Cultural apologists usually advocate one of three approaches to the issues that are currently redefining the culture in which we live. Either we can be isolated from our culture, immersed in our culture, or insulated in the midst of our culture. Each of these approaches can be illustrated by a diver’s relationship to the water. The diver who jumps in without gear represents immersion. The diver with a wet suit and scuba gear represents insulation—in the water but protected from and unaffected by it. A man on the shore who refuses to dive into the water represents isolation.
Cultural immersion is the easiest approach to the culture because it is the most natural. We were born into this culture. It was here that we learned how to think, act, and react. It was here that we developed our worldview. It was here that we were educated. In fact, it is not until we come to faith in Christ that we even know that there is an alternative. Many Christians grew up in a church environment that was completely immersed in the culture and could not tell the difference between the two world-views if their life depended on it.
Cultural immersion is the de facto approach for most Christians. In doing nothing (and in being ignorant of the philosophical shift around them), most Christians have simply adopted the philosophical assumptions promulgated by the adversary. They have become “all things to all people.” They parrot popular phrases without weighing their implications—the church member who never shares her faith with the Muslim coworker because “we all worship the same God”; the college student who sees nothing wrong with his philosophy professor’s assertion that “there are no absolutes”; the Episcopal bishops who elect an openly gay Bishop of New Hampshire. These people unwittingly accept the immersion approach because the Bible has been usurped by our culture.
The greatest benefit this approach offers is acceptance within the culture. When Christians share the same philosophical assumptions, values, roles, norms and mores of the culture, they meet little resistance in our culture. These Christians are not called intolerant, narrow-minded bigots. They do not turn off lost people.
The “seeker-driven” emphasis within the modern Church Growth movement is another example. These churches’ main goal is to create an environment with the “seeker” in mind. Their pulpit is removed because it represents authority. No one on staff wears a shirt and tie because doing so would represent the uptight, “old fashioned” way of doing church. The preacher becomes the “speaker” or “communicator.” The sermon becomes a “talk.” Biblical exposition gives way to the seventeen-minute topical, self-help sounding, felt-needs based pop psychology with full multimedia support. Songs of Zion are replaced with top-forty cover songs. The call to repentance and faith is supplanted by an invitation to “make yourself at home.” Ultimately, biblical community is abandoned in favor of a country club—all in the name of reaching a group of people the Bible says do not even exist (see Romans 3:11).
The obvious drawback to cultural immersion is that it offers no alternative. This position allows the sinner to feel comfortable in his or her sin. It compromises the gospel message. This approach loses the game before it even starts because it has bought in to philosophical assumptions with which the gospel message is completely incongruent.
Isolation, on the other hand, represents complete withdrawal from the culture. “Come out from their midsts and be separate” is the battle cry of the isolationist (2 Corinthians 6:17). This position is based on the idea that interaction with the culture will corrupt those who walk with Christ. Isolationism has several strengths.
First, isolation offers a clear distinction between Christianity and the culture, and thus a clear alternative. It may be difficult to choose between a Chevy pickup and a GMC, but put a Ford or a Dodge in the mix and things change. Suddenly the differences are more clear and the choice more obvious. Isolation creates distance between “us” and “them.”
Second, isolation protects Christians from corruption, or at least appears to do so. If we don’t interact with the culture, the culture cannot corrupt us; or so the argument goes. This preserves the integrity of the message. The culture’s philosophy cannot influence our thinking if we avoid the culture altogether.
Of course, the flip side of this is the fact that isolation not only eliminates the culture’s influence on the church, it also negates godly cultural transformation. This requires interaction. Unfortunately, to some isolationists, any interaction represents compromise.
The extreme corporate expression of isolation is the traditional church. Every church has tradition, but the traditional church is so steeped in its tradition that it would rather die than adapt. An observant person can script these services after a couple of weeks. You know: three hymns and a special followed by three points, a poem, an altar call, and a handshake at the back door. This church was once a pillar of the community, but it is rapidly becoming an albatross. This church is proud that time has passed it by, but it still can’t understand why young families aren’t coming. This is the church that will only hire a young pastor if he acts like an old man and will throw him off the nearest cliff if he ever forgets his place and tries to change something.
Insulation is the process of being “in the world, but not of the world.” This is often viewed as the middle ground. Here we interact with the culture, but we do so with the protection of our wet suit, or our submarine. In other words, we get close to the world, but we never actually make contact.
I am not, however, asking you to choose between insulation, isolation, or immersion. I don’t find any of these solutions totally sufficient. I believe that we should infiltrate and invade the culture. To infiltrate means to enter enemy territory without being detected. To invade means to enter by force in order to conquer. I believe the task at hand requires both. Furthermore, I believe that if we are to infiltrate and invade our culture with the truth, we will have to employ each of the three previous techniques. We must get our hands dirty in people’s lives like those committed to immersion; keep the lines clearly drawn like the isolationist; all the while exemplifying the balance of the insulation approach.
In my mind I see a picture of an allied camp set up in the midst of enemy territory. As such, we are completely distinct from our surroundings but able to blend in as necessary. Occasionally we venture out into enemy territory for reconnaissance purposes, but we never become completely comfortable, and we always come back home.
The next generation
Our culture is hostile to Christian faith. We no longer live in a time or a place where what we believe constitutes the norm, or even an accepted point of view. What we believe flies in the face of the cherished principles of religious relativism, tolerance, and philosophical pluralism. We are considered “untrained and uneducated” men and women from whom our culture needs to be protected. We are the modern version of Peter and John standing before a Sanhedrin armed with television and radio stations, colleges and universities, newspapers and books, all being leveraged against “the faith that was once for all handed down to the saints.” Struggle is inevitable. Conflict is at hand. Will we bow before the god of culture? Or will we plant our feet, square our shoulders, lift our heads, and give an account to all those who ask us not just what we believe but why?
Adapted from The Ever-Loving Truth: Can Faith Thrive in a Post-Christian Culture? By Voddie Baucham, Jr. Published by Broadman & Holman Publisher, Nashville, Tenn. Copyright © 2004 by Voddie Baucham, Jr. Used with permission.