Reaching the culture for Christ sounds evangelical, but does it really reflect what Christ calls us to do?
For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile. This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” (Romans 1:16-17)
For as long as I can remember, many churches have been concerned with being relevant to the culture. To make sure that the church has relevance in these “modern times”.
This has led to churches developing many practices to try to help build connections with people in their communities. The idea being to offer things that would be of general benefit and interest to others and use those things as a selling point to visit a church worship service and get plugged in.
Depending on how old you are and where you grew up attending church, you have experienced this in some way. I remember, in my teen years, there seemed to be many nearby churches focused on creating recreational centers. The idea being that if the church offered sports and activities – not unlike a community center – it would grow attendance and provide a gateway for non-believers to connect.
Another emphasis became modern-style worship music. An emphasis on quality of musicality and presentation. Something that would be exciting for visitors to experience. Lyrics that modern audiences can relate to over century-old hymns.
Then, you have cultural-relevant preaching and messages. Some of the most visible pastors in America today are the ones who are witty, daring, funny, and speaking specifically about the day’s social concerns.
This is not a review blog to call out a particular church or pastor, or even an approach. That is plentiful and easy to find. This is a call to followers of Christ to examine the question “Should we be reaching the culture for Christ?” I think the answer is ultimately no. We have a higher purpose.
Sharing Culture or Sharing Christ
Please hear me. My intent is not to call into question anyone’s motives or sincerity. However, motives and sincerity are not enough if they aren’t Christ-centered in actual practice.
Just because a Christian or a church has what they think is a good idea does not automatically mean it is a Christ-centered idea. There is a slippery slope when it comes to reaching the culture for Christ. We focus less on what we should be about and more on who is our target audience and what they want to hear.
Should we be reaching the culture for Christ? No. we should be sharing the gospel with people. The target audience is a lost and dying world.
The difference is, one path leads lost souls to a personal faith in Christ. The other leads to churches and organizations eventually feeling pressured to adapt their message to fit the culture. The dividing line between relevance with the world and redemption in Christ is repentance.
The gospel requires no adaptation. The gospel is unchanging. Just as Christ is the only way to salvation, the gospel message remains the same.
Reaching vs Reverting to the Culture
At the end of the day, attempts at reaching the culture for Christ is a fool’s errand. The evidence shows that as more churches are striving to be culture-relevant, working towards reaching the culture for Christ is having the opposite effect.
Christians attempting to reach the culture is counter-productive not just to evangelism, but a risk to our own holiness. The result is we wind up looking more like the culture we are trying to connect with.
What risks? I can think of a few examples.
A Weakened Church
One risk is becoming a watered-down church. The more a church focuses on reaching the culture, the more likely it will begin to reflect the culture it is attempting to reach. Worse yet, it will attract followers who are not converts (1 Corinthians 15:30-34).
It’s even worse when churches seem successful in its first attempts to become more relevant to the current culture. It becomes a false positive reinforcement that what the church is doing is working. Often, we see authentic disciples revealed in scripture by shrinking numbers, not growing crowds.
The Bible is full of references to great crowds following Jesus – until they were confronted with the hard truth of Christ’s teachings about Himself (John 6:66). When it was exciting to see Jesus perform miracles and confound the “experts”, many came to be near Him. When things got serious, they scattered.
Eventually, a church focused on reaching the culture for Christ will begin striving to convince the culture of our similarities. This leads to confusion between love and acceptance. As this happens, the more difficult it becomes to share a message of repentance from sin, which is the heart of Christ’s message. We are then left with little alternative but to explain sin away.
If our faith and/or church looks too much like the popular culture, we should examine our hearts and ask what we are denying and sacrificing for Christ’s sake. We should test to see if repentance is at the heart of our message to the world. We should ask how our church’s efforts are leading to true conversions and biblical discipleship.
A Misguided Church
Another risk is that our zeal shifts from evangelizing to “Christianizing” a neighborhood, area, or even a country. To seek to vigorously shape the culture around us into a Christian culture. This is the opposite of reaching the culture for Christ; it is about changing (or returning) the culture to one Christians would feel at peace in, because it reflects their beliefs.
This should hit some American Christians right between the eyes. A Christian nation may feel safe and comforting and right, but it is not our goal. Our focus on evangelism should be the same as believers in the most oppressive countries. We are to be sharing Christ with people who desperately need a savior, no matter how much opposition it engenders.
In the case of the “Christianizing” church, this emphasis will result in a church mobilized for demanding non-believers adhere to Christian faith-based ideas and positions.
I’m not talking about whether believers should avail themselves in the political arena. Neither am I discounting America’s Judeo-Christian roots. What I am saying is evangelizing a community to adhere to Christian morality will eventually backfire. Instead of influencing the culture, we will start isolating ourselves from it, thus rendering evangelism ineffective, if not impossible.
American Christians bemoan a growing secular culture, but when our focus becomes topical, rather than central on the person of Christ as the only Son of God and our Savior, we undermine our focus, priority, and effectiveness.
Demanding a culture adheres to Christ’s teachings becomes a mission of being right and leaves the work of loving and evangelizing people in the rear-view mirror.
From Culture-Centered to Christ-Centered
A Christ-Centered Message
Followers of Christ are to engage the world with the gospel, not common ground. Christ’s last command to His followers before leaving this planet was to make converts to Him.
Christ knew this mission would be challenging.
First, Christ has warned us that we would be hated because the world hates Jesus Christ. This is because the gospel is either misunderstood or despised by the world, but we press forward because we know Christ is the only hope for the world (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).
Second, Christ taught us that few would find the narrow path of salvation (Matthew 7:13-14). The churches that are reaching the culture for Christ are becoming less Christ-like, not more. The more the church looks like the world, the less it looks like Christ. The more the church makes itself attractive to the world, the more likely it is filled with those walking on the wide road of destruction. That’s because they were drawn to an outreach rather than repentance.
A Christ-Centered People
Staying true to Christ’s message, teachings and life is what will determine whether our focus is leading people to saving faith in Christ versus reaching the culture for Christ. If after examination, you are concerned you are more culture-focused than Christ-focused, I encourage you to do 2 things.
First and foremost, reflect on your personal faith journey. Was part of your experience gaining an understanding of the gospel of Christ? Why He came to die in the first place, and your options for response? If, not, I invite you to learn more about why Jesus Christ is the way of salvation for all of the world.
If/when you have this assurance that your path is genuine, then I encourage you to get intentional about abiding with Christ. Continually dig deep into His life and His words, commune with Him in prayer, and seek out regular fellowship with authentic believers. Stay connected to Christ so that His fruit is borne out through you and you are emboldened to share the true gospel message of faith and repentance with those around you.
More Bible verses about the power of the gospel over reaching the culture for Christ:
Isaiah 55:6-7; John 1:10-13; Romans 8:1-8; Ephesians 4:11-13; 1 Corinthians 15:1-4; 2 Timothy 1:8-14; 1 Peter 4:12-17