Cross Cultural, Part 3: Communicating Culturally
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Welcome back. Today we continue unpacking Paul’s message to the Colossians. Yesterday we used this letter to establish that the first component of a Cross Cultural ministry is to think Christianly. Thinking Christianly means having an orthodox view of Christ’s character and mission.
But as we observed, there are many salient cultural factors that inhibit the reception of the gospel. Today, then, we look at the second component of a Cross Cultural lifestyle: communicating culturally. Yesterday we discussed orthodox (“right thinking”) faith; today we examine heterodox (“wrong thinking”) faith.
A GENEROUS HETERODOXY
The Colossian church had become infiltrated by something commonly referred to as “the Colossian heresy.” As we mentioned, the specifics of this belief system are unclear – the best we can say is that it was an amalgamation of Judaism and Greek philosophy, with some peripheral references to Jesus.
What can be said about the Colossian heresy? I suggest that Paul’s letter reveals four key features.
(2) Legalism (2:11-17): Jewish morality still existed in the church, represented in these verses by references to “circumcision,” feasts and the “Sabbath.” These were emphasized over the grace of Christ – all forms of seeking to reach the divine through human effort.
(3) Mysticism (2:18-19): The church had also become enamored with spirituality and mysticism, apparently valuing the “worship of angels” and “going on in detail about visions.” This was the “new age” crowd of the first century, valuing false forms of “spirituality” over the supremacy of Christ Himself.
(4) Asceticism (2:20-23): Apparently some in the church had developed a penchant for asceticism, an active lifestyle of self-denial and primitive simplicity. While these are not bad virtues (especially in a city formerly known for its commerce), the end result was in replacing God’s grace with a set of rigid standards: “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch.”
Though these features are not precisely duplicated in the contemporary American church, there are still some salient cultural features that we must learn to navigate if we intend to communicate God’s truth to our culture. I will highlight four key features, especially true among younger generations:
(1) Bad Christology: While 71% of unbelievers state that Jesus “makes a positive difference in a person’s life,” very few hold a Biblical view of His character or mission. Instead Jesus is held as a moral role model – a “Buddy Jesus” – with more in common with Mister Rogers than the God of the Bible. See the first post in this series for examples of this attitude.
(2) Spirituality: As stated earlier, Americans are more likely to define themselves as “spiritual” than “religious.” According to a 2005 Newsweek/Beliefnet poll, more than 60% of Americans admit to praying daily, and over 30% meditate. The same poll reveals that roughly 80% of Americans believe that there is more than one way to God. One person in five has switched religions as an adult. The end result is a generation more willing than ever to borrow beliefs of a variety of religions to find “their” personal path to God. One of the young people interviewed in the above study shared her view that “There are many ways to be spiritual…People find it in yoga. For me, becoming a Muslim gave me the ultimate connection to God.”
(3) Lack of moral standard: In the broadest sense, the church no longer holds influence over morality. This means that young people are more likely to engage in behavior that their parents would not have approved of. In the 1950’s, roughly 30% of people approved of extramarital sex, compared with a 75% approval in today’s generations. The average age at which a person loses their virginity has dropped from 18 to 15 since 1950. Technology has been an especially powerful influence, as 40% of younger generations admit to using pornography regularly. According to data published through The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com, roughly 1 in 3 young adults have sent or uploaded nude or semi-nude images of themselves via their cell phones or the internet.
Many in the previous generation, while concerned, assume these figures are nothing new. I often hear dismissive statements like, “Every generation thinks they have it worse than what came before.” But the reality is, there is some truth to the sliding moral scale among younger generations, and those who hope that today’s generations will eventually “grow up” may ultimately find themselves sorely disappointed.
(4) Distrusting of the Church: Finally, the American church is viewed with an air of suspicion: a place of flowers and hymns, but having no real relevance for public life. Research from the North American Mission Board’s Center for Missional Research and Lifeway Research shows that 79 % think Christianity “is more about organized religion than about loving God and loving people.” Similarly, 72% think the church “is full of hypocrites, people who criticize others for doing the same things they do themselves.” Another 86 % believe they “can have a good relationship with God without being involved in church.”
But prevailing attitudes toward the church go well beyond apathy. Recent research has shown that the top three adjectives nonbelievers use to describe Christianity are “judgmental,” “antihomosexual” and “hypocritical.” In addition, Christians are regarded as “sheltered,” “too political,” and accused of turning non-Christians into impersonal “targets” for evangelism (this data and more comes from book unChristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons).
Given these features, the common temptation among Christians is to try and “defend” themselves before outsiders. When asked, “Are you religious?” we respond: “Oh…well, it’s not about religion, it’s about relationship” (as if nonbelievers have any idea what that means). When asked, “Are you a Christian?” we struggle to ensure we distance ourselves from “those” Christians. Yes, we’re Christians, but we’re not one of those judgmental, Jerry Falwell-types.
Jesus doesn’t need our P.R. campaign. Are we more concerned about our image or Christ’s? When we try and defend our faith, we don’t make Jesus look better, we just make ourselves look worse.
Jesus tells the story of the Pharisee who thanks God that he isn’t like that poor sinner. Now we’ve reversed it: thanking God that we’re at least not one of those smug religious people.
And this is how we become “ashamed of the gospel” (cf. Rom 1:16). To the Corinthian church, Paul writes that he was sent “not to baptize but to preach the gospel, not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power (1 Cor 1:17).”
Martin Luther phrased it aptly: crux sola est nostra theologica – “the cross alone is our theology.” Any attempt to “defend” the Christian faith is an attempt to add to the cross, an addition that can only subtract from its power.
Responding to the Colossian heresy (specifically its legalistic tendencies), Paul writes:
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:13-14)
Crux sola: The cross alone is the answer to man’s tendency towards self-righteousness and empty spirituality. Crux sola: The cross alone was the means by which Christ paid the price for man’s iniquity and brought us back into God’s family. Crux sola: The cross alone constrains us to a lifestyle of daily discipleship. Let that be our lifelong mantra: crux sola, crux sola, crux sola.
Paul’s advice in Colossians 3 offers a redemptive perspective:
“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:1-4)
Communicating culturally means communicating the cross. Our focus should not be on our image in the eyes of our culture, but on the transformative influence of Christ in our lives, an influence purchased through the shed blood of the cross. How do we answer the religion question? Simple. I usually tell people that I love Jesus, and if I have the chance, I briefly share the gospel.
It was St. Francis of Assissi who exhorted readers to “Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.” The gospel is communicated not merely in words, but in lifestyle. Tomorrow we shall continue our look at Colossians by describing the final component of a cross cultural lifestyle.
This article highlighted four key features of contemporary culture. Have you ever encountered any of these? In what ways?
How do you respond to the “Are you religious/a Christian?” question? Do you ever feel compelled to “defend” your faith?
The post emphasizes the “cross alone.” In what other ways do we try to add to the cross?
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.