moral culture

Ever feel like the world you stepped into when you began in ministry no longer exists?

You’re not alone.

The culture around us is changing.

You can debate when the collapse of Christendom in the West began, but there is little doubt we are witnessing a massive shift away from the cultural consensus that existed even a few generations ago.

So as a church leader – as views on sexuality, family, parenting, drugs, finance and other values change – how do you respond? What do you do when the world for which you trained—maybe even the world where your approach was once effective—is disappearing before your eyes?

What’s the key to responding when the world around you no longer

shares your value system

pays much attention to you

thinks you add anything to the cultural mix?

I see at least five approaches emerging, some that are helpful and some that aren’t.

The world many leaders stepped into when they began in ministry no longer exists. Click To Tweet

1. Be Oblivious to Culture

Some churches appear to be oblivious to culture.

Walk into a church like this, and you won’t be able to tell whether it’s 2016, 1996 or 1966 for that matter.

The sermons are theoretical and not at all practical, nor do they engage the realities of the world people inevitably will walk back into Monday morning.

The music is remarkably stale and sounds like nothing you’d hear anywhere else. No one looks like they would be comfortable visiting a trendy local restaurant. It’s the same old, same old, and this church seems old.

What happens if you’re oblivious to the culture around you? If you’re indifferent to the culture, it should be no surprise that the culture is indifferent to you.

This approach produces irrelevance.

If you’re indifferent to the culture, it should be no surprise that the culture is indifferent to you. Click To Tweet

2. Hide From Culture

Unlike churches that are indifferent to the culture, churches that hide from the culture are aware of what’s going on around them. But they’re scared. Really scared.

So they hide.

You’ll hear Christians in this camp vow to never do anything ‘secular.’ Sometimes Christians set up their own networks as a safe cocoon from others.

They live on GodTube and Faithbook. They have ‘Christian’ alternatives to everything you can think of.

This approach stifles the mission of the church.

Effectively it’s a retreat and runs counter from the church’s mission to advance.

As a result, many in this camp don’t actually know any non-Christians.

You can’t reach the world you don’t know, understand or love.

You can't reach the world you don't understand, know or love. Click To Tweet

 3. Slam the Culture

This has become a very popular approach over the last few decades, perhaps peaking when the United States Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in the U.S. last year.

I continue to be baffled as to why Christians insist non-Christians adopt our moral views. Why on earth would Christians expect non-Christians to act like Christians when…they’re not Christians?

If you want to keep being ineffective at reaching unchurched people, keep judging them.

If you want to keep being ineffective at reaching unchurched people, keep judging them. Click To Tweet

For those intent on slamming the culture and the governments for their views, I’ll reiterate what I said in my post on same-sex marriage.

Having a government that doesn’t embrace the church’s values line for line actually puts Christians in some great company—the company of the earliest followers of Jesus.

Jesus spent zero time asking the government to change during his ministry. In fact, people asked him to become the government, and he replied that his Kingdom is not of this world.

The Apostle Paul appeared before government officials regularly. Not once did he ask them to change the laws of the land.

He did, however, invite government officials to have Jesus personally change them. 

Paul constantly suffered at the hands of the authorities, ultimately dying under their power, but like Jesus, he didn’t look to them for change.

Rather than asking the government to release him from prison, Paul wrote letters from prison talking about the love of Jesus Christ.

Instead of looking to the government for help, Paul and Jesus looked to God.

None of us in the West are suffering nearly as radically as Jesus and Paul suffered at the hands of a government. In fact, in Canada and the U.S., our government protects our freedom to assemble and even disagree with others. Plus, it gives us tax breaks for donations.

We honestly don’t have it that hard.

Maybe the future North American church will be more like the early church, rising early, before dawn, to pray, to encourage, to break bread.

Maybe we will pool our possessions and see the image of God in women. And love our wives radically and deeply with a protective love that will shock the culture. Maybe we will treat others with self-giving love, and even offer our lives in place of theirs.

Maybe we’ll be willing to lose our jobs, our homes, our families and even our lives because we follow Jesus.

That might just start off a revolution like it did two millennia ago.

Perhaps the government might even take notice, amazed by the love that radical Jesus followers display.

I hope so.

Instead of looking to the government for help, Paul and Jesus looked to God. Click To Tweet

4. Embrace People and Offer an Alternative

Of all the approaches I’ve noticed, this is the most encouraging in my view. And it’s the one I also try to embrace.

There’s much about today’s culture we may not like, but that’s no excuse to stop loving people within the culture.

In an age when so many churches push away people they don’t agree with, the field is ripe for Christians willing to embrace their neighbors.

To actually love them. Kind of like Jesus told us to.

Does that mean we have to agree with everything they do? Of course not.

But (…think about this…) the church is uniquely positioned to offer a radically beautiful alternative to the culture in so many key issues, like our sexuality, how we handle our money, what we do with our bodies, and in basic disciplines like confession and self-control.

When culture truly becomes post-Christian (as it has in Canada, where I live), it’s often not that people are rejecting Christian teachings, it’s that they don’t even know what those teachings are. And they’re surprisingly open to Christianity if the Christians they meet are loving and generous people.

Many are open to a new way to live. Here are just a few alternatives core to Christianity providing an intriguing counter-cultural viewpoint:

In an age where sex is anything you want it to be, Christianity teaches that sex is sacred and that we value the who far more than the what, which changes the what and the how.

In a culture where greed and debt have become the norm, Christ-followers can model and teach generosity and life that isn’t measured by what we accumulate. Teaching young families to save and give is truly countercultural these days, and deeply biblical.

In an era when the family is morphing and even fragmenting before our eyes, Christians can offer support and mentor kids and teens and extend friendship and tangible support to parents and adults who are alone. (Orange is fantastic at helping churches do this.)

Do you see the pattern? There are so many other areas where we can embrace people who are different than we are and humbly come alongside to help.

In the meantime, if you want to keep being ineffective at reaching unchurched people, keep judging them.

5. Use the Culture to Reach the Culture

The culture around us isn’t the only culture around. Your church has a culture too. And it can be a bridge or a barrier to reaching people.

From the outset, I’ve believed the most effective strategy we can follow is to adapt our culture within the church so it becomes a bridge to the culture around us and not a barrier.

It’s time for churches to cut the weird, the irrelevant and the ineffective. Our mission is too important.

When you adapt your music and your communication style to make your church accessible to the unchurched, you don’t necessarily water down a thing (at least you don’t have to…we don’t). You simply make what you’re sharing accessible and understandable.

If you want to make your church more effective, use the culture to reach the culture.

If you want to make your church more effective, use the culture to reach the culture. Click To Tweet

So what does that mean?

Whether you use mainstream music in your service or not, having music that sounds like music people today listen to helps people today feel comfortable and engaged.

Communicating in clear and accessible language is just good hospitality – it works the same way in creating more effective preaching. Leaving people confused and bewildered after 45 minutes of “deep” teaching might not be the best strategy if you want to see lives changed.

The point is not to change what we say, but how we say it. Not to change what we believe (at all), but to express it in a way that helps people understand it.

And above all, this means genuinely loving people outside our community and sharing the teachings and hope of Christ in a clear and compelling way.

Churches who have adapted their style of ministry to be more reflective of the culture around us almost always get critiqued for it. I’ve been criticized for years for leading a church intentional on adapting ministry style to connect with people outside our comfortable community. But you know who levies the criticism? Christians. But they’re already reached.

So go reach some people who haven’t heard about how deeply Jesus loves them. And use the culture to reach the culture.

You know who levies criticism against effective churches? Christians. But they're already reached. Click To Tweet

Practical Help On Church Growth

Not knowing how to reach the culture is a major reason churches don’t grow.

If you want to drill down more deeply on the culture, how it’s changing, and how to respond (faithfully), I cover that in my new Church Growth Masterclass.

Whether you’re a church that isn’t growing, has plateaued, or whether you wish your church was growing faster than it is, I’d love to help you break through. That’s why I created the Church Growth Masterclass.

The Church Growth Masterclass is everything I wish I knew about church growth (including how to reach the culture) when I got into ministry more than 20 years ago.

Naturally, I can’t make a church grow. You can’t make a church grow. Only God can do that.

But I believe you can position your church to grow.

You can knock down the barriers that keep you from growing. You can eliminate the things that keep your church from growing and implement some strategies that will help you reach far more people. That’s what I’d love to help you do in the Church Growth Masterclass.

In the Church Growth Masterclass I’ll show you:

  • The 10 reasons your church isn’t growing
  • Why even committed church-goers aren’t attending as often as before
  • How to tell if your church leaders are getting burned out
  • The 5 keys to your church better impacting millennials.
  • What to do when a church wants to grow … but not change
  • 5 essentials for church growth
  • 5 disruptive church trends to watch—and how to respond
  • How to increase church attendance by increasing engagement.

The Masterclass includes a complete set of videos that you can play with your team, board or staff, PDF workbooks that will help you tackle the issues you’re facing, and bonus materials that will help you navigate the most pressing issues facing churches that want to reach their cities today.

You can learn more and gain instant access to the course today.

Want More?

If you want more, Caleb Kaltenbach has written a two-part article on how the Apostle Paul engaged culture (Caleb’s piece spurred me to write this one).

Thoughts? Scroll down and leave a comment.

5 Ways Christians Can Approach The Rapidly Changing Moral Culture


  1. Christine on June 30, 2019 at 8:22 am

    I am astonished that Christians that I grew up with are satisfied with becoming irrelevant and obstructive through judgemental whining and holding onto the past.

    Did they forget that , in our era, they moved our churches though Larry Norman, the Living Sound, the Imperials, Amy Grant, Steve Green, we moved the church from a-hymn-and-a-thing to scripture in song to modern choruses, our kids thrived through Hillsongs and our grandchildren are into Bethel.

    Are they really, now in their 60’s and 70’s doing EXACTLY what our parents did – judging us for our lifestyle , music, worship style and beliefs.

    Friends we became activists against the geriatric death grip that limited our growth and development through trying to force us into hold onto the past and through controlling rules and teaching.!!

    Have we BECOME those very parents?? Are we really now out of fear and discomfort repeating this mistake in our current churches – do we try to stall growth and change?

    My dear fellow elder Christians please stop turning your brains in at the church door. Remember what it was like to have a challenge and something to fight for.

    Young people have never needed more, smart, engaged, adaptable, supportive senior role models .

    There is NOTHING more debilitating and life and esteem Sucking than becoming irrelevant.

    Hold on to the past at the risk of your own quality of life OR see where God is moving and throw your weight experience and enthusiasm behind it!

  2. Jan Gregory-Charpentier on June 29, 2019 at 9:59 am

    I appreciate the analysis of the stances toward culture. I love the line: “I continue to be baffled as to why Christians insist non-Christians adopt our moral views. Why on earth would Christians expect non-Christians to act like Christians when…they’re not Christians?” I see this subtle kind of judgment at work all over the place.

    I do wonder about your assumptions that Jesus and Paul didn’t seek to change the laws of the government… As they both challenged the ritual purity laws that governed the entire way they and their communities operated. Living under a military dictatorship (Rome) is not like living under a democratically elected government. The comparison is apples/oranges. We have freedom and opportunity to change the laws that govern us. I think Christians do need to challenge unjust laws (slavery, segregation, etc). I think Jesus is all for that!

    And, Carey, I really do LOVE your blog and podcast and am a faithful reader and listener. And, sometimes I get the feeling you assume your audience is mostly/all male (EX: “Maybe we will pool our possessions and see the image of God in women. And love our wives radically and deeply with a protective love that will shock the culture.”) I know you’re citing NT passages that teach these values, but why not say “wives and husbands” for certainly that is NT, too?

    • Kevin on June 29, 2019 at 5:10 pm

      Amen and Amen regarding apples and oranges. Thank God clergy and dedicated Christians led the way for the abolition of slavery both in Europe and the U.S. We are both neglectful and lack stewardship of freedom when we don’t use our liberties to effect government in positive ways.

    • Kathie Hixon-Smith on June 29, 2019 at 5:18 pm

      Well said! It’s so true! I did love where you pointed out that we can’t expect non-Christians to act or behave like Christians.

  3. Tom D. on June 29, 2019 at 9:30 am

    If Canada (and the U.S.) are now “post-christian” cultures or societies, how did they get that way?

    And how did they become Christianized in the first place?

    And what does “post-Christian” even mean? It sure appears to me that both country’s systems of law and precepts of society still reflect western european civilization’s values and morality. I don’t see either Canada or the U.S. jurisprudence for example reflecting eastern Asian or Sub Saharan African values or culture.

    I think this “post-christian” label is an excuse used to avoid the real situation which is that life in the U.S. and Canada, and Western Europe for that matter, has become so affluent and prosperous such that the messy and time consuming business of glorifying God gets in the way of pursing one’s “happiness”. Hence, there’s no reason to waste time doing that or learning about it. When life is tough (like when engaged in a World War that might be lost), people desire the comfort of a loving and caring creator who will always be there no matter the outcome and circumstances.

    Winning the war and growing in prosperity resulted in our predecessors not having answers for the new set of “prosperity-driven traps” that people fell victim to. In addition, Christian’s no longer felt comfortable telling non-Christians the reasons for their joy and peace/fulfillment and contentment.

    Or simply didn’t walk the talk anymore. And that was more noticeable than anything else.

  4. Bekele on June 29, 2019 at 8:50 am

    Awesome teaching awesome resources
    Thank you for sending me

  5. Lorie Hartshorn on June 29, 2019 at 8:05 am

    Yes! Yes! And Yes!! Thank you Carey for this wisdom. It reflects the One we follow.

  6. Jim Dixon on June 29, 2019 at 7:49 am

    Jesus spoke to the culture of His times, while the “religious crowd” accused Him of adapting to the culture of the people, and being “a drunk and a glutton”. He set the example of being relevant to the culture to reach the culture. I choose to be like Jesus, relevant to without adapting to. Meanwhile, those who might accuse me of “adapting” might be the same ones who believe if the King James Version was good enough for Apostle Paul it’s good enough for today. BTW, I’m 71 years young, and would rather hang out with people half my age than those my age who live in the past, longing for the “good old days when church was like it used to be.”

  7. Max Herr on June 13, 2016 at 8:15 am

    “Mainstream” music and shallow teaching? Just what a lost world needs. Ahem.

    • Gene on June 29, 2019 at 8:22 am

      Hey Max,

      My sentiments exactly!

      • Kenneth Upton on March 30, 2021 at 6:19 am

        We can either keep our traditional church services the way they are, self fulfilling, comforting, habitual combined with memories of our childhood. Or, our churches can become more relevant, wiser, cooler, loving, but progressively evangelistic using common sense, combined with the Holy Spirit working through us to invoke friendship evangelism. This is progressive. The last thing we need is churches acting as amoebas, feeding off themselves, for their own purposes. This is why selecting forward thinking board members and elders is important.
        Walking out of your church at 12:25 PM to your car, forgetting the pastors irrelevant message, and focussing on your Swiss chalet order, is getting old. Our repertoire and outlook needs to change, some churches have figured it out…
        Great article Carey !

  8. Richard H on June 8, 2016 at 7:53 pm

    Some of us “go native” in our host culture, becoming functionally indistinguishable from it. This may be (a) because we love the culture so much and want to make it our own, or (b) we are oblivious to the culture (your number 1) and unthinkingly swallow it whole hog.

  9. Chris Logan on May 30, 2016 at 12:53 pm

    It’s very Niehbur …

    Question: would you say that 2 and 3 tend to be the same group of people? In my experience, I’ve never seen one of those without the other, since anger is a pretty typical response to fear …

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