Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

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A Second Challenge of Church and Culture

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery Whiteis the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • Updated Jan 24, 2011

There are two primary challenges culture brings to the church:  the first is to understand culture as the overarching context in which we live.  Such an understanding allows us to become sensitized to culture's unique challenges as a shaping influence in thought and behavior; even further, to know where to be prophetic and how to guard against compromise.


The second challenge is less discussed among cultural observers, and even, at times, decried when taken up.  It is the challenge of how a church should best take culture into account for the sake of its purposes.  Such a concern is heresy to some, but unavoidable and even necessary to the minds of many others. 


Let us assume it is unavoidable; that there is merit in discerning the differing approaches of Peter speaking to the God-fearing Jews in Jerusalem (Acts 2) and Paul engaging the crowds on Mars Hill (Acts 17).  How should a church or ministry leader begin to navigate the waters?


It is critical to understand the playing field of the discussion.  Specifically, we must understand the difference between purpose, mission, strategy, tactics and particulars - and how they relate to one another.


Here's a quick primer:


Purpose.  The purpose of the church, based on such passages as Acts 2:42-47, involves worship, ministry, evangelism, discipleship and community.  These are the five purposes of the church; it is what a biblically functioning community does.


Mission.  The mission of the church is what the purposes of the church come together to achieve.  Using military terminology, let's say that your purpose is to be an infantry division.  Your mission, however, is the hill you are trying to take as an infantry division.  Most churches would, in one form or another, hold to the Great Commission as their mission:  to turn irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Christ through the local church.


Strategy.  The strategy of the church is how it plans to achieve its mission.  If, for example, your mission is to reach the unchurched, a strategy might be to "invest and invite."  You invest in the lives of your unchurched friends, and in the context of that relationship, you invite them to attend your church.   


Tactics.  Tactics are a subset of strategy, meaning they are the ways you attempt to pursue your mission and strategy.  Going back to our example, when it comes to inviting people you might send an Evite via the internet or Facebook, asking them to come to a weekend service designed to be a front-door for someone new to the Christian faith. 


Particulars.  Finally come particulars.   If our strategy is to invite our friends to church, and the tactic involves a weekend service designed for those friends, the particulars would deal with the way that service is developed.  What kind of music should we have?  What kind of media?  Is dress formal or informal?  Should we serve coffee?  What topic or passage should the message explore, and how?


With this primer in mind, here are five primary mistakes that can be made:


Mistake #1:  Confusing strategy, tactics and particulars with purpose and mission. 


Many who critique churches that experiment with various strategies in light of cultural realities often do so on the basis that such experimentation compromises the foundational purposes of the church, or even the gospel itself.  Further, they feel that if you attempt anything related to strategy, you are disavowing the power of the gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit (which, the thinking goes, needs no strategy).  In truth, nowhere does the Bible forbid innovation in strategy - indeed, the apostle Paul endorses it and maintained that he did all he could in that area (I Cor. 9:19-23). 


Mistake #2:  Thinking that strategy, tactics and particulars are irrelevant to purposes and mission - and even the gospel.


While a strong case can be made for freedom in missiological innovation, this does not mean there aren't cultural forms and practices that have no business in the life of the church.  There is a difference between building a cultural bridge in order to connect with culture and becoming so identified with culture that you have compromised the gospel and have little to offer the world that it doesn't already have.  As I have written in other places, the key is translation, not transformation. 


Mistake #3:  Confusing Purpose with Mission. 


Maintaining that one of your church's foundational purposes is evangelism has little to do with whether or not that is actually reflected in your mission - or even whether you are on mission at all.  If one of your purposes is evangelism, then the mission question would be:  who are you trying to evangelize?  Where, exactly, are you doing this…and how?  One cannot leave the mission question unanswered, or think that simply stating your purposes answers it for you.


Mistake #4:  Clinging to tactics/particulars as if they are one of your purposes.


Many churches embrace a particular strategy, tactic or particular and then quickly confuse it with the purpose it is attempting to fulfill.  Tactics and particulars are ever-changing; they must be in a state of constant flux if they are to remain effective.  Purpose and mission, however, are eternal.  If you confuse your strategy with your purpose, or even your mission, then you will resist making the kinds of changes in light of culture that must be made to stay effective. You will erroneously think you are tampering with something that is sacrosanct.  This mistake will lead to programs, long past their prime, remaining enshrined in your church.


Mistake #5:  Implementing tactics or particulars independent of a strategy. 


The final mistake is among the most common.  Let's say you visit a fast-growing church that is reaching the unchurched.  You notice that they have contemporary music, serve coffee, embrace casual dress and make ample use of film.  You go home and implement all of this into your church and expect crowds of unchurched people to attend.  They don't.  As a result, you question the viability of that church's strategy.  In truth, those things had little to do with that church's strategy.  They were tactics and particulars serving a specific strategy.  Your mistake was implementing a set of tactics independent of the underlying strategy which gave it power.  In this case, without current attenders bringing their unchurched friends (the strategy), the tactics and particulars become largely irrelevant.  They do not attract people in and of themselves; they simply serve those who are brought.


The heart of the matter is understanding that there are at least five dynamics at play when a church is considering how to interact with culture in light of its purposes and mission.


And avoiding the mistakes in the process.


James Emery White





For more on this matter, you may want to explore the author's Rethinking the Church (Baker) and Serious Times (InterVarsity).