January 25, 2021

Should the Church Seek to ‘Redeem’ the Culture?

Mark Dever notes that:

Since the Fall, the trajectory of unredeemed human history—the City of Man—is always in the Bible to judgment (the Flood, Babel, Canaan, Egypt, Jerusalem, Babylon, Rome & then Rev. 19). (Not quite as universal as gravity, but seemingly as inevitable in its overall tendency.)

The Pastor and the Community

For a comprehensive overview of the pastor and his relation to his community, read his full article here. Others would take the opposite view and would suggest that the New Earth will have with it a new, improved human culture and, therefore, Christians and churches should be engaging in cultural renewal in the here and now. The bottom line question is:

Is our culture redeemable and should the church be engaged in this so-called cultural redemption?

Those who are seeking to engage with this issue, at least in the USA, are falling into (being herded into?) different ‘camps’. We have:

  1. Two Kingdom Proponents—God is working through the church and we should not be engaging too heavily with worldly, dying culture.
  2. Transformationist Proponents—The church should be active in seeking to redeem the culture as we move toward the end times.
  3. Counterculturalist Proponents—The church stands as a clear model of God’s kingdom and, as such, is a prophetic voice against the prevailing worldly culture.
  4. Cultural Relevance Proponents—Christians should be looking for where God is active in culture and affirm that.

Obviously, I have just simplified in a sentence what is often a confused, heavily nuanced and emotive debate across evangelical, theological, and denominational divides. I find it very difficult to place myself in this list. Indeed, I find the whole culture of Christians ‘tagging’ one another more and more unhelpful as I get older. If anything, I am more inclined to numbers 1, 3 & 4.

I believe that our job, as a church, is to glorify God, preach the gospel, and make disciples. In doing so, by sharing our lives and living in community, engaging with our neighbours, seeking the good of our scheme, and living clearly counter-cultural lives, then people will be drawn to Christ by his Spirit, born again and will, in time, person by person, begin to make an impact in our community. Community renewal will, therefore, be the by-product of gospel-centred preaching and healthy churches. Who knows what that makes me!

What is helpful for this discussion is tracing the roots of many churches in Scotland and the UK as they have sought to engage, or not, with their culture in the past 30 years. Many churches, believing that the world is going to hell in a handcart, have focused on preaching Christ, rescuing repentant sinners, and leaving the rest to their own devices. Others, believing that we have a role to play when God ultimately ushers in the renewal of all things at the end times, have sought to engage more with the surrounding culture. The danger for the former group is slipping into a form of separatism. For the latter, it is slipping into a form of ‘cultural accommodationalism’. In fact, I see the legacy of both these positions in housing schemes up and down the country. It shows itself in two main ways.

1. Those who have historically fought for doctrinal and theological purity at the expense of cultural engagement (for fear of watering down the gospel) now find themselves on the fringes of schemes, with aged, dying congregations.

They have a gospel with nobody to preach it to. It suits their worldview of “us against the world” and, sadly, it is leaving generations with no clue about the good news of Jesus. People aren’t going to church any more than the church is going to them. It’s a sort of spiritual Mexican stand-off. Each side is hardening their heart against the other as time wears on. One believing the church to be full of ancient, judgemental do-gooders, and the other watching the world destroy itself because of their ungodly sinfulness. Spiritual desolation and confusion ensues, and we have schemes littered either with dying congregations or none at all.

On the other hand, those who have sought to adapt and engage with culture at the expense of biblical truth tend to be very socially aware but, ironically, also have the same aged, dying congregations. These ‘churches’ (if we can call them that) are viewed as little more than social work agencies. They don’t see any sides, but view us all as God’s children and the church as a force for ‘good’ in the community.

The world sees them as a means to an end but not salt and light, and certainly not a challenge to their souls. The church, in this case, is seen as more organic than organised—a ‘church without walls’ if you will. The result is the same empty churches as our friends above. The same dying congregations with no real spiritual impact on their community.

Sadly, both groups are losing out, with the real victims being the very people they are supposed to be reaching with the good news of Jesus Christ. Whilst the Christian world has been drawing their theological battle lines over culture and contextualisation, real, living souls have been (and still are in great numbers) perishing for lack of a concrete gospel witness in housing estates and schemes up and down our nation.

2. Because of this turn of events, much of the evangelism and community development work is being carried out in schemes by a combination of government agencies and para-church organisations.

Many such groups are visiting schools in schemes, teaching RE (religious education) classes, running clubs, and trying to reach young people for Christ are largely (although not always) detached from local churches, and without any real long-term aims and objectives to combat the ‘congregational crisis’ we now face. On the one hand, how can we blame them when the local church is either (a) dead or (b) not doing its job—either from a lack of heart or because it is just unable to?

The only way, in my opinion, to reverse these trends in our housing schemes is to plant new churches and/or renew existing ones.

Wherever this discussion goes, it is a cast-iron fact that housing schemes need healthy, gospel-centred churches to make a comeback. Why? Here are three quick reasons:

  1. A localised congregation gives a solid, consistent thrust for concerted evangelistic efforts. A community of Bible-believing, gospel-proclaiming Christians living right in the heart of a community is a far more powerful apologetic than a part-time witness.
  2. It offers a place for spiritual accountability for those working in the field. Many para-church workers I have met (particularly youth workers) have little or no spiritual accountability to a local church and have either been burned out or are in danger of burning out trying to deal with the rigours of a front-line ministry in housing schemes. The fact is that gospel workers need the spiritual accountability and discipline that being a member of a local church brings.
  3. It offers a context in which young converts and believers can grow in discipleship and community, together. So, it avoids the hit and miss problem of people parachuting in, trying to reach out and then leaving people in the wind until the outsiders return again. The local church has the responsibility to evangelise, disciple, nurture, and prepare people to worship and serve the living God in their respective communities.

A God-glorifying, Bible-believing, gospel-preaching, actively-discipling, healthy local church living in Christian community, serving and loving one another, is going to make an impact in a housing scheme. It is what we desperately need. Even a small, tightly knit band of brothers and sisters is going to affect cultural and community renewal. Not because that is its goal, but because that is the spin-off power of the kingdom at work.

Pray for us at 20schemes as we seek to bring back gospel light to dark places through church revitalisation and planting. Who knows, maybe the Lord is calling you to come and help us in this task?