Water is essential to the life of a fish, but the fish is totally unaware of the presence of water until it is no longer there.
The same is true of us and the culture in which we live.
When Christians do discuss culture, we tend to identify some negative aspects of our cultural environment and give our attention to condemning those things.
In reality, we could not function without culture. Culture gives us language, customs and values that unconsciously provide structure to our lives.
Like the fish in water, we rarely think about culture until it starts to change. For Christians, culture can have both positive and negative aspects.
According to missional theology, part of our task as Christians is to be a contrast community within our culture, embodying eternal values and concepts based on the teachings of Christ.
On the other hand, if we do not adopt certain cultural characteristics, such as language, dress or conceptualization, we cannot pursue our mission effectively.
Paul gives a good example of this in his proclamation on Mars Hill in Athens:
“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:22-23).
He understands where he is, the language of his hearers and their philosophical mindset. He uses these to establish rapport with them, even citing the words of two Greek philosophers and claiming the “unknown god” in their culture as a means of proclaiming the message of the Creator God.
He finds a way to use culture to achieve his mission.
Down through the centuries, Christians have found ways to either use or reject culture in their missional task. This creates an ongoing tension that keeps us aware and sensitive to what is happening around us.
Let me suggest a few ways that we as Christians can engage culture:
1. Know what is essential to your Christian faith and mission.
Are my convictions based on my own study and faith experience or have I just accepted what has been passed on to me? What is at the core of my faith?
2. Seek to understand before condemning.
We too often have a knee-jerk reaction and immediately reject the new or unusual without attempting to understand the underlying values. Take time to explore and dialogue.
3. Broaden your experiences.
Diversify your reading, listen to new music and explore emerging media and performance venues. You may have some unpleasant experiences or run into some dead ends, but you will have clearer information upon which to make choices.
4. Find points of intersection between the culture and your faith.
As we explore music, art, drama and cinema, we will find themes that the Christian faith addresses and illuminates.
Take a few minutes today and think about the culture in which you live and what you can learn from it.
Ircel Harrison is coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is a supplementary professor in contextualization at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, Barnabas File, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @ircel.