Bay Area or Bible Belt? Identifying The Culture

Pastors and leaders in Christian circles today place a heavy emphasis on “engaging the culture”. Rightly so. Scripture itself places a high value on understanding the world in which we live. The Gospel is more adeptly communicated when those proclaiming it are familiar with the values and attitudes of their audience.

But how do we define our culture? Culture could helpfully be identified as the collective values and expectations of a society, and the influence therefrom. But we’re not looking for a textbook definition here. To what are we referring when we toss around this somewhat vague term, and what idea do we have in mind?


An important distinction should first be made between the world and culture. When Paul instructs the Roman church to shun conformity to the world, he presents the renewal of the mind through the Holy Spirit as the antidote (Rom. 12:2). If we are renewed by setting our minds on the things of God, which is the opposite of worldly conformity, then worldly conformity by necessity draws us away from Him. When used in contrast to a Godward path, the world describes any who reject the Gospel and even exert pressure on believers to do the same. To embrace the world in this sense is to abandon the calling of Christ. Christianity and the world as unbelief are absolutely incompatible.

Culture, however, is different. A true Christian cannot in good conscience embrace the world as previously defined, but he or she can adopt certain aspects of culture, provided that Scripture is regarded as the ultimate authority over its mores. Culture entails the world, and though the terms may be almost synonymous in some societies, they are not the same. Culture as a way of life is not always absolutely exclusive to Christianity as faith and practice. The Gospel transcends culture, and because works and custom are not its grounds for salvation, no one society may claim it. Neither can Christians forbid cultural norms as long as these are not explicitly forbidden by Scripture.

Such a distinction between the world and culture as popularly employed by Christians aids the definition process. From here, there are three important factors to consider when we speak of culture.

1. Cultural Identity.

Of what culture are we speaking? When American Christians speak of culture, we typically refer to the mores and expectations of American society. The more historically-minded might further qualify it as Western, as a product of millennia of European philosophy. Both answers are true to an extent. Western thought indeed fostered a humanistic, materialistic philosophy that has become the hallmark of European nations and their former colonies. America, in many ways a brainchild of Western thought, has developed alongside its European inheritance certain famous historical attributes—exploration, innovation, and exceptionalism, to name a few. Defining culture requires the understanding that cultural expectations are not only modern, but also historical.

Furthermore, subcultural identification is far easier than cultural identification. For example, American subcultures differ wildly (contrast the Deep South with Yankee territory). In fact, there is barely anything save possibly founding history and national governance that bind Americans together in one national culture. The same applies to the domain of Western culture. Within its scope may be found secularist Europe, democratic America, and even the imitative efforts of Japan and Korea. But these individual “subcultures” are radically different from one another, and each project their own expectation and values upon their citizens.

Thus, when speaking of “culture”, it is technically important to set the scope and understand the historical identity and origin of a particular society. Granted, one need not waste breath explaining himself every time the word leaves his lips, so this where we should think about the nature of cultural impression.

2. Cultural Impression.

Anytime anyone refers to culture, he or she is thinking of a very real concept or image. Culture is a word of strong association. Its usage means that the speaker or writer has been introduced at some point to a medium that reflects societal values and expectations, and this medium in turn is influencing the subsequent impression of culture.

Where do we get these impressions? A blogger with a heavily millennial audience, for instance, might take note of Twitter trends, iTunes releases, popular blogs, Hollywood blockbusters, new Apple products, polls, news sources, and even comment sections as a representative way to more accurately understand the values, beliefs, taboos, attitudes, idols, and logicalities of millennial culture. The more diverse the media, the more accurate the impression; the more accurate the impression, the more effective the blogger’s effort. This example applies not just to a single blogger but to any communicators who seek to better understand their culture in order to bolster their message.

3. Cultural Position.

The final question to consider when discussing culture regards cultural position. Where does the Church stand in culture, and how does an understanding of culture affect our presentation of the Gospel?

In 1 Corinthians 1:22-23, Paul identifies the values and obstacles of the cultures to which he took the Gospel. “Jews ask for a sign, and Greeks search for wisdom,” he writes. “But we preach the Messiah crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness.” To engage the culture, we have to identify its idols, taboos, and mentalities.

Examples abound for this principle. Evangelism in a small Deep Southern town, where everyone is at least nominally Christian, will look radically different from evangelism in San Francisco. Americans, who live in the first experiment in modern democracy, have difficulty grasping the sovereignty of God. Westerners, Christians notwithstanding, flinch at the mention of hell and judgment; East Asians, I am told, cannot comprehend grace. This is not to say that truth varies from culture to culture, but that each culture requires a different emphasis.

The Church cannot escape culture. Whether they populate tiny villages or intercontinental societies, all humans share common attributes wherever they live together. Wherever the Gospel goes forth, Christians must understand the values and expectations of the society so as to communicate it in truth and grace. This does not mean we should ever twist or water down the truth to make it more palatable. It does mean that we should hone in on the faulty presuppositions of cultural worldview and replace them with the sufficiency of Gospel truth—“destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).

Culture is a gift from God. It is a demonstration of the relational attributes He instilled in us when He created us in His image. We must approach and understand it as a gift that is corrupted by the Fall but redeemable for the presentation of the healing of the world through Christ Jesus alone.

Discussion — One Response

  • Noel Schaffer Adams August 24, 2013 on 10:50 pm

    So good. May I commend to you DA Carson’s “The Cross and Christian Ministry?” I just finished it two days ago, and he ends with an excellent chapter on being a world Christian. Lots of good points in common with what you have said here.