How To Navigate Cultural Changes Wisely
I think we can all agree that mainstream culture in the U.S. has been undergoing seismic shifts in the last few years. Changes in society are nothing new—but the speed and scope of the changes we’re seeing have been incredible. How can we navigate a changing culture well, with wisdom and the kind of tone Jesus himself would use?
I grew up in the “Bible Belt” southern U.S. during the 70's and 80's, a time when a lot of Christians were reacting to the changes of the 60’s and 70’s which celebrated free love, drugs, anti-government views, and “if it feels good do it” culture. There was also nation-wide racial tension around desegregation and Christians were all over the map with their responses.
We saw the birth and growth of the nondenominational Bible church movement, Christian schools and colleges, Billy Graham Crusades, the "I Found It!" campaign, the Moral Majority movement, the birth of contemporary Christian music and Christian radio stations, Christian T-shirts, Christian jewelry, Christian dietary supplements, and more.
What about the changes we’re dealing with now? Issue like race, sexuality, immigration, abortion, and Christian nationalism are making headlines today, and Christians are once again quite divided with their responses. These issues were also some of the top issues that were causing great divisions fifty years ago. It is almost like we have a chance to learn from the past and respond in a better way this time around.
So how do we address these cultural issues with wisdom in a God-honoring way?
Our church has spent a lot of time working on clarity about who we are and how we live into the mission of Jesus. We’ve summarized what makes us unique in what we call our DNA statements. Recently, our pastor spoke on one of those statements, which says that Jesus sets our tone.
Jesus, and his words and tone, serve as our ultimate guide as we interact around cultural issues and seek to navigate cultural change with wisdom.
I see three distinct responses to culture among Christ-followers today. The first two seem to miss much of the tone that Jesus demonstrated in the Gospels. (Please know that I am not saying that my own tone is always right. I miss the tone of Jesus often, but it’s good to continually study and aim to follow the example he set.)
Here are the three basic responses:
1. Withdraw from culture and fight change.This battle mentality seeks control over compassion, feeds fear rather than faith, lectures rather than listens, and divides us rather than bringing us together. You might hear this in some familiar rallying cries: “recapturing our culture,” “fighting for our Christian freedoms,” “getting back to our country's Christian foundation,” being “anti-woke,” “confronting CRT,” and more.
Several years ago, I helped mediate a meeting between a group of local pastors and city officials. It was a meeting called by the mayor to try to reason with local pastors over a policy that addressed discrimination. This battle made several news broadcasts. As I listened to the pastors, I quickly realized that they hadn’t studied the details of the policy. They had assumed the city officials were taking away their rights, and they came ready for battle. These pastors had already contacted multiple media outlets and were spreading news of a lawsuit against the city.
As a pastor myself, it was both embarrassing and sad to watch this happen. At the meeting, the officials listened and explained the actual policy with a humble posture. In other words, they modeled the tone of Christ…more effectively than the pastors. It was a meeting I will never forget.
2. Embrace every cultural shift.This response to culture models the Corinthian church. They had adopted many of the ungodly practices of culture related to promiscuity, objectifying women, abuse, and more. The distinctive bright light of Christ-followers was fading, and the church was losing its unique influence.
There are many lessons for us here. Too many Christian leaders are adopting a culture of control, abuse, entitlement, and rationalizing marital unfaithfulness. They’ve lost sight of their original purpose and in doing so, are destroying both lives and the credibility of Christianity. Only God’s grace and a consistent, honest evaluation of our hearts can keep each of us from being caught by the same lies. None of us are exempt from being pulled in this direction. Standing strong in the face of temptation requires us to be vulnerable in true community, humbly depending on God’s strength, and staying open to the Holy Spirit.
3. Stand out while engaging the people within a culture.This third approach is the most challenging. It requires nuance, commitment, compassion, humility, strong community, and faith. Jesus modeled this perfectly. He went where the religious people had deemed sinful. He spent time with people who were seen as bad people. He led with grace and maintained his commitment to truth. He challenged people to look at their own lives rather than being judgmental of others. He also kept consistent spiritual practices to stay centered throughout his mission.
It's not always an easy path to follow. Sometimes I wish Jesus had been married with kids, so we could see how he would have handled marriage issues, parenting challenges, education choices for kids, and so on. God obviously had a better plan, though, and we can lean into what we do know about the way of Christ.
We know that Christ didn't fight for his rights or battle with the government about setting up his kingdom. He didn’t retreat from the people that needed his love. He lived in his culture and still stood out because of his unique lifestyle, compassion, grace, and nuanced truth. His kingdom message was the opposite of power and control. It was a message of self-sacrifice and giving up rights for the sake of others.
Within our polarized and contentious culture, we have an opportunity to impact our world in very powerful ways. We can and need to be friends with people who aren't Jesus followers. We can bring help for people in need. We can be known for our compassion and grace rather than judgment and hypocrisy, and we can communicate truth in a nuanced, attractive way. We can study the way of Jesus and reflect it to our neighbors, coworkers, social media followers, and more.
Let’s seek to navigate culture wisely, with a Jesus tone.