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The Church and Culture part 3

This is part three in a three-part series on how the Church should influence culture.
By Michael Roop

Most of us agree that a local church should influence its community. The question is, how? So far, we’ve looked at the strengths and weaknesses of four common answers: insulation, separation, domination, and accommodation.

Salt and Light
But in His most famous sermon, Jesus speaks two metaphors over His disciples that clarify our marching orders for cultural influence. “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13). In a community decaying in the darkness of sin, the hope is the local church. Shining the light on Jesus in word and deed, providing light in the darkness and staying the effects of cultural decay.
Importantly, Jesus uses the southern “y’all” as He speaks this metaphor over His disciples. Yes, individual Christians are salt and light in their spheres of influence, but Jesus is primarily referring to the corporate witness of the Church. In her local manifestations all throughout the world, among various cultures, common graces, and evils, the local church is meant to shine the light of Christ into a dark and decaying world.  

How can we sum up this metaphor? In a word, incarnation. In the incarnation, Jesus, a Being wholly other than creation, enters creation on a mission to bring light to darkness, new life to death and decay. And the church, wholly other in substance than the world, is likewise sent into the world in local manifestations to carry on this work. As Jesus prayed, we are “not of the world,” but we are sent “into the world” by Jesus, just as Jesus Himself was sent by the Father (John 17:16-18).
Ironically, the four possible answers listed in parts 1 and 2 fall short of incarnation in one common way: each is about gaining cultural power rather than using it. Insulation wants to gain power through cultural acceptance and conflict avoidance. Separatists seek power by propping themselves up on a holiness pedestal, drawing confidence from their own morality and condescending toward those who disagree. Domination pursues power by putting itself or its people in positions of power, usually politically. And accommodation looks for power through gaining the “street cred” of cultural relevance.

The Basin and Towel
And even more ironically, each of these paths is actually easier than the model given to us by Jesus. Incarnation takes all the work, because inherent to incarnation is laying aside the benefits of power, position, and privilege in exchange for the basin and the towel; for the humble and demeaning task of love and service directed at those who hate us, betray us, and abandon us in our time of need (John 13:1-17). Paul tells us as much when He says that Jesus “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:6-7, NIV).
We must always remember that evil is still defeated the same way Jesus defeated evil. You may not be able to end abortion in the whole country, but you could end it for some of your neighbors by volunteering at SIRA. You may not be able to reverse the breakdown of the family everywhere, but you can reverse that breakdown by becoming a foster parent or volunteering with Guardian Ad Litem. You may not be able to end systemic injustice, but you can volunteer in prison ministries, or mentor an elementary-age student at Glen Springs. You can donate to Created. Right at home, you can print a list of local leaders and pray for them regularly, educate yourself on societal injustices, and invite people into your homes who don’t look, think, or vote like you.
How should Christians influence culture? By picking up the basin and the towel, being salt and light to our neighbors right here in front of us. By letting our light shine before others, “that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
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