The relationship of church to culture is a fascinating study that has caught the attention and analysis of serious scholars during the last generation. Ever since the “Word of God became flesh,” God has been interested in humans of different cultures throughout biblical history.
On occasion the church has been an ally or an enemy of culture. St. Paul wrote the Corinthians letters to deal with the challenges their culture presented to the church. Pastors, lay persons, ordinary human beings live in a culture and, depending on different perceptions of reality that guide them, adapt or reject the prevailing culture.
In a recent issue of Missiology, devoted exclusively to the treatment of “Mission and Contemporary Culture” (April, 2007), there are lucid expositions of the theme that challenge the reader and the serious student of Missio Dei.
One article worthy of consideration is “Church responses to culture since 1985,” by Professor Eddie Gibbs of Fuller Theological Seminary. He asserts: “The assumption of Western societies that immigrant groups would be gradually assimilated in the cultural melting pot are being challenged by those groups who ‘colonize’ in order to defend their religious-based values, some of them adopting a defiant stance in relation to the host culture.”
As an astute observer, clergy person, scholar and author, Gibbs analyzes the last half of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st. His analysis is very enlightening.
Reading a metropolitan newspaper in the United States some would interpret his comment and fill the blanks with the group in that community that is defending “religious-based values.” These may be Muslims in Detroit, Latinos in Los Angeles, Laotians in Minnesota, Jamaicans in London, Turks in Germany and others, depending on the locale.
In a free society right-wing political evangelicals in the United States do not have exclusivity in promoting “religious based values.”
Many of these “immigrant groups” have brought tensions and accompanying polarization in different regions of the country. In recent months, when President Bush and some members of Congress have attempted to revise the immigration laws of the United States, nativism has resurfaced. These currents have historical precedent in the United States.
A significant conclusion the writers of the special issue on “church and culture” provide is that while in Europe the secularization process has prevailed in relation to the church, in the U.S. there are strong signs that make the position of the “churches of Christendom,” very tenuous.
The prediction of Bishop Lesslie Newbigin in the 1970s is being fulfilled. In essence, the western world has become a mission field. Some missiologists have embraced that thesis and are attempting to remedy the situation. They are the ones behind the “The Gospel and our Culture Network.”
Some creative pastors have become involved in a practical way and have developed an informal network of “the emergent church.”
Movements such as the Church Growth and the mega-church phenomenon are fading from the scene, especially when their “founder-leaders” leave their leadership positions after they had fulfilled their dreams and visions.
Other authors (See Philip Jenkins, The New Christendom, and God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis and Samuel Escobar, The New Global Mission) have studied and documented the rise of Christianity in the Global South.
During the last three years I have attempted to alert learners in the classes I taught at Campbell University Divinity School of these trends. I am convinced they will have to face these currents in their ministry setting.
David F. D’Amico is a retired Cooperative Baptist Fellowship representative to the U.N. living in New York City. He has taught in several theological seminaries in the U.S.