Missional Priority #2: Gospel Culture
I propose that a Gospel culture describes a people who value humility as power, love as progress, and who hope for a peace attainable only through Christ’s reign. That this people values humility… love… and hope for peace… is seen in how they live. It is seen in their practices. Those practices become the culture.
According to miriam-webster.com, culture is the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization. A culture is not merely the group’s professed attitudes, values, and goals; it includes their practices, which means it is the lived attitudes, values, and goals of that group.
Culture is produced by the stories we believe. The world we live in has stories about what is power, progress, and what will bring peace. The Gospel proclaims a counterstory, or counternarrative to those stories.
Christian Culture vs. Gospel Culture
I make a distinction between “Christian culture” and “Gospel culture.” There is the culture that Christians have and there is the culture the Gospel intends to produce. Those might be two very different things. The culture many Christians have is not distinguishable from the culture of many non-believers, other than a certain weirdness because they are trying to “Christianize” it.
Why isn’t Christian culture much different? Because Christians often believe the same stories about how the world works. If we believe the same stories about what constitutes power, what defines progress, or what brings peace, it will produce the same culture.
A blatant example. The world tells a story that wealth is one of the most important things we can obtain. There are plenty of Christians who believe that story and have only changed the means for obtaining it. Jesus will make you wealthy is the message of a Christianity held captive by the lie that wealth is the most important thing we can obtain.
A more subtle example. One of the first things God did after freeing the children of Israel from Egyptian slavery was to institute a day off every week. I have heard believers talk about why we should practice a sabbath, offering something like, “Business owners will discover that employees are more productive in 6 days than they would have been in 7.” Or “Your business will be more profitable in 6 days than in 7.”
This rationale justifies the practice on the premise that productivity and profit are the central values. But isn’t the point that sabbath is God’s way of saying that life is more important that what you can produce with your work or the money you can make? Keeping a sabbath because we can conform it to the story that productivity and profit are central will in no way produce a gospel culture. At the end of the day, it will produce the same anxieties or injustices which the world’s story produces.
Believing the same stories about how the world works as non-Christians will never produce Gospel culture. A Gospel culture will be evident in the lives of people who believe a different story than the world teaches—a counterstory or counternarrative.
The Story of Power
In the old, fallen world, power is to the strong, the rich, and the aggressive, the takers. In the new world of Christ’s reign, the new creation which has begun with His resurrection, power is to the meek, the poor, the patient, and the givers. In short, the Gospel considers humility as power because our King conquered by humbling Himself, not only taking on the nature of a slave, but did so all the way to the point of death (Phil. 2:6-8). We live according to a different story. In this new story, those who are last become first.
The Story of Progress
The story of modernity is one of human progress, as if the problem of sin were not real. Progress itself becomes defined as the good. “Progress,” developing ideas and technologies, is an inherent good. No one posits the possibility that one could move forward into an abyss! In this framework, human history is a story of progress (no fall here) in which the world is redeemed “by its own reason.” (Goheen and Sheridan, Becoming a Missionary Church, 150).
In the Gospel story, Christ is the ultimate model for what it means to be truly human. His path is not one of progress by earthly standards. It was a path of suffering on behalf of others with reward in the life to come, the resurrection. Love is what guided his path. That is why I say that in the gospel story love is progress.
The Story of Peace
In the old world, peace is attained by kings, which is to say, at the end of a sword. In the Roman world into which Jesus was born, Rome was the answer to the human yearning for peace. They brought the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome. The promise of Isaiah concerning the coming Messiah (God’s king) was that he would be called the Prince of Peace (Sar-Shalom).
Jesus provokes some irony here. Earthly kings came wielding a sword but promised peace. Jesus came wielding peace but promised that it would come with a sword—the sword of hatred/persecution from parents, children, and siblings (Matt. 10:34-36). Jesus came laying down his life for those who would come into His reign, not the other way around.
Peace in Jesus’ kingdom comes as we welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and clothe the naked. Peace in Jesus’ kingdom comes through forgiveness. We have peace with God because He has forgiven us at a cost to Himself. We have peace with each other because we have forgiven others at a cost to ourselves. Peace in Jesus’ kingdom comes as we love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and give to those who ask of us.
Peace in Jesus’ kingdom comes as we practice his commands, but it comes in part now, and fully when He returns.
A Gospel culture describes a people who value humility as power, love as progress, and who hope for a peace attainable only through Christ’s reign. That this people values humility… love… and hope for peace… is seen in how they live. It is seen in their practices. Those practices become the culture. To be sure, a Gospel culture ought to be the culture of Christian communities but that can only happen if we live according to the Gospel story.