My wife and I recently visited a church that took us back in time. Upon entering the lobby of the church building, we heard piano music coming from the sanctuary. The music was that of a familiar Fanny Crosby hymn played in a very distinctive style that dated back to about the mid 1900s. As we walked toward the doors leading into the sanctuary, I quietly leaned over to my wife and whispered, “Youth for Christ—1945.” After we took our seats in the sanctuary, I noticed that everyone in the church was dressed in their Sunday best. Now, I am not against dressing up to go to church. In fact I personally prefer wearing a suit and tie to church myself. Yet, it seemed out of place in our day and age to see everyone—and I mean everyone—dressed up. By everyone, I mean even the children. All of the little elementary school boys were wearing suits and ties, and each little girl had on a frilly dress. When the pastor began to preach, he spoke with a tone of voice that sounded like a recording of classical oratory common to the late 1800s. With each point of his message, the pastor moved down to the floor, gradually removed his suit coat, and walked closer to where we were sitting, until he stood no less than ten pews in front of us. Beginning his closing invitation, the pastor sternly glanced toward us and warned of a coming condemnation. Our entire worship experience felt like we were stuck in a time-warp purgatory.

No doubt, the people and pastor meant well. Sadly, however, this church is so out of touch culturally with the community that it has limited impact for Christ. Like many churches, this one has made the mistake of confusing culture with core values. The members believe that their way of dressing for worship is right, and other forms of dress are wrong. They communicate that their choice of music is correct, and others are not acceptable. Even the cars in their parking lot shout loudly that only automobiles made in our country are proper for Christian’s to drive. They mix Christian tastes with biblical values, and create barriers between people and Christ.

Churches tend to approach culture from one of three perspectives: Isolation, Domination, or Incarnation. Isolation takes place when a church is so far removed from culture that it can no longer communicate the good news in effective ways. If isolation takes place in a complete way, it usually leads to a church that totally dies out. However, most cases of isolation simply result in a church that has limited impact on people and society.

Domination occurs as a church lashes out harshly at what are perceived as evil aspects of culture. While churches using a domination approach to culture occasionally play the part of prophet, in the majority of situations they are just ignored as part of the fanatical fringe.

Observation of churches throughout history demonstrates that the best approach to making disciples is incarnational. Martin Luther used this approach as he adapted the secular tunes sung in the bars and taverns of his day by writing Christian lyrics to them. John Wesley followed this path when he began speaking the gospel directly to the blue collar workers of England, and gathered them into small groups that met in homes rather than cathedrals.

Churches that isolate themselves from the culture do not fish. Those that seek to dominate the culture fish with dynamite. Churches that incarnate themselves into the culture fish with the proper bait and tackle. Incarnation happens when a church adapts itself in appropriate ways to its culture, so that it receives a hearing for the gospel. Jesus told us to be fishers of men (Mt 4:19; Mk 1:17).

Biblical church growth takes place in churches that:

  1. Are culturally indigenous to their mission field. They customize their worship, teaching, outreach and ministry to their specific cultural and demographic settings by incarnating them appropriataly to the culture.
  2. Emphasize Christ, not culture. God is not bound to any one culture but is transcultural. Christianity everywhere is rooted in "the same gospel" and is, in fact, the one demonstrated "universal faith," but it must be contextualized for every people and culture.
  3. Do not sacrifice the gospel on the altar of trends; but creatively adapt, integrate and communicate the Word of God to a changing culture.
  4. Select a disciple making method that culturally fits their target audience. They hold on to their biblical values, while carefully choosing techniques that are biblically sound, and allow them to faithfully reach the lost.

The different cultures and sub-cultures represented among the people of the world contain morally neutral and immoral aspects. Those parts of culture that are morally neutral are avenues where God works in and through culture to bring about His glory. Those area that are immoral are areas that need transformation through the power of the Gospel.

The apostle Paul depicts his approach to culture by saying, “I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some (1 Co 9:19-23). It is striking that Paul uses the phrase “that I might win” five times in this brief passage and once says, “that I may by all means save some.” It is his goal to communicate the Gospel so that as many people as possible might be saved. How did he do this? By becoming a slave to all, that is, he limited his own cultural practices and preferences in order to remove as many barriers as possible between unbelievers and Christ. He crafted his presentation, lifestyle and methods to a particular people and cultural ability to comprehend the Gospel.

What might be some cultural barriers that are keeping people away from Christ in your church? How can you begin removing some of those blockages? In what way is your church adapting appropriately to the culture of the people you are trying to win to Christ?