Culture. It is all around us. Without exception, we are part of our culture. Many of our daily activities are fruits of our culture. Our culture influences us in the shaping of many of our thoughts, opinions, and even sometimes our beliefs—and that is not a bad thing—it is a fact of life.
What is the proper relationship between the church and our culture? This issue is crucial for us to be able to think about in a balanced way.
The Bible often teaches through ideas that appear to be in tension with one another. For example, the Bible teaches that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works (Eph 2:8-9). On the other hand, the Bible teaches that we are not saved by faith alone, but also by works (James 2:19-24). This is not a contradiction—it is an example of how the Bible teaches through tensions. The truth is usually found by synthesizing the two tensions. We are saved by grace through faith, but that faith must lead us to obedience to God through good works (Eph 2:10).
Now in our consideration of the church and the culture around us, the Bible also teaches with similar tensions. On the one hand the Bible teaches us that we should try and “be all things to all people.” Paul wrote, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)
This means that we should try to be like our culture to relate to them for the purpose of winning the souls for Christ.
However, the Bible also teaches something else that creates some tension in this discussion. Paul also wrote, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2)
How are we to understand these truths that appear to be at tension with one another? Are we supposed to appeal to our culture? Or are we supposed be completely opposite of our culture?
In the 1 Corinthians passage, Paul is not saying to change your beliefs and practices in order to reach your culture, he is simply saying that when he was able, he would change some non-essential matters of his life that would help him relate to the lost souls he was trying to save. For instance, if I am in a cultural setting where wearing a suit and tie is the norm and expectation of society, then I will wear that so the people in that society will listen to me. However, if I am in a coastal or tropical area where the norm is to wear a Hawaiian shirt, then I will wear that so I can relate to them as well. The point is that non-essential items such as food, clothing, language, or even sport interests or other interests related to hobbies are and should be adaptable to an extent if that can help one relate and influence a lost soul.
On the other hand, we need to be careful to not try to be like the world in our moral behavior and our beliefs. The source of our behavior and beliefs should come from the Word of God alone. Those things may not be sacrificed for the sake of outreach. We are to keep ourselves “unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).
In terms of the church as a whole, we can host activities that may be very culturally relevant. We can have Trunk or Treats, clothing giveaways, Marriage/financial seminars and other activities that may help us “be all things to all people” which may help us gain opportunities to share the Gospel with them through relationships that may be built through such activities. However, we must be careful that we do not try to change the God-established activities of our worship or foundations of our beliefs in order to appeal to culture.
To sum it all up, remember that our goal is to influence our culture for the sake of Christ, and not to be influenced by our culture. May we be willing to change the non-essential elements of our lives at times for the sake of saving the lost, but may we also be immovable and firm on the teachings of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.