Searching for a Proper Relationship between Church and Culture

February 10, 2012

All this week I have been attending the annual gathering of my “national covenant group” of Presbyterian pastors. Traveling from the four corners of the U.S.A., we come together to log in, share what is going on in our lives, enjoy recreative afternoons, and huddle in small groups.

This year, the east coast contingent presented reviews of several excellent books on the subject of the relationship between church and culture. One particular book sparked some thoughts in relationship to the predicament faced by the PCUSA these days. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, by Andy Crouch, challenges the church to make something of this world by cultivating a good and meaningful culture consistent with Kingdom values. Crouch lists five different ways the church can interact with culture: it can condemn culture, critique it, copy it, consume it, or create it. My readers might differ in opinion about what this blog does, for example, because elements of most of these options may be perceived to be present (perhaps on different days). But my overall goal is to create a culture of thoughtful, faithful reflection on God’s story and biblical ideas that help us know how to live.

According to Crouch, condemning the culture becomes counterproductive because all of us belong, in one way or another, to “western” culture with regional and denominational differences. [I may be underestimating my international readership, but based on comments I believe most of my readers are at least familiar with American culture.] A critique of culture is, for many, a mere academic exercise and largely irrelevant to them. When we copy culture, we mimic its features. Contemporary worship and so-called Christian movies are examples of this type of effort. Consuming culture entails putting one’s money where one’s mouth is as a way of influencing culture’s direction. A boycott is a classic method (in the negative).

With this framework in place, it is helpful to reflect on how the PCUSA sees itself in relationship to the world’s culture. Within the PCUSA, there is some benefit to examining how evangelical conservatives also relate to a wider culture, the denomination.

Historically, the denomination has seen itself as proclaiming the gospel and providing a prophetic witness to the world. This value is codified in our constitution in the Great Ends of the Church (F-1.0304). In practice, the PCUSA has perhaps seen itself condemning and critiquing the prevailing values contrary to the Kingdom of God. On the other hand, one of the current points of contention revolves around its propensity to copy the world by adopting worldly values (such as sexual ethics and confusion about gender differentiation). It was startling recently to hear the arguments presented to the Ninth Circuit Federal Court in favor of overturning California’s constitutional definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. The material was very familiar to me, as the fundamentally secular themes and logic have been circulated in PCUSA debates for years.

Evangelicals, in contrast to their denomination, have felt as if they were foreigners in the larger context of the denomination itself, certainly condemning and critiquing trends in the PCUSA that they feel are copying the wider culture. Liberals may in fact do this too, but I know from first-hand experience that conservatives use the distribution of their financial support to influence decision-making within the denomination. This is done, for example, by withholding per capita, designating mission moneys, redirecting benevolences to evangelistically-minded mission projects, and so on. Rather than “consume” the PCUSA culture, some choose not to do so in the hope that the church’s direction might change. It does not appear in general to have been a successful strategy, though in the process members’ consciences may have experienced relief by disassociating with undesirable programs and projects.

So this rundown begs the question, what opportunities do the PCUSA and the evangelical wing within it have to create a Kingdom culture? This gets to the heart of our purpose and mission, and is a question addressed quite directly by the Evangelical Covenant Order (ECO). Let’s look at that tomorrow.


One Response to “Searching for a Proper Relationship between Church and Culture”

  1. Mary, at the risk of perhaps throwing a theological malotov cocktail into the mix, I would also wonder to what degree Presbyterian evangelicals have simply copied culture with the embracing of “contemporary” worship, in creating worship spaces that look like concert halls, and so forth. As one who is committed to both a historic Reformed understanding of the faith and also an historic Reformed understanding of the nature of worship, I must say that I often feel homeless. Many of our evangelical churches (as long as it is simply not a “therapeutic moralistic deism” kind of message) may well give one a “traditional” biblical message, but it is accompanied by a postmodern approach to worship (centered on the worshiper, entertaining music that does not really encourage singing, etc). Many liberal PC(USA) churches may have the semblance of traditional Reformed worship (though linguistically purged of all offensive words, like the name of God–Father, Son, Holy Spirit), and yet give a postmodern, postchristian message. The PC(USA) left and right have been a bunch of culture-copiers.

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