“When” have we reached a culture?

If you follow the SCI-FI show LOST, the island philosopher/shaman John Locke asked a question in the season opening that was really interesting. After seemingly jumping time again he said, “when am I?” Not “where am I?” but “when.” So in the spirit of LOST I offer a question for your consideration. Since many believe it is a forgone conclusion that we should reach the culture, when has this ever been done and how do we know when we have reached a particular culture? For extra credit, what is a “culture”?

Maybe someone can point this out for me but I have not found anyone grapple with this in some of the “reach the culture” books (various takes on this: Calvin, Kuyper, Dabney, H. Van Til, C. Van Til, Niebuhr, Mohler, Driscoll, Carson, et al.) and conferences that I have listened to.

Feel free to discuss in the comments below.

14 responses to this post.

  1. I’ll bite. I would say that “culture” is defined as a people group with distinct characteristics. That could be the tattooed and pierced indie rock crowd of Seattle or the more traditional crowd of the rural South.

    Since we were just discussing him, I would say that Mars Hill Church in Seattle is a example of reaching a particular group. When you see folks come in who are clearly not part of mainstream America, but repent of their sinful lifestyle and begin growing in sanctification you know that you have begun reaching a culture. I don’t think that you can ever say that a culture is fully “reached” since there will always be more people who need to repent of their sins and believe the gospel.

  2. This is a question I’ve wrestled with greatly. There’s always one more, right? Acts 18:9-10 comes to mind: how do we know when we’ve reached all of “God’s people within a city”? We don’t. So we continue to spread the Gospel. I would agree with Jason that a culture is never fully reached because there’s always one more in our eyes.

    I think we can, however, talk about infiltration. Mars Hill is indeed reaching a culture, and has infiltrated it to the point where very staunch secular organizations are waging war against them in a very real way (the porn festival mentioned at Desiring God comes to mind).

    For further studies/observation, Calvin’s Geneva is clearly the frontrunner when mentioning infiltration, in my opinion.

    I would also agree with Jason’s brief definition of culture, adding that within the church context the culture must be localized. The church is an “ecclesia”, called out ones from within a city. The culture a church is to reach is particularly local. Mars Hill has infiltrated the Seattle indie rock culture…but not the indie rock culture of my hometown, Greenville (NC).

  3. Jason,

    I don’t want to pick a nit here but the definition of a “people group” has been historically defined as an ethnic group characterized by a common genealogy or ancestry. I’m not sure how indie-rock-pierced-tatted folks (to use your example) would fit such a definition. You seem to be defining more of a sub-culture than a true culture/people group.

    However let’s assume your definition is correct. Should a church focus on such a sub-culture that is common to their locale? Would you agree with Rick Warren’s statement, “For your church to be most effective in evangelism you must decide on a target. Discover what types of people live in your area, decide which of those groups your church is best equipped to reach, and then discover which styles of evangelism best match your target” (Purpose Driven Church, 157).

  4. I’m not sure the church’s business is “to reach the culture” whatever that may mean ( and obviously it will mean different things to different people).
    But I am sure that the church is to “teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost : Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you”. The church does that with the knowledge and the encouragement that the Lord Jesus is “with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen”

  5. Paul,

    I know what you mean about “people group.” However, in a nation as diverse as ours, wouldn’t you agree that we have a myriad of people groups? Plus, given our diversity, we don’t have much common ancestry. You asked for a definition of “culture” and I would maintain that the way many use it is similar to how traditional overseas missionaries would define “people group.”

    I feel like I’m being set up in a chess game where I don’t see the checkmate coming in a few moves, but what you quoted from Rick Warren sounds appropriate to me.

    We have a mandate to go and make disciples of all nations, right? Why not do that in a way that the people we are targeting understand? I have friends who are in Hungary with the Navigators and they are learning one of the most difficult languages in the world so they can reach their new Hungarian friends. Is there some reason why we shouldn’t do the same where we can within the various subcultures of America?

    The assumption I’m making is that we still preach the message that man is sinful and needs to repent and believe in Jesus for salvation. Unfortunately, when one hears “relevant” one often thinks “watered-down gospel to tickle ears,” which is not what I’m advocating.

  6. Jason,

    There’s no chess game here, I’m just offering a forum to discuss what’s important to us. I’m sure like me you have noticed that the word “culture” seems to be one of those words that folks always talk about but rarely define with clarity. You’ve also got me to thinking about just what in Warren’s approach or Driscoll’s is really all that different when all the rhetoric is pulled away.

    For example, Bruce Ware, D. A. Carson, John Piper and John Sailhamer have all spoken at Mars Hill over the years. None of these men come from the sub-culture you described yet I take it were able to communicate to the congregation there with the same message that they would deliver in Wake Forrest, Deerfield, Minneapolis, or Louisville.

    So thinking out loud here, what is so different about the message at Mars Hill than here in the so-called “Deep South”? I suspect that defenders would say that the message is really unchanged. If that is the case then the discussion is really one about style more than substance.

    I appreciate your thoughts.

  7. Posted by fatherof11 on January 22, 2009 at 10:29 pm


    A couple of John Frame quotes regarding culture:

    In the last chapter, I defined culture as what we make of God’s creation, or rather what God makes through us. Culture is the human response, in obedience or disobedience, to the cultural mandate, God’s command to Adam and Eve to replenish the earth and subdue it. As such, culture expresses our religion, our service to God or an idol. Since the fall into sin, described in Genesis 3, culture expresses unbelief, rebellion against God. But there is also good in culture, because of God’s common grace and his special grace. By his common grace, God restrains human sin. By his special grace, he sends Christ to save us. And Jesus’ saved people spread over the earth, preaching the gospel, winning others to Christ, and bring the influence of Jesus into the cultures of the world. So in any human culture, we can expect to find both good and bad.

    So, by process of elimination, but not only that, I find myself supporting the fifth view, that Christians should be seeking to transform culture according to the standards of God’s Word. This simply means that if you are a Christian artist, car repairman, government official, or whatever, you should be seeking to do you work as a Christian, to apply God’s standards to your work. As Paul says, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Christians have always sought to do this, and in seeking to do this, they have had a huge impact on culture. They haven’t turned earth into heaven, or the world into the church. And sometimes they have made tragic mistakes.

  8. Paul,

    I apologize for being suspicious. I realize that this isn’t Slice of Laodicea. I appreciate a chance to discuss this with men I respect.

    I think the difference really is more style than substance in most cases. When I listen to Driscoll I hear Bible preached. It is done with language different than you might use in other parts of the country, but it is being preached. Warren is much harder to pin down though. I probably wouldn’t include him with Driscoll. Driscoll’s ministry seems to be less seeker-sensitive if you will.

    fatherof11 — I completely agree that we should be seeking to transform culture based on the standard of Scripture. But what does that mean to you? In your mind, what does a “transformed culture” look like?

  9. Posted by fatherof11 on January 23, 2009 at 10:16 am


    First of all, some context. Eight of my children were adopted from other cultures at ages ranging from eight to fourteen. So in a real sense I deal with the issue of culture every day. What I have seen is that the message of the gospel transcends the culture. However, communication of that message may require cultural sensitivity in order to communicate truthfully the message.

    As an example, when we were adopting kids six, seven, and eight, we were having difficulty communicating to the Russians that we had enough space for eight kids. We talked about square feet, and having acreage and all the stuff we as American’s would talk about describing the size of our house. What finally convinced them was the fact that we had three bathrooms. Why? Because everyone there lived in a flat and every flat has one bathroom. So having three bathrooms meant that we had the equivalent of three of their homes. Which probably made it seem that we had more than we really had, but under the circumstances it did not seem necessary to correct that perception. As you can communicating the truth required understand how that truth could be communicated in their culture.

    Hopefully, having made the point that we need to understand the cultural context to communicate the gospel effectively let me suggest the primary error that is made by those that acknowledge the problem is that the fail to realize that culture is a mixed bag. Some elements are clearly sinful while some, through common grace, are good, and others such as the spices used in food are adiophora. Thus they fail to distinguish between being sensitive to the culture when it comes to communication and becoming immersed in it to the point that culture becomes the standard rather than Scripture. This is the error Driscoll seems to have made early on with his profane speech and seems to be coming out of with the help of men like Piper.

    As for what does a transformed culture look like. That is a case of the already but not yet. Short of the eternal state, there will never be a fully transformed culture. Culture will only be transformed to the degree that it is inhabited by true believers who live according to the Word of God. But the transformation of culture is not the goal it is only a byproduct of filling the world with worshipers of the Triune God.

  10. Thanks for the story. I think we are in agreement then. And, believe it or not, I think that Driscoll would be in agreement with you too, based on what I’ve heard him say. I think that as the gospel infiltrates a culture we need to reject the things that are sinful and cannot be redeemed (i.e. the use of illegal drugs) and redeem the things that we can (i.e. musical styles).

    I think we run into trouble if we start to say that the only way to “do church” is the way that we do church. I think that Scripture leaves some wiggle-room for individual style and we should exercise our liberty in those areas when it would help to advance the gospel in the culture to which we have been called.

  11. This is a great question. I often ask myself what would our culture (the routines and practices of life unique to a specific place) look like if a church was truly reaching/impacting a community.

    I can think of no better example than Acts 19, where the very economy of Ephesus was reshaped by the city’s response to the gospel.

    I pray for the gospel reshaping of many elements of the place I live.


  12. I remember reading about the Welsh revivals that impacted the country to the extent that virtually everyone was impacted in some way! That would seem to me to be a picture of a culture that was reached!

  13. As long as the gospel isn’t watered-down, I think any approach even if not traditional (such as Driscoll) but is “Christ, and Him crucified” is what’s important. The only thing that matters is souls getting saved.

  14. Posted by Caleb Kolstad on February 3, 2009 at 7:40 pm

    Jesus said the great com is to “make disciples” or in Paul’s language to “present every person COMPLETE in Christ.”

    Salvation is vital but not the end…

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