Thoughts on Culture: please don't hurt me
“Please preach on living in a non-Christian culture.”
Such was the typical response I got recently when I asked several folks what they thought I should preach about next. I was a little taken aback by the consistency of this answer. Don’t get me wrong, I realize that this is a huge topic of discussion in the broader American church, but Newberg is about the most pro-Christian community in America. So I imagined that we were rather immune to the effects of said non-Christian culture. Apparently, I was wrong—which is why I asked the question in the first place. So, this week we’re going to begin a short series on culture.
First, I don’t have this all figured out. I am utterly aware that basically anything I write will make someone upset. So I want you to know that I offer these thoughts humbly and am always open to discussion on any of these points.
Second, I must warn you, I’m not terribly interested in spending time-on-end railing against the evil wiles of a godless culture. I’m much more concerned with calling out the culture-crusading church. I’m talking about the church that hates culture purely for culture’s sake; the church that throws the proverbial baby out with the cultural bathwater. You see, Jesus, isn’t anti-culture—he went to synagogue, weddings, festivals, ate and drank typical meals, and did many other things that were quite consistent with his 1st-century culture. Jesus is and was opposed to self-centered culture. And frankly, we find as much of that in churches as we do in our non-Christian culture.
It might be helpful to consider how Jesus attempted to snuff out the self-centered nucleus of his world:
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Luke 18 (NRSV)
Here’s the odd thing about the culture war in America: the church tends to pat itself on the back for standing up against a godless culture for being godless, meanwhile ignoring many of the ways we fail to follow the moral teachings of Christ. We want so badly to punish our culture for its sexual sin, but tend to ignore any brief notion of rooting out a culture of greed or pride within our own walls. Such a half-hearted crusade ultimately wars not against the forces of darkness, but against the name of Christ—not to mention the way it shames people who need the message of grace. It produces the exact opposite of the fruits of the Lord’s Spirit.
Instead, to be an ambassador of Christ in our culture requires the internal voice that says every day: “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” We must revolve around Jesus’ mercy. When we wander into culture eager to humble our world by naming their sins, we exalt no one but ourselves. And the reality is that most folks know this was not to be our message. There’s a basic assumption in our culture that Jesus was a gracious, loving guy. And so we look like we’re sending mixed messages: Jesus loves you, but we hate you. One of Jesus’ most hated traits of the Pharisees is what he called, hypocrisy.
So if we’re going to talk about living in this culture we’ll have to begin by looking into our own church culture and asking, “Do we really think that we need grace and mercy?” Because if the answer to that is, “No,” well then it makes sense why we’ve largely stopped offering them to our culture. If the answer is, “Yes,” then I think we must begin to model our approach to culture after the mercy and grace we’ve received from Jesus.
 For one thing, I am unconvinced that now suddenly our culture is anti-Christian. I assure you that African-American Christians feel as though our culture has always had a non-Christian twist. I tend to think of cultural sin as rather constant. It simply manifests itself in different ways. For an interesting look at our culture’s views on religion generally, and Christianity specifically, see this massive study just released by the Pew Research Institute: click here.
 Paul puts this a different way, reminding the Ephesians that the fight is not against flesh and blood but against the powers of darkness.
 You’ll remember that the chaps of John 8:2-11 who wanted to stone the woman caught in adultery were operating under the assumption that her sin was a kind unto itself, deserving of death. Jesus’ challenge back to them put each of their sins on a par with hers. And so we have a flesh and blood story from the Gospel that powerfully illustrates the destructive consequences of putting certain sins on a pedestal.
 I know, I know, you’ll want to quibble with me that what Jesus meant by grace and love isn’t what they mean by grace and love. That may well be true, but I’m not sure shouting at folks on the internet will get them any closer to the real Jesus.