay at the apparent increase in hostility on the part of the culture with respect to the church. Dr. Forell’s observation serves to remind us that this is nothing new. It is reflected in Jesus’ conflict with the religious establishment of his time. As the Church grew, Roman society cared little for the theologies of the ancient Christians. Instead, they saw them as subversive to an orderly society in their refusal to pay homage to the emperor. This tension between the church and the culture it inhabits has been a regular feature of the church’s life since the beginning. And this should come as no suprise. The culture, any culture, is always at odds with the things of God and especially the gospel of Jesus Christ.   Why?

Primarily because all cultures have redemptive pretensions that originate within themselves. Redemption or salvation within the American context, for example, is promised through self-sufficiency and hard work. Other cultures define salvation in their own terms. This idolatrous aspect of human nature confronts the church in every society, and the church must learn to stand against it.

For us, redemption will not be realized within the framework of history. It is this confession that looks forward in hope even as it arouses the animosity, even hatred of the world. The Romans heard this confession and called the Christians “haters of life”.

We do not hate life, of course. But neither do we worship the creation, believing that our future lies here. As we work to fulfill our creaturely obligations in this life and within our various cultures, we await that unifying commonwealth of the Kingdom – the new heaven and the new earth – which God will bring in His own time.

                     – Pastor Mark Anderson



Does our desire to mirror the culture come at the expense of the our eschatological view of the God’s plan and the nature of redemption, and do we endanger the gospel itself in our desire to be more relevant?



13 Responses

  1. We have to be ‘in’ the world but we should never ‘look ‘ like the world.

    The gospel is endangered when Christians look like the world, talk like the world, acts like the world, watches what the world watches, approves of the things that God hates, etc…….

    When the world sees ‘Christians’ acting just like they do…how can we represent a holy and righteous God to them?

    We are a light that sits on top of a table……not hidden.

    Good post

  2. Amended:

    it’s the NATURE of Redemption that is crucial in this matter.

    Whatever is included in the ‘very good’ enjoyed by God on the seventh day can indeed become included within the ‘rest’ (refreshment) of the eternal ‘day’ that is fast approaching. Whatever has been generated in opposition to that glory is anathema to the Lord of Heaven and Earth and will find no place in the redeemed, renewed realm that is to come. Much that is ‘ungodly’, principally ourselves, will be reconciled to the Lord in that day, but much will also be judged as unworthy, especially the insidious and pernicious doctrines of men which deny the saving work of Christ through the frailty of flesh (the mystery of the Incarnation) – some finding themselves stripped of all say His mercy.

    It is here, amidst the landscape made by Father Son and Spirit in the beginning, that this work unfolds, and it is here, when He once again stands upon the earth, where the new day shall dawn, and men shall live as ‘priests and kings’ in service to the Lamb, amidst a realm entirely transformed by His redeeming work.

    ‘The dripping thing, he went to get…beneath the pitch black…is human nature, but associated with it, the new universe”

    C S Lewis – The Grand Miracle.

  3. “Does our desire to mirror the culture come at the expense of the our eschatological view of the God’s plan and the nature of redemption, and do we endanger the gospel itself in our desire to be more relevant?”

    We shouldn’t desire to mirror the culture… but rather mirror Christ to the culture. Nothing in life is more relevant than the Gospel… it meets the deepest need of everyone in every culture. As long as water is relevant to thirst, food to hunger, & rest to weariness… the Gospel will be relevant to the people in our culture.

    Early missionaries to Japan who looked people in the eye and shared the Gospel, offended them, not because of the Gospel but rather because of their failure to recognize cultural sensibilities… looking someone in the eye is disrespectful in that culture. Relevance was lost because of being indifferent to culture.

    Our disdain for culture can work to the detriment of our good message.

    1 Cor 9:22-23 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel

    • “We shouldn’t desire to mirror the culture… but rather mirror Christ to the culture. Nothing in life is more relevant than the Gospel… it meets the deepest need of everyone in every culture. As long as water is relevant to thirst, food to hunger, & rest to weariness… the Gospel will be relevant to the people in our culture.”

      Very well said Patrick!

    • Not only early missionaries to Japan. Even, I, in this time and place, in my own house, offend the Japanese culture because of my “insensitivities.”

      Today, tomorrow and the next day is O-bon here. Days of the Dead. My only relief this year is that my husband, children and I are not going to hubby’s hometown. If we were, we would be expected to join in the prayers at the family altar thanking the ancestors for their protection. My husband sees it as merely a cultural thing. Japanese are not “relgious” (they say). But they have many more outward forms of religiosity than they care to admit.

      Pastor Pat, thanks for the water, food and rest analogies. Yes, those are universal necessities. Please pray that my family and friends who think they don’t need Christ, will see their need for Him.

      • Thanks for weighing in on that Raggedy Lamb… as I wrote that I was thinking that you might see it and I was hoping that I was being accurate. I was told about the eye contact thing by the son of a missionary who grew up in Japan. I probably trampled on cultural sensitivities when I visited our mission field in Japan several years ago… but everyone I met was so gracious, they didn’t say.

        I will pray for your family and friends.

        Steve… I’m a bit more culture neutral than you. True, there is no life in it… but neither is it ‘necessarily’ evil unless it is contrary to God’s law. It’s the human heart that is desperately wicked… dead in sin… in need of redemption. The Gospel raises the dead to life but doesn’t necessarily obliterate cultural preferences and sensitivities…

        When the cowboy, the rocker, the rapper, the concert violinist, the inner city gang member, the mid-western homemaker, the hippy, the Buddhist, the Muslim, the Jew, the hillbilly, the scholar etc. etc. are raised from death to life by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, they may be moved to give expression in worship in a way that closely resembles the culture from which they came. At the moment of salvation they were transported from death to life… from this world to another… NOTHING in the past will ever be looked upon as it once was but, nevertheless, their former culture may be their way of expressing this new truth and life. Everything from the past will be understood in a new way.
        Acts 2:6 “…a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language.”

        Life isn’t in the culture… but it can give expression to the Gospel.

        You many have been in a church that preached a false gospel that said “you’re not so bad” and to prove it we want to “look and act like you”… but that wasn’t a Christian church. If it had been a Christian church, they may have looked and acted much like you but their message would have been the same Law and Gospel that you cherish now and your would boast of the cross just the same.

  4. While we might not have disdain for the culture, we ought realize that there is no life in the culture.

    We are all a part of it in many ways, but when we as the church cater to the culture’s desire to mold the church in their image, we are asking for trouble.

    Instead of saying, ‘come as you are and God will kill you and raise you again’, we often say ‘come as you are and stay as you are because you really aren’t so bad.’

    The Word of law may bring the message of death, but the church is saying, unwittingly maybe, ‘you aren’t so bad and to prove it, we are going to look like and act like you.’

    I have been to many churches in my adult life that worked to make me very comfortable. They were very casual in the way they looked and the way they went about worship.
    I could not put my finger on it (at the time) but something seemed amiss to me.

    I do think that Paul’s message is a good one to become all things to all men when deling with them individually.

    In my opinion the church ought remain counter-cultural in message and in form (within reason) as to not enter into the downward spiral of a self-obsessed culture.

  5. Patrick,

    I know how you feel about it. You are not alone. Many good and faithful Christians feel the way you do about it.

    And then, many good and faithful Christians believe more along the lines of traditional worship.

    If you tailor the form of worship to the cowboy, you have offended the rapper. If you go with rap, you offend the Mid-West homemaker, etc., etc. You start to get congregations of all rappers, all cowboys, all old people, all young people, etc. I see this in many of the ‘hip’, ‘cool’ churches.

    Where we worship, the form is stable, similar to the way Christians have worshiped for centuries. It brings all people together into it, and does not divide. It unites all…in Christ and His Word.

    That’s my humble opinion.

  6. Steve,

    I respect your humble opinion… and I appreciate your traditional worship. I would be perfectly content to worship with you and in the worship culture you so enjoy…. we’re wired much the same.

    I would hope that your traditional worship (traditional to you), the cowboy church, the rapper church etc. would not be at all offended by each other… but would rather celebrate the varied expressions they represent which reach out with the identical message of the cross to a multi-cultural world.

    We are not united by our form… we are united in Christ. Unity isn’t something we organize, but rather something we recognize. Like it or not, I am one in Christ with Christians gathered in every conceivable cultural context and worship format.

    That’s my humble opinion.

  7. One more thing…

    I’m not suggesting that you tailor your worship to the cowboy, rapper or any other culture foreign to you unless you feel compelled to for the sake of the Gospel.

    In my denomination we have a congregation in Brooklyn, NY that was originally Norwegian… it appealed to Norwegians sensibilities because that was the culture of the neighborhood… it slowly transitioned to an English church as the culture changed around it… today it has transitioned again to a predominantly Chinese & Hispanic format as the culture has changed yet again. The message has remained consistent… but the form has evolved with the changing culture. The church would be empty today if the services, no matter how orthodox, were still traditionally Norwegian.

  8. Pat,

    Since it is the God that calls , gathers , enlightens, and sanctifies, it is hard to say that the churches would be empty if the y were one form or another.

    And we too have all sorts of people of different ages and backgrounds that are gathered in our (mostly) traditional worship service. So it hasn’t been a barrier in that way for us. We don’t pack ’em in like the culturally relevant church down the street, but then again down there there is no dying going on.

    Where I have seen churches that have given in to the culture, they quite often seem to have pretty much a group of the same age and background.

    We are a bit flexible and we, as you, have that freedom. But with freedom comes responsibility and we want to hold the line and make sure that we don’t turn the whole thing into a lovefest for the ‘self’.

    Thanks, Pat.

    • Steve,

      The church I referred to in NYC actually did empty a couple times as the culture around it changed… and for the sake of the Gospel (but I’m sure practical reasons too), the leadership of the church adapted the language/culture to be that of the new neighbors. (without changing the message)

      Yes, I agree that the Holy Spirit calls (through the Gospel), gathers, enlightens and sanctifies… but for whatever reason, God uses us to communicate the Gospel in a language the people understand. “Go into all the world…”

      There is diversity of ages and backgrounds in most churches… traditional or not…. with exceptions. I attended a wonderful traditional (ELCA) Lutheran worship service in Minnesota a couple weeks ago… most of the hair was gray and certainly did not represent the demographic of the community.

      My difficulty with your persistent take on this issue (and the reason for mine) is that I think it is unfair to characterize most churches that attempt to be culturally relevant as being places or congregations where there is no “dying go on”

      You characterize churches that are intentionally contextualizing the Gospel to reach their surrounding culture as “giving in to culture”… where the truth may be that they have died to self and given up their own preferred traditional forms to reach into a different culture full of spiritually lost people.

      Self love fests are not exclusive to culturally relevant churches… I’ve seen it in historically traditional churches too… Sin creeps in where allowed to do so. The line we should be holding on to is Christ… not necessarily the way we’ve always done it.

      I got to know an Amish family when I lived in Ohio who graciously invited me and my family into their home for dinner and an afternoon of conversation, a buggy ride, and wonderful food and fellowship. We had some interesting discussion first about the Gospel and the joy that is ours in Christ. We also talked about culture and the paradoxes of scripture… ‘being salt and light in the world’ vs. ‘being in the world but not of it’ etc. They are ‘holding the line’ culturally but at the same time being faithful to Christ in spite of their limited their influence. I was blessed in their fellowship and we thanked God together for the Gospel. I tried to honor their faithfulness as they did mine. I’m not sure how that’s relevant to this post, but somehow it seems to be.

      Love in Christ,


  9. Pat,

    I realize that it is good to have some aspects of the culture in the church. We do that. it is the radical nature of giving in to it that I think is harmful.

    The churches around me (mostly large non-denom. plants) have really given themselves over to themselves. There is not much dying going on there.

    “They have got a piano player that plays like Billy Joel”my friend says. “There is so much energy and it is a great show”, the same friend says.

    What keeps them there? The Word, or the show? Where does it end? They seemingly have to keep raming up the excitement.

    They (members of that congregation) come to our church and want to get married in our church, because…it looks like a church, and not the stage at the Tropicana.

    So, I know where you are coming from, and you knw where I stand. I guess in time we may see the fruits of each other’s positions more clearly.

    Anyway, I always appreciate your take and your passion to reach people for Christ.

    Thanks, Pat!

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