A primer on how Christians can influence culture…
Christ and culture! What is the place of Jesus Christ and his followers in this world? This is the “enduring problem” that H. Richard Niebuhr discusses in his, now classic, Christ and Culture (1951). Niebuhr’s important and much debated volume surveys the different ways Christians down through the centuries have responded to the challenge of “being in but not of the world.”
The contemporary challenges of living in a pluralistic, multicultural, postmodern culture have forced Christians to once again wrestle seriously with Niebuhr’s “enduring problem.” The result is a veritable cottage industry producing papers, books and lectures from a wide range of perspectives: Anabaptist theology (Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas), sociology (To Change the World, James Davison Hunter), Christian journalism (Culture Making, Andy Crouch), the pastorate (Two Cities, Two Loves, James Montgomery Boice), Evangelical theology (The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, Carl F. H. Henry), biblical theology (Christ and Culture Revisited, D. A. Carson), theology of culture (Making the Best of It, John G. Stackhouse).
What to do? What does it mean to follow Jesus in a post-Christian culture? For many of us, the challenges are overwhelming. Equally daunting is a long list of long books, like the one above.
Where to start?
A very helpful beginning point is provided by John R. W. Stott in a short article published in Christianity Today in 2011. “Four Ways Christians Can Influence the World” is a primer on how Christians—that is, each of us—have the power to make a difference.
Stott’s first suggestion, and not one of his “four ways,” focuses on the pessimism he frequently encountered.
There is a great deal of pessimism around today that grips and even paralyzes people. They wring their hands in a holy kind of dismay. Society is rotten to the core, they say. Everything is hopeless; there is no hope but the return of Jesus Christ.
If we are pessimists and think we are capable of doing nothing in human society today, I venture to say that we are theologically extremely unbalanced, if not actually heretical and harmful. It’s ludicrous to say Christians can have no influence in society. It’s biblically and historically mistaken. Christianity has had an enormous influence on society down through its long and checkered history.
Stott provides a quote from historian Kenneth Latourette demonstrating the enormous influence that Christianity has had down through the centuries. And then, this exhortation:
So, away with pessimism, and away also with blind optimism, as if we thought utopia was around the corner. No, Christians are sober-minded, biblical realists, who have a balanced doctrine of creation for redemption and consummation. We are not powerless. I’m afraid what we are, rather, is often lazy and shortsighted and unbelieving and disobedient to the commission of Jesus.
The antidote for the ailments of complacency and disbelief, Stott continues, is found in Jesus’ instructions and admonitions in Matthew 5: “You are the salt of the earth … you are the light of the world.”
In both these metaphors of the salt and the light, Jesus teaches about the responsibility of Christians in a non-Christian, or sub-Christian, or post-Christian society. …
Most Christians accept that there is a distinction between the Christian and the non-Christian, between the church and the world. God’s new society, the church, is as different from the old society as salt from rotting meat and as light from darkness.
But there are too many people who stop there; too many people whose whole preoccupation is with survival—that is, maintaining the distinction. The salt must retain its saltiness, they say. It must not become contaminated. The light must retain its brightness. It must not be smothered by the darkness. That is true. But that is merely survival. Salt and light are not just a bit different from their environment. They are to have a powerful influence on their environment. The salt is to be rubbed into the meat in order to stop the rot. The light is to shine into the darkness. It is to be set upon a lamp stand, and it is to give light to the environment. That is an influence on the environment quite different from mere survival. …
Where to start? Stott concludes by discussing four sources of the power needed to achieve this “powerful influence” on our secular age.
First, there is power in prayer. I beg you not to dismiss this as a pious platitude. It isn’t. There are some Christians who are such social activists that they never stop to pray. They are wrong, are they not? Prayer is an indispensable part of the Christian’s life and of the church’s life. And the church’s first duty toward society and its leaders is to pray for them. “I urge, then, first of all,” writes Paul in his first letter to Timothy, “that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim. 2:1-2). …
Second, there is the power of truth. All of us believe in the power of the truth of the gospel. We love to say, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). We are convinced of the power of the gospel in evangelism—that it brings salvation and redemption to those who respond and believe in Jesus. But it isn’t only the gospel that is powerful. All God’s truth is powerful. …
Our third power as Christians is the power of example. Truth is powerful when it’s argued. It’s more powerful when it’s exhibited. People need not only to understand the argument. They need to see the benefits of the argument with their own eyes. … Christians are marked people. The world is watching. And God’s major way of changing the old society is to implant within it his new society, with its different values, different standards, different joys, and different goals. Our hope is that the watching world will see these differences, and find them attractive, that they “may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
Fourth, Christians have the power of group solidarity—the power of a dedicated minority. According to the American sociologist Robert Belair, at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, “We should not underestimate the significance of the small group of people who have a vision of a just and gentle world. The quality of a whole culture may be changed when two percent of its people have a new vision.” …That was the way of Jesus. He began with a small group of only 12 dedicated people. Within a few years, Roman officials complained they were turning the world upside down.
For sixty-six years, until his retirement in 2007, John R. W. Stott was a prominent leader in the worldwide Evangelical movement. His varied and overlapping roles included evangelist, pastor, author and visionary. Many of his books are now considered classic expositions of different aspects of Christian faith and practice: The Cross of Christ, Basic Christianity, Your Mind Matters, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. Additionally, he is noted for writing and editing a host of biblical commentaries. For more information on John Stott, who died in 2011, and his ongoing ministry, Langham Partnership, go here.