"Yeah, I cant wait for all that stuff to happen that Tim LaHaye talks
about in his books; I know Im ready to go." "All of my kids go to a
Christian school-why I wouldnt send my kids to a public school if they paid
me a million dollars." Christians like these listen to Christian music,
support Christian businesses, read Christian books, and participate in Christian
activities. Its the choose ye this day mentality. Were all too familiar with
that version of Christian reaction.
Niebuhr, however, goes on to suggest several other possibilities that include such
responses as the Christ of Culture, the Christ above Culture, and Christ in
tension with Culture. In his final category-Christ the transformer of Culture-he
suggests that some Christians become cultural Christians; theyre more
positive and hopeful toward culture-such Christians can affirm creation yet have the
conviction we need redeeming; they they can embrace a view of history that includes an
interaction between God and humanity.
Throughout his work, Niebuhr continually raises the question that we must increasingly
ask: how well are we engaging our friends outside the Church? How well do we interact with
the culture around us? How culturally relevant are we?
In Acts 17, were back in the lecture hall sitting among Athens noble
thinkers and philosophers. Luke makes it a point to tell us where we are so that we are
keenly aware that were any place but in church. "Youre out there
in culture," he might have quipped, "away from the preludes and Gloria
Patris." So here we are this morning among people who frame life much differently
many of whom honestly seek for truth and salvation. The place is Athens, the philosophy
capital of the ancient world and the exact lecture room is the Areopagus better known as
These pre-Christians-including Stoics and Epicureans-have invited Paul to tell of his
philosophic system called "Christian." Were not sure whether Paul actually
wrote this sermon-maybe he hocked it off the internet-but dont be concerned about
authorship. Whats really important is that we have in our hands evidence of how
Christians engaged the culture around them.
What would you have done in this situation? What if youd come to Athens for one
of those Christian conferences mixed with sightseeing and the next thing you know, someone
is introducing you as a "spokesperson for this new philosophy called
Christianity." How would you begin? (About that time, you might kick yourself for
having slept through most of Philosophy 101 and taking Racketball instead of World
Religions.) Your task: to present the Christian faith in culturally appropriate words that
pre-Christian people will understand.
Whats amazing to me is what Paul doesnt include. We have a Jewish
man immersed in Jewish culture, speaking the Jewish language, an expert in Jewish
Law, someone with a history of intolerance to any deviation of Jewish beliefs
suddenly sounding cosmopolitan and Gentile!
Remember the "Wheres Waldo" series? Well, applied to Pauls sermon
we might ask wheres the usual Hebrew quotations from the Psalms or Isaiah? He
doesnt use a single biblical quotation! And wheres the Hebrew titles for
Jesus, say, Messiah or Gods Son, or Lord? Its not there! And what about the
proof texts-the "this is that" stuff that corroborates Jesus death,
burial, and resurrection with fulfillment passages? Theyre missing too.
Equally amazing is what Paul does include. Whats in: quotations from the
Greek poets. Paul quotes from their literature: "For in you we live and move and
have our being" (Epimenides) ". . . for we are his offspring"
(Aratus). Paul also begins the homily with a felt need: ("I see how extremely
religious you are . . .") and then he moves from felt need to the gospel ("what
you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you . . . ")
Richard Niebuhr reminds us that there is a culture out there very different from our
faith culture and Paul reminds us that our mission as Christians is to engage that culture
in a way that enables people to understand and be saved by the Good News.
"Well, we preach the gospel every Sunday so whats the problem?" Our
problem may be that weve forgotten how to engage the Mars Hill crowd-like Dave
and Jennifer. Theyre sitting home one night and suddenly Dave says, "Hey Jen,
lets go to church tomorrow, okay?" "Sure," she says. She thinks,
"Oh, Daves on one of his find-something-worth-living-for quests." He had
tried football, the wild side of life, astrology, New Age and nude therapy. Every idol had
promised more than it delivered. Somewhere in his head, hed heard something like,
"if youve tried everything else, try God." So where else to try God than
in church on a Sunday.
So Jennifer and Dave thumb through the yellow pages amazed at the options.
The experienced of _______ service was bizarre. The music, the liturgy, the
language, and the whole ethos reeked of the 1950s-an era when kids entered yo-yo
tournaments, when Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan, and Lucille Ball dominated Americas
black-and-white television sets, when people drove Studebakers . . . . and the Volkswagen
Beetle was new in America. Jennifer noted the coats, but no Bibles.
Dave and Jennifer pursue their look-for-God-in-church search through half a dozen
churches, but in the end what they experience is "culture-barrier."
There are traditional churches around the country that have kept much of their European
Christian worship and are thriving. But the number crunchers and reports tell us that they
are the exceptions, not the rule. So while Hunter may be caricaturing traditional worship
styles, forms, and liturgy, behind his critique is a deep and passionate charge to
congregations to evaluate how their worship impacts the pre-Christian culture. And
hes not alone.
Walt Kalestad, pastor of The Community of Joy Lutheran Church also shares a
growing concern for traditional churches to "exegete" their culture so that they
can better connect pre-Christian persons to God. In 1990 he wrote, "It is time for
the Christian church to become serious about penetrating the heart of the culture with the
heart of the gospel . . . Sure, much of our traditional heritage has meaning and value-but
only to those have been indoctrinated to it." Remarkably, this community of faith in
the past decade has continued to lower the "cringe factor" and now offer their
community a variety of worship services including-two traditional, one
"country," and two "adult contemporary." More importantly, this
congregation doesnt just show big numbers for Sunday morning worship, but now have
over 1,200 people show up to pray during the week-many of whom were pre-Christians out
there, outside, and away from church.
Luke throughout the book of Acts reminds us that our mission must include two parts-to
communicate the Christian faith to the swelling numbers of people who do not yet believe
or follow Christ and then to offer ways in which they can become established and grow in
their faith. But how?
There are probably as many answers as there are churches. In fact, maybe there are too
many answers, too many seminars, and too many books and too many "success"
churches quite willing to sell their success. But we all know deep down inside the
difference between technique and the basics of our Christian life. The answers may be no
further than the Christian disciplines that have nourished people throughout the ages:
honest, soul-searching prayer, fervent fasting until we do gain a renewed passion for
pre-Christian people; Scripture, hospitality, and to add Lukes "answer"-to
exegete the culture around us as Paul demonstrates in Acts 17. Know thyself. Know thy God.
Know thy culture.
Let me turn the tables and allow our culture to exegete we Christians and congregations
for a moment. Remember that one scene from Sister Act? Whoopie Goldberg is a
nightclub performer hiding out in convent, disguised as a nun. Shes the new choir
director and is about to direct the choir for the first time. The priest intones, "We
are a small congregation this morning. Too many mornings. Something has gone terribly
wrong. Where is faith? Where is celebration? Where is everyone?
As though an answer to the priests plea, Whoopi directs the choir of nuns in the
most jazzed up version of "Hail, Holy Queen" this side of heaven. With this new
energy and style and spontaneity people in the street hear the music and come into the
church. Not only that but the nuns have a baptism into their culture; they now seek to
serve the people outside their congregation, so they develop a day care center, a food
kitchen, and talk and laugh and pray with the culture around them.
In perhaps the most poignant moment in the movie, there is an exchange between Whoopi
and Mother Superior following the first service that Whoopi serves as choir director.