Christ and Culture: Re-educating Congregations for Missional Engagement with Their Contexts

Over the past sixty years there has been a renewed interest in the relationship of local congregations and the contexts in which they minister. The field has been well prepared with many good articles and books on the subject. In this article, I would like to point in a further direction: How do we re-educate our churches and parishes to engage their contexts in a missional manner as we pursue the spiritual transformation of our communities?

Recent Publications

Over the past five years several excellent books have been written
to further explore the notions Niebuhr proposed. He used a
typological methodology that has allowed us to better
understand the issues. Numerous critiques of his method exist.
Below are five recent texts that will help a congregation to
learn more about the issues.

  1. Christ and Culture. Graham Ward. 2005. Oxford: Blackwell
    Publishing. This is by far the most academic analysis
    of the subject by an excellent British missiologist. Using
    an apologetic approach, Ward explores a Christology
    that takes all of culture seriously. This text continues
    the fine work he did in Cultural Transformation and
    Religious Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 2005).

  2. Christ and Culture Revisited. D.A. Carson. 2008. Grand
    Rapids, Michigan, USA: Eerdmans. Originally published in
    French, this fine piece is Carson’s contribution to the
    subject through the lens of biblical theology. He tackles
    several contemporary themes to make links to the subject.

  3. Rethinking Christ and Culture—A Post-Christendom
    Craig Carter. 2006. Grand Rapids, Michigan,
    USA: Brazos Press. This Canadian scholar tackles Niebuhr’s
    misrepresentation of the Anabaptist tradition and illustrates
    how the “New Law” Type can find its way in our complex
    contexts today.

  4. Making the Best of It—Following Christ in the Real World.
    John Stackhouse. 2008. New York: Oxford University Press.
    This is a must-read for congregations seeking to tackle the
    question with an eye to ethical practices in our complex
    modern contexts. Stackhouse analyses three authors—C.S.
    Lewis, Richard Niebuhr, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer—on the
    subject and then articulates a Christian practice for today.

Over the past decade several new books have been published on the subject (see sidebar). Each one responds in one way or another to H. Richard Niebuhr’s groundbreaking work in 1951.1

However, this article looks beyond the use of theological or missiological models for cultural understanding. Both Karl Barth and Lesslie Newbigin remind us that the local congregation is the place for members to be trained, supported, and nourished as they pursue God’s mission in their situations. We can no longer sit comfortably and debate the relationship of the Church and culture. How do we pick up the challenge that Newbigin raised in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society and re-educate the whole Church to engage their contexts with the good news of God’s rule in Jesus Christ? Here are five ideas to begin the re-education.

1. At the heart of our reflections as Christians lies our understanding of God’s intentions for human history. These intentions read like a narrative. Numerous writers have summarized.2 My best take on the storyline reads like this:

Reality as we know, see, and experience it is the result of a creator who made the world and fashioned creatures in his image to live in harmony, well-being, and peace (shalom). These creatures were given a series of mandates to pursue, so that one day all of creation would be flooded with the creator’s life in a way for which it was prepared from the very beginning of the human story. By tragic irony, the creature rebelled against these intentions. This brought dissonance at every level of creation. However, the creator acted astoundingly and solved the problem in an entirely appropriate manner—through Israel and ultimately through Jesus—to rescue creatures/creation from the plight of the rebellion. The full scope of this rescue is not yet apparent, but the story continues with the creator acting by his Spirit within the world to bring it to that purpose originally foreseen. To this end, the creator has created a new community of witnesses to this story. While waiting, this community is called to speak, to serve, to live in loving obedience to Jesus Christ, to be a sign of God's peaceful purposes for the communities, and to dialogue to subvert other ways of telling stories in their situation. One does this in patient attendance to the grand finalé of the story.

It is in the context of the narrative that we as Christians pursue our lives and purposes in the world. More than ever, we need to educate our churches in the breadth of God’s story.

2. Congregations need to be able to identify worldviews in order to reflect upon their particular contexts. Worldviews are primarily lenses through which we look at what life is all about. Generally speaking, they are the series of presuppositions that groups of people hold, consciously and unconsciously, about the basic make-up of the community, relationship, practices, and objects of daily life, whether they are of great signification or of little importance. They are like the foundations of a house—vital but invisible. The make-up of a worldview is based upon the interaction of one’s ultimate beliefs and the global environment within which one lives. They deal with the perennial issues of life, such as religion and spirituality, and contain answers to even simple questions, such as whether we eat from plates or how to launder our clothing.

3. Congregations need to understand that worldviews are communicated through the channels of culture. We should be careful to not confuse culture and worldview, although they are in constant relationship with one another. Culture is foremost a network of meanings by which a particular social group is able to recognize itself as such through a common history and a way of life. This network of meanings is rooted in ideas (including beliefs, values, attitudes, and rules of behaviour), rituals, and material objects, including symbols that become a source for identity, such as the language we speak, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the way we organise space. This network is not a formal and hierarchical structure. It is defined in modern society by constant change, mobility, reflection, and ongoing new life experiences.

This is opposed to traditional societies where culture was transmitted from one generation to another vertically within the community structures. Modernity still transmits some aspects of culture like language and basic knowledge vertically through the bias of the school system, but once this is done, the horizontal transmission of culture through friendship, peers, and socio-professional status become more important.

Worldviews may be studied in terms of four features: characteristic stories, fundamental symbols, habitual praxis, and a set of questions and answers. These presuppositions interact with each other in a variety of complex and interesting ways. By studying the intersection of these big themes, the practitioner can unearth the worldview of the context under study.

Communities often reveal their worldviews by the cultural network they produce and constantly reproduce in social interactions, objects, and symbols: from dollars to metro tickets, from office towers to streetcars, from pottery to poetry, from places of worship to sacred texts, from emblems to funerary monuments, from stadiums to crosses.

Symbols provide the hermeneutic grid to perceive how the world is and how we might live in it: these symbols provide a vision of reality and a vision for it. Symbols describe the typical behaviour of a society and vice versa: the celebration of important events, the usual means of dealing with dissonance, and the rituals associated with birth, puberty, marriage, and death. And in many communities, their symbols and characteristic behaviour are also focused in stories. Furthermore, the answers to fundamental questions such as “Who are we?” “Where are we?” and “What are the problems we face and how will we solve them?” give us great insight into the worldviews of a community.

4. We need to help our members rehabilitate the place religion plays in culture and worldview. The polemic between religion, faith, and spirituality is not helpful in the re-education process. Religion is that which one holds to be of ultimate importance in a more or less explicit belief system, through oral or written traditions. Religion maintains an indistinguishable link with spirituality. It is at the heart of our human nature. Spirituality is the kind of life that is formed by the religious dimensions of a worldview. It is the expression of faith that is formed by reference to understanding (the rational component) and by experience (the spirit component) with the ultimate.

Christian spirituality is our self-transcendent capacity as human beings to recognize and to participate in God’s creative and redemptive activity in all creation. The interest of Christians in the subject is not new, although there is a renewed awareness of the subject in the past several years. Our understanding of the word spirituality should not be separated from previous expressions like holiness, godliness, walking with God, or discipleship. All of these words emphasize a formal commitment to being alive to God the creator and connected in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

5. Spiritual formation is a synonym for spiritual growth. It focuses our attention on how the Holy Spirit works in us to conform us to the image of God in Jesus Christ. The Spirit works in us because of God’s love for us and because of the consequences of evil in the world since the fall. It is the Trinitarian work of the Godhead to stimulate followers of Jesus in their individual lives.

In the local community of faith, we are stimulated to participate in God’s project for human history through the ways and means revealed in scripture. Spiritual formation is also about those spiritual practices that the follower of Jesus pursues under the guidance of the Holy Spirit so as to more readily receive God’s transforming grace.

But this transformation is intimately linked to God’s mission in the world. We need to constantly affirm that the creator is in the process of reconciling the whole created order to himself. God has called the Church to embody this reconciliation that he desires for all that he sustains.

The marginalization of the social significance of religion and church involvement in modern civil societies (also defined as secularization) calls us to reconsider our devotion to Christ much more seriously.

Spiritual formation is about empowering Christians to live their faith in the world. True Christian spirituality cannot be divorced from the struggle for justice and care for the poor and the oppressed. The essence of following Jesus means living a fully human life in the world in union with Jesus Christ and his people and growing in conformity to his person. Following Jesus is a grateful and heartfelt “Yes” expressed to God both in act and attitude. It is a process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded his readers as he wrote from prison,

Jeremiah says that at the moment of his people’s great need still one shall buy houses and acres in this land, as a sign of trust in the future. May God give it to us daily. I do not mean the faith which flees the world, but the one that endures the world and which loves the world and remains true to the world in spite of all the suffering which it contains for us. Our marriage shall be a “yes” to God’s earth; it shall strengthen our courage to act and accomplish something on earth. I fear Christians who stand with one leg upon the earth and also stand with one leg in heaven.3


Fundamental Principles 

Key Biblical Notations 

Notes from History 

Christ against culture; a decisive break  There is an opposition between what God says and what Jesus Christ represents. Christians are to withdraw from culture. 1 John 2:12-17 Tertullian at the end of the second century; monastic movements and many modern-day fundamentalist movements
Christ of culture  There is an implicit accommodation and common agreement between theology and culture—there is no conflict. Christiandom  Gnosticism in its historical and modern-day versions. Abélard in the eleventh century.  
Christ above culture  Christ accomplished the demands of culture—a new synthesis emerges. Matthew 5:17-19; Romans 13:1-7; Matthew 22:21  St. Thomas Aquinas in the twelfth century; most modern-day academic assessments of the subject
Christ and culture in paradox  Obedience in spite of conflict, but Christ overcomes the duality. Paul in Romans Martin Luther’s assessment of two kingdoms and two vocations 
Christ transforms culture  Transformation John 1:1-18; Revelation   St. Augustine; John Calvin



1. See the summary at the conclusion of this article. Numerous critiques of Niebuhr’s typology exist. The best one is the 1996 book edited by Diane Yeager, Authentic Transformation: A New Vision of Christ and Culture. Nashville, Tennessee, USA: Abingdon Press.

2. In the past decade, many Christian authors have attempted to summarize God’s project in human history in a succinct paragraph. Tom Wright (The New Testament and the People of God, p.133) and Richard Hays (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, p. 190) employed the most recent insights in narrative theology, while maintaining an historical focus on the faith. This helped the Church understand God’s story in fresh ways in theology and ethics. Brian McLaren (The Story We Find Ourselves In) applies the method in an altogether different literary genre, which he calls creative nonfiction. He employs it for the broader theme of the authentic mission encounter of the Church with our culture that has been explored by many authors since Lesslie Newbigin first published his 1987 work Foolishness to the Greeks. One fascinating summary of the Christian story is found in the Montréal novelist Yan Martel’s fascinating novel, Life of Pi (ch.17).

3. 1972. Letters and Papers from Prison. Ed. Eberhard Bethge, translated by Christian Kaiser Verlag. New York: Macmillan.

Glenn Smith is senior associate for urban mission for the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and is executive director of Christian Direction in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. He is a professor of urban theology and missiology at the Institut de theologie pour la Francophonie at the Université de Montréal and at the Université chrétienne du Nord d’Haïti. He is also professor of urban missiology at Bakke Graduate University in Seattle, Washington, USA. Smith is editor of the Urban Communitees section.