What is culture? How should the church respond to its surrounding culture? Many have debated over this issue. So what should we do, do we reject it or embrace it? The simple answer is both. But to better understand this we have to know what culture is and we have to know what Jesus has said about it.
First, what is culture? A most basic description of culture is: the worldview, beliefs, values and behaviors that are characteristic of a particular group of people.
In light of this definition let’s take a look at a familiar passage of Scripture and look at how it applies to this question of culture: Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:13 that we are the salt of the earth. To know how this applies to culture lets take a look at the functions of salt.
A. Salt preserves meat from decay. Likewise, the Church should preserve the moral value of its surrounding culture. This does not mean the Church preserves the culture in the sense of never allowing it to change, but that the Church should keep the culture from becoming corrupted by sin. (i.e. immorality, injustice, pride/arrogance, dishonesty, exploitation of its own people or outsiders, etc.).
B. Salt enhances the natural flavors of a food. Likewise, the Church should highlight or enhance those good qualities of the surrounding culture.
C. Salt creates thirst in the one who consumes it. The Church should impact the culture in such a way that it makes the people of that culture realize their thirst for God. Everyone in every culture is thirsty for God. The problem is that they try to satisfy that thirst with other things. The Church is meant to enhance this thirst and point the thirsty in the direction of the Living Water – which is what Jesus refers to Himself as in John chapter 4 – so that they would find satisfaction for their thirst in Christ.
So, how should the church respond to the culture it resides in? Well, we see that it’s not just a matter of embracing or rejecting; it’s also a matter of adding to the culture. The Church should embrace what is good, reject what is evil, and add or enhance that element of thirst.
To give a concrete example, let’s look at something from our own culture. It was once said, “If you want to learn about Americans, learn about baseball.” Baseball is a huge part of our culture. Even people that don’t like it end up at game with some friends or watching it at friends barbeque/baseball party. Is baseball wrong? No, it’s just a game. So can the Church embrace baseball? Yes, baseball is a wholesome activity that the Church could support and even get involved in. Baseball could even become an avenue for building the Kingdom of God. Christian players can demonstrate integrity and good sportsmanship, Christian fans can exercise self-control, umpires can exercise fairness, and so on. Thus, as Christians get involved with baseball we could begin to affect it positively, by highlighting the good (such as fairness) and rejecting the bad (such as cheating) and even add the element of spiritual thirst because when we walk in the good character of Christ it would make non-Christians desire, or thirst, for the Source of the goodness we promote.
Being the salt of the earth comes with a warning though. Jesus goes on to say, “But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.” Therefore, if we do not fulfill our duty as salt, the world will not only be unaffected by us, but we will be trampled by them. Our saltiness is not just based on the quality of our character, but also on our effectiveness to “season” the world around us. Therefore, if we have Christ-like character, but fail to use it to salt the world around us we have become ineffective salt and are in danger of losing our saltiness.