The Church and Culture – Defining Culture

Before we go any further with this discussion (which started last week) we need to define “culture.”  I like Richard Niebuhr’s definition from his book Chirst and Culture

Niebuhr defined culture as “…the artificial, secondary environment which man superimposes on the natural.  It comprises language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organization, inherited artifacts, technical processes, and values.”

Though, Niebuhr argued, we can’t define the essence or substance of culture, we can describe it’s chief characteristics.  He defines seven characteristics of culture:

1. Culture is always social.  It is people to people interaction.  Things that remain in private are not part of culture.

2. Culture is human achievement.  “It is the work of men’s minds and hands.”

3. Culture is all about values.  What people make and do, we make and do for a purpose.  There is an intention behind the things we create, behind our culture.

4. The values of culture are focused on bringing about good.   “Good” is relative word defined differently by each culture (even differently often by individuals within a culture).

5. Culture is concerned with the temporal and materialistic realization of the cultures values.  We are concerned with producing our “good” now in tangible ways.

6. Culture is also obsessed with the conservation of our values.  We spend a ton of time trying to preserve the cultural understandings and traditions we inherited and created.

7. Finally, culture is pluralistic.  There is not one culture in operation in a community.  There are thousands.

Seth Godin added to this final point nicely with his book Tribes when he described how in our present day people group together in communities around shared ideas. 

I have seen all this at work in my own neighborhood.  There are several different cultures or tribes in my small corner of the city.  There is the hip-artistic-young-parent tribe.  There is the I-grew-up-here-and-will-never-leave-blue-collar tribe.  I’m part of a tribe/culture I’ve heard refered to as “one of those City Neighbors people.”  We are part of a local charter school.  The passionate parents of the school tend to have some shared values, beliefs about education, behaviors, and even language.

I’m sure you can define cultures that exist in your area too.  In truth, we are each members of several tribes/cultures.  Not just one. 

This situation is not new.  It was true in Jesus’ day as well.  In first century Israel there were multiple cultures at work.  We see them in operation with Christ.  There were the Pharisees, the pro-Roman Jews (tax collectors for example), the out cast sinners, the Zealots, the Greeks, the Romans, etc… 

Now that we have a working definition, back to our question. 

How do we show culture relevance to people outside the church and not let that define or consume the church?  

We could go through the different ways people do this and critique them until a winner emerges; but that has been done before (Neihbur does a fantastic job of laying out five historical approaches of the church to culture…I highly recomend the book even though it is a little technical).  Instead, lets look at what Jesus did, how He interacted with the different cultures, and use that as a guide for our interaction in culture. 

To be continued…

The Church and Culture – Defining Culture

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