By Bruce Ashford
As churches in America face an increasingly hostile and post-Christian culture, we must clearly define who we are and how we should approach our social and cultural contexts. As I see it, churches tend to choose one of four mindsets: Bomb Shelter, Ultimate Fighter, Chameleon, or Kingdom Preview. Only one of these applies truth in a biblical manner.
The Church as Bomb Shelter
In a post-Christian and sometimes anti-Christian context, many Christians view the church as a bomb shelter. The political and cultural elite as well as the broader population will increasingly castigate Christians’ beliefs about certain theological and moral issues.
Under such an ideological assault, churches sometimes have a collective anxiety attack. Their dominant mood tends to be protective, conceiving the church as a bomb shelter protecting itself from aerial assault, or perhaps a monastery where believers can withdraw from the contingencies of contemporary existence, or even better, a perpetual yoga retreat where Christians can empty their minds of empirical realities.
Believers with this mentality have good intentions. They want to preserve the church’s purity, recognizing the church is under attack, and hold on to what they have (Revelation 3:11).
However, this mentality is misguided, arising from a timid fear of man. It is spurred more by secular wisdom than by biblical faith, by faithless fear than by Christian courage and vitality. The bomb shelter mentality views the church as a walled city rather than living stones, as a safe deposit box rather than a conduit of spiritual power.
It externalizes godlessness and treats it as something that can be kept out by manmade walls, rather than understanding godlessness as a disease of the soul that can never be walled out. The bomb shelter mentality tends toward legalism, publishing all manner of bans in order to build a “hedge” around the gospel.
The Church as an Ultimate Fighter
This mindset tends to view the church exclusively and comprehensively as fighters. The fighters’ weapons are beliefs, feelings, and values wielded in the name of spiritual warfare. Unlike those hiding in the bomb shelter, fighters venture forth into the surrounding culture, seeking awareness of its movements and creeds in order to assault culture with lethal force.
Believers with this mentality cling to the biblical principle of waging war against what is evil. They rightly recognize Christians must put on the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6:11), fight the good fight of faith (1 Timothy 6:12), resist the devil (James 4:7), and demolish every high-minded thing that rises up against the knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:4-5).
However, this mentality is misguided to the extent it wrongly applies the principles above. The fault of the ultimate fighter church is not that it wants to fight but that it suggests the entirety of the Christian life is nothing but war. Today’s social and cultural contexts are full of unbelievers, and those unbelievers are not only enemies of God but also are drowning men in need of a lifeboat.
The church is not only a base for soldiers but also a hospital for the sick. The Christian life is surely a battle, but it’s no less a joy, an adventure, and a trust. In other words, the Christian must indeed fight, but that’s not the only thing he or she does. This battling is done from within the broader context of the entire Christian life.
The Church as Chameleon
Christians with a chameleon mindset tend to view their cultural context as neutral. They might disagree with aspects of it, but overall, they think of culture as an ally rather than a threat. They tend to interact comfortably and uncritically with the reigning social, cultural, and political trends of the day.
Unlike those with the ultimate fighter and bomb shelter mentalities, they incorporate the dominant culture easily into their lives and churches. These Christians tend to build churches that are institutional chameleons. Their churches change colors as the cultural context changes colors.
Christians with this mindset rightly recognize culture is something ordained by God, something that’s not inherently bad. They recognize God enables all humans everywhere to produce cultures that exhibit real aspects of truth, goodness, and beauty. However, this mentality fails to see the ways every culture and all aspects of a culture are warped and distorted because of sin.
When Christians adopt the chameleon mindset, they deny the Bible its rightful place as the standard by which every culture should be judged, and they forfeit the ability to be prophetic voices. Usually, they end up sacrificing Christian doctrine and morality on the altar of cultural acceptance. In other words, this mindset ends up undermining the Christian faith.
The Church as a Preview of the Kingdom
The best mindset for the church is one in which the church is a preview of God’s coming kingdom. In the midst of unbelief and even persecution, we determine to live our lives as seamless tapestries of word and deed. We proclaim Christ and the gospel with our lips (word), and we promote Christ and the gospel with our lives (deed).
In so doing, the church’s corporate life previews a future era when we will live together with Christ on the new heavens and earth, when we will flourish in our relationship to God, to each other, and to the rest of creation.
One way of describing this view is to say the church is always pointing in five directions. We look upward toward God, showing the world that God alone—rather than idols such as sex, money, and power—is worthy of worship. We look inward to our own corporate church life, seeking to love one another in a way that will compel outsiders to want to be a part of our Christ-centered community.
We look backward toward creation, seeking to live the way God designed us to live when He created us. We look forward to the end times when we will live in perfect relationship with God and with one another. And we look outward to the nations, inviting them to embrace Christ by believing the gospel.
Under this view, every aspect of life is ripe with potential for witness. If Christ is Lord over everything, then we can do everything in our lives in a way that is shaped by Him. I like the way the great Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper put it when he wrote, “The Son [of God] is not to be excluded from anything. You cannot point to any natural realm or star or comet or even descend into the depth of the earth, but it is related to Christ, not in some unimportant tangential way, but directly.”
Absolutely everything in life matters to God. He cares not only about the goings-on within the four walls of a congregational gathering but also about the goings-on in other corners of society and culture. We must live Christianly not only as the church gathered on Sunday morning for worship, but also as the church scattered into the world in our work, leisure, and community life.
We must take seriously our interactions in the arts (music, literature, cinema, architecture, etc.), the sciences (biology, physics, sociology, etc.), the public square (journalism, politics, economics, etc.), and the academy (schools, universities, seminaries, etc.).
In fact, when Christians enter any arena of culture, we should ask several questions: (1) What is God’s creational design for this aspect of culture? (2) How has sin warped and distorted this aspect of culture? (3) How can I, as a Christian, redirect this aspect of culture toward Christ?
In asking and answering these questions, Christians learn to live their lives holistically as an attractive preview of the kingdom. In that kingdom, there will be no more pain or tears, no more sin or the consequences of sin. In that kingdom, we will be in right relationship with God, with each other, and with all of creation. There is no greater calling in life than to live as a preview of the kingdom.
BRUCE ASHFORD (@BruceAshford) is author of Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians (Lexham Press) and co-author of One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics (B&H Publishing Group) and provost/professor of Theology & Culture at Southeastern Seminary.
This article appeared in our Winter 2016 issue. You can read the entire issue online. Also, make sure you subscribe to our print edition to receive the Spring 2016 issue delivered to your home or church for free.