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How to Respond to a Culture You Don’t Like Anymore

Ever feel like the culture is changing so much you really don’t like it?

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 work, politics, 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, the culture will be 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.

 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 be ineffective at reaching unchurched people, keep judging them.

If you want to be 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 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 touch 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.

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 neighbours.

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.

What do you do with people who are different than you? You love them. Click To Tweet

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.

Who criticizes effective churches the most? Christians, that's who. And that's wrong. Click To Tweet

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Thoughts?

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9 Comments

  1. Aaron Lehmann on February 12, 2020 at 1:55 pm

    I disagree with the notion that music should change to sound like music that is sung in the culture nowadays. Today’s music is intended to provide aural wallpaper, you’re not supposed to learn from it or think about it or be changed by it. The music in a church should do all three. Today’s music doesn’t lead the listener to love and revere others. The music in a church should do that.

    I’m Eastern Orthodox. The service is anything but contemporary. It’s over 1500 years old, most of the time! But that means that I know that I’m practicing liturgy with the Church throughout time and space. The same one all the others are practicing. I’m practicing the same liturgy the saints and angels are practicing. I’m not just singing whatever songs the choir leader decided to sing today.

    People don’t come to church to take part in the same culture as the outside world – they get that every day of the week. They come to take part in something sacred. We have that. Why should we deny them?

  2. Tim Yau on December 7, 2019 at 6:54 am

    On the whole I agree with your overview of approaches, however in the UK there seems to be a growing interest in ‘1. BE OBLIVIOUS TO CULTURE’ churches. I’m talking rites, ritual, and monastic practices that have just stepped out of a time machine. I think that it’s because it’s exotic, authentic and communal. It’s counter-cultural to the trying too hard to be relevant types.

  3. Notie Emmanuel on December 7, 2019 at 6:00 am

    I really don’t agree with number 5. With the music thing and other culture, adapt that in Nigeria you will be in an uncontrollable mess in no time. I know some pastors here in Nigeria who are doing the culture to culture thing I bet you won’t like the result. Number 4 is good to me and quite effective too. But ultimately let the Holy Spirit lead. I am sure the Holy Spirit is never outdated. Thanks

  4. Notie Emmanuel on December 7, 2019 at 5:58 am

    I really don’t agree with number 5. With the music thing and other culture, adapt that in Nigeria you will be in an uncontrollable mess in no time. I know some pastors here in Nigeria who are doing the culture to culture thing I bet you won’t like the result. Number is good to me and quite effective too. But ultimately let the Holy Spirit lead. I am sure the Holy Spirit is never outdated. Thanks

  5. Brian on February 18, 2018 at 10:10 pm

    If you want to reach the unreached, do something that requires courage and radical love. Open your home to the homeless or those in marginal living conditions. The North American church could end homelessness this week if every Christian who had a house with an unused room would make it available to someone that has no one. I’m not talking about putting someone in the damp room in the basement full on unwanted furniture and clothes. I mean bringing someone into your home and treating them as your brother or sister, breaking bread with them and listening to their stories and pain.

    Can you imagine what the world would think of a church that would care for those most disadvantaged in society? Can you imagine how Jesus would pour out His spirit on His church? He is coming back soon, so now is not the time to play it safe with your faith.

    Read Isaiah 58, Mathew 25, 1 Timothy 3 and 5. Remember that it is what you do to the least that counts.

  6. Sophie Edwards on October 28, 2017 at 3:31 pm

    This article is exactly what God has put in my heart. Sad that the church can’t see that we have to change and therefore limits what God wants to do within the church.

    • Chuck on October 28, 2017 at 3:41 pm

      I wonder how many churches that are now dead have on their tombstone, “That’s not the way we did it back THEN…”

  7. Chuck on July 22, 2017 at 7:40 am

    Some 35-ish years ago, Christian singer Amy Grant asked the question: “Who are we as Christians to demand that [non-Christians] must meet us on our turf?” This was essentially her justification at the time for using Contemporary Christian Music (which was far less accepted across the popular culture back then even within the Church) to share the Gospel.

    I believe her question was extremely valid. See Point 5.

  8. Jon Magnuson on July 21, 2017 at 9:01 am

    Thanks, Carey, great article. We have been navigating this issue in our Messy Faith series. Right now, we are having conversations about the GLBT Community & the Gospel. We are drilling down on several aspects of Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well in John 4. I think we have too often stayed in the first three areas when it comes to engaging our culture – particularly in the area of sex and sexuality. I hope that changes soon, there is no shortage of other voices available at people’s fingertips.

    Blessings, keep up the great work and thanks for responding to God’s leading in your life and using your platform well for the kingdom.

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