CULTURE & An Overview of Richard Niebuhr & Charles Kraft’s 4 Views of “Christ & Culture”

by Bob Whitesel, excerpted with permission from Inside the Organic Church: Learning from 12 Emerging Congregations (Abingdon Press, 2006, pp. 55-57).

Since modern culture is constantly adjusting and metamorphosing, the task of translating the Good News without surrendering its truth or disfiguring it is paramount and ongoing. This arduous task begins with thorough and careful examination of a culture. Anthropologist Paul Hiebert described culture as, “an integrated system of learned patterns of behavior, ideas and products characteristic of a society.”(1) Scrutiny of such an elaborate system is not for an immature Christian, since it requires investigating and evaluating a culture without being tainted by its more sordid elements.

There is a tension between Christ and culture that must be examined. Richard Niebuhr in his classic treatise Christ and Culture suggested that there are several ways to look at Christ’s interaction with culture.(3)

Christ … Against culture.

One is “Christ against culture” a view embraced by the early church father Tertullian. In this view culture is seen as evil, thus requiring Christians to withdraw and insulate themselves, resulting in a monastic response. Charles Kraft exposes three fallacies in this view, demonstrating it is not in keeping Paul’s view that “nothing is unclean of itself” (Romans 14:14).(4)

Christ … Above Culture (in Synthesis or in Paradox)

Another view Niebuhr called “Christ Above Culture” which he divided into sub-categories.(5)

  • Christ Above Culture in Synthesis” was held by Thomas Aquinas and views Jesus as the restorer of institutions of true society. This view believes that Christianity will one day totally transform culture, perhaps into a millennial peace. In another sub-category,
  • Christ Above Culture in Paradox,” Christ is seen above but in such tension with culture that a messy, muddled relationship results. Martin Luther grappled with this perspective, as did modern writer Mike Yaconelli who called this “messy spirituality.”(6)

Christ … Above but Transformer of Culture

However, a more valid sub-category may be “Christ Above but Transformer of Culture.” Embraced by Augustine, John Calvin, and John Wesley this view sees culture as corrupt but convertible.(7)

Christ … Above but Working Through Culture

Kraft built upon this his position called “Christ above but working through culture,” explaining that “God chooses the cultural milieu in which humans are immersed as the arena of his interaction with people.”(8) Eddie Gibbs further elaborates that “such an approach represents a deliberate self-limiting on the part of God in order to speak in understandable terms and with perceived relevance on the part of the hearer. He acts redemptively with regard to culture, which includes judgment on some elements, but also affirmation in other areas, and a transformation of the whole.”(9)

If the “Christ above but working through culture” truly defines the tension and nexus between Christ and culture, then the job of the Christian communicator becomes challenging if not precarious. Therefore, our strategy must not conclude simply with step 1, investigating and examining culture, but also must continue through step 2, sifting and judging its elements. Here the prudent communicator must make qualitative judgments based upon Scripture, ethics, personal belief and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

…The end result of this examination or sifting, must be a rejection of elements in conflict with Christ, but also an affirmation of those elements that are not so. I found that leaders of the organic church usually sift carefully through the movies, television shows, music, games, online resources and literature of young people. And they routinely explain in their sermons how God judges some aspects of postmodern culture, accepts other elements such as an emphasis on helping the needy, and has as a goal the transformation of the whole.(10)

The Christian communicator wishing to make the Good News relevant today must carefully examine the media barrage engulfing young people, understand its messages, while at the same time sifting elements that are opposed to Christ and identifying touchstones that can make connections with unchurched peopled.


1. Paul Hiebert, Cultural Anthropology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1983), p. 25.
2. Bob Whitesel, Growth By Accident, Death By Planning, op. cit., p. 26.
3. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1951). A second view is beyond the scope of our discussion. Labeled by Niebuhr “Christ of culture,” it was embraced by early Gnostic heretics. They interpreted Christ through cultural trends, rejecting any claims of Christ that conflicted with their culture. Counter to this, Isaiah 55:8 reminds us that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, or our ways his ways.
4. Charles H. Kraft, Christianity in Culture, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1979), pp. 105-106.
5. Kraft, ibid., pp. 108-115 sees five subdivisions of the “Christ Above Culture” position. However, for this discussion only three are required. The reader seeking more exhaustive insights will benefit from a careful exploration of Kraft’s work.
6. Mike Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2002). Yaconelli’s viewpoint has been popular among postmodern Christians, And, before his untimely death, Yaconelli was in demand as a lecturer. Young people often saw in his perspective one more in keeping with their untidy journey towards discipleship. To understand the angst and anxiety many young people sense today between their Christian understanding and their vacillating demeanor, see Yaconelli’s insightful volume.
7. Charles H. Kraft, Christianity in Culture, p. 113.
8. ibid., p. 114.
9. Eddie Gibbs, I Believe in Church Growth, (Grand Rapids, Mich,: Eerdmans, 1981), p. 92.
10. In my travels through the organic church, I found it’s leaders usually approached the rejection or affirmation of cultural elements in a circumspect and serious manner. Whether it was the “discothèque clubbers” of England who had to decide at what point youthful fashions became lewd, or the film clips that Freeway employed to illustrate a point; young organic leaders typically see the rejection of base elements of culture as not only required, but judicious.

DISCERNMENT & How to Be Committed to Evangelism & To Sifting a Culture

QUOTE: “The people we are reaching will see Jesus as a cultural product, rather than a trans-cultural God reaching all cultures with His life-changing and trans-cultural Truth… I am sharing this because sometimes zeal for evangelism can mutate into a zeal for a culture.”

by Bob Whitesel D.Min., Ph.D., 12/4/15.

The purpose of creating a leadership collage is to ensure that a leader’s methodology is adjusted to the unique local context (e.g. via a SWOT analysis) of the people we are called to reach.

If we do not adjust our methodology we often will become colonizers, people who force their culture upon an indigenous culture.  Pete Wagner calls this the “creator complex,” where outreach often fails when missionaries try to create people in their own cultural image.  The people we are reaching will see Jesus as a cultural product, rather than a trans-cultural God reaching all cultures with His life-changing and trans-cultural Truth.

At the same time, we must be careful to sift a culture (Eddie Gibbs’ terminology I use in my book “Inside the Organic Church”) so that we do not adopt elements of a culture that go against the doctrines of Christ.

This sifting is a challenging task, but we have many Biblical examples of how to do this.  For example, evangelism is following in the footsteps of Paul, who adjusted methodology to reach as many as feasible.  He never adjusted theology … but he did adjust methodology.  This is the task of a missionary.  And, because North America is a growing mosaic of cultures, this is now the task of church leaders here.

Remember Paul argued against people who were trying to put their culture upon new converts.  They did it out of sincere conviction and faith.  Yet, Paul and Barnabas reacted so strongly to such Judaizing, that a council in Jerusalem was convened and sided with Paul (see my chapter on a theology of change in the book “Preparing for Change Reactions” for details on Paul’s methodology in Acts).

I am sharing this because sometimes zeal for evangelism can mutate into a zeal for culture.

And, since I want to see more and more people reached for Jesus, I want to ensure leaders are the most effective missionary possible: reaching and sifting cultures for Jesus 🙂

Here to help you reach more people for Jesus!

CULTURE & The Important Difference Between Assimilation & Acculturation

by Bob Whitesel D.Min. Ph.D.

In the field of missional leadership, it is important to understand the difference between “assimilation” and “acculturation.”  While there is some authors who use the terms interchangeably, classic research by Teske and Nelson ( 1974: pp. 351-367) found that assimilation and acculturation are widely divergent.

They found that most scholars were consistent in saying that “assimilation” forces others to leave their culture and become like the dominant culture.  And they found that “acculturation” allows out-group members to adapt parts of their culture with the in-group culture and form a new hybrid culture.

Let me explain what Teske and Nelson found.


  • Is unidirectional. Change only happens within one culture and this culture becomes a clone of the dominant culture.
  • The out-group members have to change their values and embrace the values of the dominant in-group. Out-group members must now value the things the dominant in-group values. While this may be necessary with theology, it does not respect their culture when they are forced to adopt the dominant culture’s methodology too.
  • Out-group members must accept the dominant culture as superior.


  • Is “two-way, that is, may occur in both directions” (p. 365). In other words, the dominant culture may change too by its interaction with the out-group. The out-group may bring some new and/or outside perspective that helps expand the awareness of the in-group.  For example, new young people coming into our churches can help the choir or the traditional order of worship employ a contemporary chorus (but the choir may rewrite the chorus to make it more consistent with their musical genre).  The idea is that in acculturation both sides influence one other for good (and hopefully not for bad).
  • Does not require change in what the out-group values.  Out-group members can value the same things as before, where these values do not conflict with the values God wishes for His offspring.
  • Out-group and in-group members see both cultures as having value. Reconciliation between cultures occurs.

Now, acculturation does not mean accepting all elements of a culture. For some elements of every culture run counter to God’s Good News.  Here is how I have stated, this (Spiritual Waypoints, 2010, p. 74):

When elements of a culture run counter to the Good News, and others are in agreement with it, what should be done? Eddie Gibbs has provided a helpful metaphor in the image of cultural “sifting” (Gibbs, I Believe in Church Growth, 1981, p. 120). Sifting separates out unwanted elements from wanted elements, most notably in cooking where a mesh strainer such as a colander will sift out impurities. The task of explaining the Good News to wayfarers at Waypoint 13, also carries the requirement that we sift between elements of a culture that go against Christ’s news and those that do not.  To not fully explain God’s expectations is to misinform and ill prepare the traveler.  Some Christians avoid the task of doing this, perhaps because championing God’s requirements is awkward in comparison to lauding His rewards.  But both must be undertaken.  A leader who is not ready to sift elements of a culture and tactfully explain what can be retained and what must be abandoned, is not ready to travel forward with the wayfarer.

As you can see, the term “acculturation” is technically the better term, for what we often refer to in our churches as “assimilation.”

Now, while most people in out-groups (e.g. visitors, displaced volunteers, ignored leaders, etc.) will never know the difference between these two terms; it will be important for up-and-coming missional leaders to understand (and be able to articulate) the difference.

Gibbs, E. (1981). I believe in church growth. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Teske, R. H.C. & Nelson, B. H. (1974). Acculturation and assimilation: A clarification. American Ethnologist, Vol 1, No. 2. pp. 351-367.
Whitesel, B. (2010). Spiritual waypoints: Helping others navigate the journey. Indianapolis: The Wesleyan Publishing House.

McGAVRAN & The Relevance of Church Growth Principles to Evangelism

by Eddie Gibbs, The ChurchMan Journal: An International Journal of Theology, Watford, England, 1995, Vol. 3, p. 232,

The term ‘church growth’ has become something of a catch-phrase in
a great deal of recent religious promotional material. In the minds of
many people it is synonymous with evangelism or e0rporate renewal.
The author, in using the term ‘church growth’, subscribes to the
following formal definition:

Church growth is that science which investigates the nature, function
and health of the Christian church as it relates specifically to the effective
implementation of God’s commission to ‘make disciples of all
nations’. Church growth is simultaneously a theological conviction, and
an applied science which strives to combine the eternal principles of
God’s Word with the best insights of contemporary social and behavioural
sciences, employing, as its initial frame of reference, the
foundational work done by Dr Donald McGavran.1

This definition makes clear that church growth does not represent a
total theology of mission, but has a specific focus on the making of
disciples and their incorporation into local churches. As such it is an
interdisciplinary study relating missiology to ecclesiology .2

A second point of clarification is to define precisely what is meant
by a ‘church-growth principle’. Donald McGavran defines it this way:
A church-growth principle is a universal truth which, when properly
interpreted and applied, contributes significantly to the growth of
churches and denominations. 3

1 This definition is given by Dr C. Peter Wagner (associate professor of church
growth, Fuller Seminary School of World Mission) in his church-growth course.
2 Orlando Costas has pointed out the danger of an ecclesiastical narrowing of the
concept of mission. He raises the questions: ‘Who is the centre of the kingdom Christ
or the church? Who is the object of the kingdom-the community or the
king? The Church and lts Mission (Tyndale House, Wheaton, m. 1914) p.135.
3 Donald A. McGavran and Winfield C. Am, Ten Steps for Church Growth (Harper
and Row, New York 1977) p.88.

Download the article here …

HUMOR & Has the church become “a culture itself?” So, what if Starbucks marketed like the church? [video]

Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: “Below is a humorous video about how church culture can unintentionally confuse people who are not part of our church-going culture.  Since most of our churches are trying to reach out to non-churchgoers, it is important that we look at our behaviors, ideas and products that can confuse (and even potentially turn off) people with whom we are trying to share the Good News.

I sometimes share this with my students at their residential.  Now, I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be changed when Jesus saves us. We should.

But when we create an artificial culture we erect cultural barriers to people outside of that culture.  This video gives a humorous way of looking at how, if we are not careful, our churches become confusing and irrelevant ‘church cultures.’

That is why newly planted churches often grow faster than older churches.  New churches don’t have that Christian culture developed as strongly in them yet, and so unchurched people can relate more to them.

But, if they are not careful, even planted churches will eventually mutate into a separate ‘church culture.’  Now, you might think, ‘Well, we need to plant more churches.’  And, we do.  But, if we don’t also help established churches from becoming disconnected ‘church cultures’ then the Devil will have succeeded in keeping us irrelevant to unchurched people.

Charles Kraft, in his book Christianity and Culture (1979) said that ‘the church has become a culture itself.’  Thus Eddie Gibbs said that church leaders must receive missionary training, to understand those outside of our culture and learn how to present Christ to them in culturally relevant ways that will not compromise the Good News (Church Next, 220).  Kraft also warned that ‘cultural conversion’ is wrong, meaning missionaries are to convert others to their beliefs, not to their culture, for cultural conversion smacks of colonialism and empire-building (Christianity in Culture, 339).  Rather, the Good News is ‘supra-cultural’ (Kraft 1979), meaning it is a way of holy living that is above culture.  It changes culture, but it also (like Jesus in the incarnation) may take on non-sinful behavior, ideas or products … but without sinning.