The late founder of one of my alma maters was fond of saying, “If it’s Christian, it ought to be better.” This wasn’t an arrogant claim that Christians possess superior talents or abilities. It was just his way of saying that faith in Jesus should make a positive difference in how we live.
After all, the gospel is not a message that rescues sinners from the world yet fails to change the world sinners live in (Acts 17:6). No, Jesus does indeed bring positive change, both personally and culturally. The earliest Christians understood this well.
Learning from the Early Church
Though they were a persecuted minority for much of the first three centuries, the early church did not abandon the call to engage the culture. Indeed, they viewed themselves as subjects of a king whose kingdom is “not of this world” (John 18:36 CSB) while being very much in the world (Luke 17:21). This makes every church an outpost of an otherworldly kingdom that will one day replace all the kingdoms on the earth (Rev. 11:15).
In view of these truths, early Christians knew they could not withdraw from the world around them. Yet neither could they imitate the world’s way of life. There were elements of their societies that needed to be countered while other things were waiting to be created by people who had an entirely different vision for life.
“The gospel is not a message that rescues sinners from the world yet fails to change the world sinners live in.”
In other words, early Christians were neither culturally derivative nor exclusively defensive. Instead, they were culturally creative. They built hospitals because of their belief in the dignity of humanity. They cared for the poor because of their desire to imitate Christ. And they revered God in their private and public lives, often enduring ridicule and persecution because of it.
Making Culture and the Church’s Mission
The idea that Christians ought to “redeem” and create culture can be controversial. When so many people still haven’t heard about Christ, why bother with engaging the culture? Isn’t this putting the cart before the horse?
In fact, Christ-honoring culture benefits society as a whole, including the people who have not heard the good news about Jesus. Furthermore, Scripture tells us that God commanded human beings to exercise dominion over all creation (Gen. 1:26–28). Thus, creating culture is one of the tasks we were made for. It is one of the main ways we reflect our Creator, who brought order from chaos (Gen. 1:2).
Theologians call this “the creation mandate.” It’s a commission that necessitates both a whole-life education—what the Greeks called paideia (cf. Eph. 6:4)—and social action that is rooted in biblical ethics. To ignore this aspect of the church’s mission would be a detriment to all.
The Modern Struggle to Engage
Unfortunately, evangelicals have often struggled to engage, reform, and create culture. Some have settled for a gospel that redeems worldly people yet fails to redeem the world itself. This relegates the pursuit of peace and prosperity to the personal realm instead of seeing it as a public facet of loving God and loving our neighbor (Jer. 29:7; Mark 12:30–31).
Globally, this oversight has contributed to economic hardships, threats to natural resources, and various forms of injustice and oppression. At times it has even hindered the mission of God’s people. We simply can’t ignore the state of the world and expect things to turn out fine for the church. Whether as a beneficiary or a casualty, the church is never insulated from the consequences of cultural reformation or cultural collapse.
“We simply can’t ignore the state of the world and expect things to turn out fine for the church.”
That is why throughout history some of the most culturally influential Christians have been pastors, planters, and missionaries. They saw that the church is critical in redeeming and creating culture that honors God and blesses the world. For the same reasons, planters and missionaries today must understand the culture around them, promote efforts in cultural renewal, and teach national believers to do the same. To do this, church planters must be three things.
1. Planters Must Be Exegetes of Culture
Because the gospel is not tied to any earthly culture, it can find a home in any cultural context. Nevertheless, every culture retains elements that the gospel will challenge, transform, or perfect. It is the planter’s job to know which is which.
To be an effective missionary, therefore, church planters must understand both the gospel and the cultural values of their context. That is why they dedicate much of their time to learning a new language as well as a new way of life. The goal is not only to understand the people they hope to evangelize but also to discern what discipleship looks like in this particular context.
2. Planters Must Be Experts of Culture
A little over a century ago, pastors were recognized writers, artists, and societal experts. When people sought to understand a particular political philosophy or the underlying message of a specific piece of artwork, most knew they could look to their pastors. The same proved true for many of history’s great missionaries. Missionaries like William Carey were church planters, pastors, translators, anthropologists, and social reformers.
Today, however, missionaries and planters are saddled with accusations of cultural ignorance, at best, and cultural imperialism, at worst. To change all this, pastors and planters must again read widely and deeply. They must listen well and observe closely. But above all, they must learn to love the people they are called to serve. To be an expert in culture really is to be an expert in the people who live in a certain time and place.
3. Planters Must Be Enthusiasts for Culture
Christians think of themselves as “truth people.” We are, of course, but God also cares about justice and beauty. Planters must, therefore, help their churches to see the necessity of all three, showing that we have been commissioned to make culture that displays the multifaceted goodness of God.
“The whole world is a theater for the glory of God, and we should treat it as such.”
As they do so, planters should never encourage international Christians to abandon all their cultural expressions to adopt American tastes and preferences. They must also teach against the common misconception that God only wants Christians to make cultural artifacts with explicitly biblical content. The whole world is a theater for the glory of God, and we should treat it as such.
Long before You Plant a Church
Don’t wait until you feel called to plant a church to embrace this vision that leads you to the frontlines of cultural engagement. You will find it difficult to live as a culturally engaged missionary overseas if you are not already living like one now. For God has not called us to plant churches that isolate us from the world. Nor has he called us to become purveyors of poorly imitative subcultures. Rather, we are citizens of a better kingdom with a better culture that flows from a better king. Let us all live like this as we plant more outposts of that kingdom around God’s world.
Dayton Hartman is the lead pastor at Redeemer Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. He also serves as an adjunct professor of church history for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He attended Liberty University, where he earned an MA in global apologetics, and he holds a PhD in church and dogma history from North-West University.