Confronting or Accommodating Culture?

By Julie Roys
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Recently, the imam of the “Ground Zero Mosque” spoke to a gathering of evangelicals at a conference called “Q,” in Portland, Oregon. His invitation understandably sparked controversy. But, Gabe Lyons, creator of “Q,” said he wanted to understand what the imam believes and why – and to bridge the chasm of fear between Muslims and Christians. One Baptist minister thanked Lyons, calling “this particular bridge . . . one of the worthiest cultural creations of our present age.”

Bridge-building. It’s certainly become a popular way we evangelicals engage the culture in an effort to redeem it and to reach non-Christians. And certainly, anyone who’s ever tried to witness to an unbeliever knows how important listening and building trust can prove in that process. Yet lately, evangelicals seem to have exalted bridge-building to a new level. Now, we invite leaders of other religions to speak at our conferences. We create entire ministries that exist solely to build bridges between Christians and gays – or some other seemingly estranged group. And, we have Christian rock bands that tour with irreligious and foul-mouthed groups like Stone Sour and Halestorm. Is this what the Apostle Paul meant when he said he had become “all things to all men” that he might “save some”?

I don’t think so. Take, for example, Paul’s speech on Mars Hill in Acts 17. Evangelicals often cite this passage as justification for bridge-building strategies. Here, before an audience of idol-worshipping pagans, Paul begins explaining God by referencing the Athenian’s altar to “An Unknown God.” He also quotes pagan poets – again connecting to Athenian culture. But, Paul isn’t building a bridge the way today’s cultural engagers do. He isn’t merely listening to Athenian culture to understand it and find some common ground. As Russell Moore, a dean at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, writes in the article, “Retaking Mars Hill,” Paul referenced Athenian culture to confront it.

When mentioning the altar to the “Unknown God,” Paul is pointing out that the Athenians themselves acknowledge their ignorance of the divine. Similarly, when Paul quotes pagan poets, he’s doing so to demonstrate how Athenian beliefs actually contradict themselves. As Moore writes, Paul “points to the Athenians’ culture not so much to bring out what they know as what they deny.” Yes, Paul acknowledges God’s image is reflected in Greek culture. But, Paul recognizes how sin has distorted and perverted this image. And, he concludes with an apparent bridge-burning statement. Paul says, “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”

This is what’s missing in much of today’s evangelical bridge-building. We’re so intent on being “all things to all people” that we’ve forgotten the purpose is to “win some.” We’ve made bridge-building an end in and of itself. And, instead of confronting culture, we’re accommodating it and, I fear, neglecting the gospel.

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