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 CLASH & Holy Withdrawal or Holy Accommodation? A Theologian Contrasts the Amish & the Nazis

by Bob Whitesel, 3/10/15

In his article titled “Christ and Culture” author, theologian Thomas Johnson looks at two divergent groups and how each took the wrong approach to secular culture:

  1. The Old Order Amish and
  2. The Christians in Germany who supported the Nazis.

Johnson suggests that to understand Christ and culture, we should consider the following (my students are encouraged to pick one to discuss in a paragraph):

>  John 17, which has some very important insights (pp. 4-5)

>  That, “the ultimate social and cultural critic is the Word of God” (p.6)

>  “The Word correlates with the questions, needs and problems of culture.” (p. 8)

>  “In (Francis) Schaeffer’s terms, ‘Every honest question must be given an honest answer.  It is unbiblical for anyone to say, “Just believe”.’” (footnote, p. 15)

>  “J. Christian Blumhardt, had a fascinating saying, ‘A man must be converted twice, from the natural life to the spiritual life, and after that from the spiritual life to the natural life.” (p. 14).

I especially like the last one, for Blumhardt is making an important point about how our spiritual transformation means not just to Christ, but we also turn toward others to reach them too.

Here is a link to the downloadable article.

CULTURE & Christ: 3 Lessons to Consider

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

Lesson 1: Carefully investigate and examine elements of a culture.

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.

However, a failure by Christian communicators to sufficiently investigate modern culture can make us look irrelevant. In an earlier book I interviewed Larry Osborne, pastor of North Coast Church in Vista, California. Larry told me the phenomenal growth of the church was in part because he regularly studies modern culture by perusing secular business, entertainment, and lifestyle magazines. “If I don’t understand the business world, when a businessperson talks to me about his or her world, its like were using two different dictionaries.”(2) The use of disparate dictionaries can also dilute an exchange of ideas with the young culture.

Therefore stay current with today’s youth culture by cautiously scrutinizing their books, music, movies, music videos, computer games, web-sites, web-blogs, etc.. While the truths of the Good News must never be sacrificed nor altered, connecting and contrasting it with today’s youth culture can make it more comprehensible.

Lesson 2: Discriminate and sift elements of a culture.

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)

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)

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)

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)  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.

Lesson 3: Reject or affirm elements of culture.

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. Freeway’s use of comedic film clips to underscore or juxtaposition God’s Word and contemporary culture has helped this organic congregation connect the Good News to unchurched young people.


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.