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The Missional Understanding of “Culture”

This entry is part 5 of 8 in the series

"Toward a Biblical Understanding of Culture"

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Last time I argued that the contemporary idea of “culture” came to being within discussions of modern anthropology It was in this anthropological climate that the missional idea of culture took shape. Charles H. Kraft acknowledges that the missional idea of culture draws from cultural anthropology: “When it comes to the analysis of such cultural contexts, however, it is likely that contemporary disciplines such as anthropology and linguistics, dedicated as they are to a primary focus on these issues, may be able to provide us with sharper tools for analysis than the disciplines of history and philology have provided.”1 Even if not deliberate, however, most missional authors assume the cultural anthropology idea of culture. For example, one cannot help but notice the similarity between Tylor’s influential definition of culture (“that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”2 ) and Newbigin’s definition (“the sum total of ways of living built up by a human community and transmitted from one generation to another”3 ). Yet the connection runs deeper than similarities between definitions. Like cultural anthropology, the missional church views the idea of culture and particular cultural expressions as neutral. Cultures develop independently of each other and may not be compared. Evangelical authors may cite specific content as sinful, but no cultural expression is unredeemable. For example Stetzer states that “there is no such thing as Christian music, only Christian lyrics”4 and that “God has no preference regarding style,”5 implying that cultural forms are neutral and only lyrics may be judged as moral or immoral. Driscoll implies the neutrality of culture by insisting that “it was God who created cultures,”6 thereby rendering various cultural forms intrinsically good. Stanley Parris gets to the root of the issue by insisting that since “a single biblical style is not commanded in Scripture,”7 cultural styles are neutral. Mark Snoeberger helpfully summarizes the standard evangelical assumption of cultural neutrality:

There is a general assumption that culture is neutral, and either independent of or essentially in harmony with God: just as man retains the image of God in microcosm, so culture retains the image of God in macrocosm. As such, culture possesses aspects and attributes that escape, to a large extent, the effects of depravity. The Christian response to culture is merely to bridle various aspects of culture and employ them for their divinely intended end—glory of God.8

Most importantly, like cultural anthropologists, missional advocates understand religion as but one component of culture rather than the other way around. For example, Hirsch lists “religious views” as one element of culture.9 This is also clear by how missional authors discuss the relationship between culture and evangelism. According to missional authors, the gospel must be “contextualized” in a given culture so that the recipients will accept the message and change their religion, but the culture itself must not change. John Stott insists that conversion will not mean a change of culture: “True, conversion involves repentance, and repentance is renunciation. Yet this does not require the convert to step right out of his former culture into a Christian sub-culture which is totally distinctive.”10 Additionally, Mark Driscoll explains that the gospel is something that “must be fitted to” culture.11 Subsequent believers are then encouraged to worship using the cultural forms most natural to them. For example, Guder argues that “our changing cultural context also requires that we change our worship forms so that Christians shaped by late modernity can express their faith authentically and honestly,”12 which follows the same line of reasoning as Hirsch when he claims that “it is from within their own cultural expressions that the nations will worship.”13 Kimball also reflects this idea when he says, “Since worship is about our expressing love and adoration to God and leaders teaching people about God, then of course the culture will shape our expressions of worship.”14 Religion changes while culture remains unchanged, implying the understanding that religion is only one element within the larger idea of culture.

This idea of culture is an essential component of the missional approach to all aspects of church ministry, including evangelism and worship. The modern definition of culture developed out of relatively recent ideas about anthropology. Prior to the Enlightenment, people were differentiated primarily by their religion; later, the way to account for differences was “culture.” Neither NT authors nor pre-Enlightenment Christian authors discuss “culture” per se.

However, the fact that the contemporary idea of culture emerged from twentieth-century cultural anthropology does not necessarily imply that it is an invalid or unbiblical idea. Many complex ideas take on contemporary articulations. The important question for a biblical evaluation of the common missional understanding of culture is which ideas in Scripture parallel the contemporary notion of culture. Join me next week for this discussion.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Charles H. Kraft, “Interpreting in Cultural Context,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 21, no. 4 (December 1978): 358. []
  2. Tylor, Primitive Culture, 1. []
  3. Newbigin, The Other Side of 1984, 5. []
  4. Ed Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 267. []
  5. Elmer Towns and Edward Stetzer, Perimeters of Light: Biblical Boundaries for the Emerging Church (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2004), 43. []
  6. Driscoll, Radical Reformission, 80. []
  7. Stanley Glenn Parris, “Instituting a Missional Worship Style in a Local Church Developed from an Analysis of the Culture” (PhD diss., Asbury Theological Seminary, 2008), 2. []
  8. Mark A. Snoeberger, “Noetic Sin, Neutrality, and Contextualization: How Culture Receives the Gospel,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 9 (2004): 357. []
  9. Hirsch and Hirsch, Untamed, 25. []
  10. John R. W. Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1975), 181. []
  11. Driscoll, Radical Reformission, 20. []
  12. Darrell Guder, The Continuing Conversion of the Church (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000), 157. []
  13. Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 138. []
  14. Dan Kimball, Emerging Worship: Creating Worship Gatherings for New Generations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 298. []