Christ, Culture, and the Generation Gap

What younger and older Christians get right and wrong about engaging the "world"
Christ, Culture, and the Generation Gap

Grandma listened patiently as I described the content of the album I was obsessed with that summer. The songs told the story of two brothers. One was the family's shame, an alcoholic in jail for some petty crime. The other was a politician with a promising future who appeared, to all outside observers, to have everything together. In the end we listeners discover that, deep inside, the loser brother is a decent guy, and his model brother is a monster.

"It doesn't sound very edifying," was Grandma's simple reply.

I tried to persuade her of the virtues of such art. It laid bare our biases, I argued, especially the subtle seduction to judge people's character by superficial appearances. I waxed eloquent about the value of viewing reality from different perspectives. I brought my best stuff!

She wasn't convinced. She felt I was compromising my Christian values by allowing a secular worldview to warp my perception of the truth.

This conversation with my grandmother illustrates a broader issue. Younger Christians often feel their elders are out of touch, behind the times, chained to antiquated notions of proper behavior. At worst, they are ill-equipped to do good work for the gospel because they refuse to engage the culture for Christ. At the same time, older Christians often view younger generations as disrespectful, uncommitted to biblical holiness, or generally unwilling to hoe the hard row of Christian discipleship. At worst, they are compromisers who sacrifice Christian faithfulness in order to be accepted by the broader culture.

Central to my disagreement with my grandmother was this: I believed that to be a faithful Christian I needed to engage this sort of cultural offering. She believed that to be a faithful Christian I needed to flee from it fast and far.

Faith, Culture, and the Bible

Depending on how you read it, the Bible supports both of our positions.

On the one hand, it contains repeated warnings for Christians to resist the broader culture and behave in radically different ways. God gave Israel all manner of laws and restrictions to set them apart from their unbelieving neighbors. These included everything from moral guidelines to dietary restrictions, and even clothing regulations, gardening requirements, and personal grooming practices. Rather than abandoning this theme, the New Testament intensifies it in places. Jesus contrasted the way his disciples should behave with the ways of the world: "Not so with you" (Matt. 20:26). The apostle Paul warned the Christians in Corinth not to associate too intimately with those outside the church: "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers" (2 Cor. 6:14). Instead, we are to "[c]ome out from them and be separate" (6:17). The message seems clear: don't be like the world. The people of God should be distinct, set apart, different in every way.

On the other hand, the Bible also demonstrates ways of leveraging culture in order to engage it for Christ. The best example is perhaps the apostle Paul, who quoted pagan philosophers when speaking with the philosophers in Athens. He begins his presentation of the gospel by alluding to their religious beliefs and even quotes their thinkers. When Paul tells the Athenians, "For in him we live and move and have our being," he is quoting the Greek philosopher Epimenides, who said the same thing of Zeus (Acts 17:28). The next line of that verse, "We are his offspring," is from another philosopher, Aratus. In other words, Paul was happy to borrow the insights of the pagans when they corresponded with Christian teaching. Elsewhere Paul acknowledges the need to adapt his message, and even his lifestyle, to "become all things to all people" in order to "win as many as possible" (1 Cor. 9:22, 19).

One interesting, and somewhat confusing, passage bridges these apparent extremes. In his final prayer for his disciples before his ascension, Jesus addresses the relationship his followers would have with culture. "My prayer is not that you take them out of the world," John records him saying, "but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it" (17:15-16). By this, Jesus seems to mean that Christians should not retreat from the world altogether; we have a responsibility to be salt and light among the lost. Nevertheless, we should persistently resist the influence of the broader culture on our values and behavior.

That's easy enough to say. But as one commentator has said, "Yet within a century of his resurrection Christians were disagreeing over how to apply it to their lives." And to this day, we continue to disagree.

"In the World, Not of It"

When I was a child, the adults in my life summarized our relationship to the broader culture by saying we should be "in the world, but not of it." They didn't explain it; they just said it and that settled it. They were paraphrasing Jesus' prayer in John 17. But behind the saying lay the assumption that Christians should be radically different from the people around them. So we constructed a world, a subculture, made up of Christian alternatives to secular products. We listened to Christian radio or bought music performed by Christian artists. We watched Christian television shows, wore Christian t-shirts, and read Christian books and magazines. Our goal was to do everything the world did, but do it differently: Christianly.

At stake was the credibility of our witness among the lost. We would prove the truth of the gospel, we surmised, by being different. We'd show "the world" that good movies don't need sex scenes, and good music doesn't need cuss words. "The world" would be so impressed with what we made that they would be persuaded to follow Jesus. After all, Jesus told us to "let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven" (Matt. 5:16).

An advantage of this approach is that it takes seriously the subtle power of culture to affect how we think and act. Often quoting the King James Version translation of 1 Thessalonians 5:22, folks who take this perspective will argue that we should "[a]bstain from all appearance of evil." Because of this verse, I was discouraged from drinking root beer as a child, because in both the packaging and the name, the beverage had "the appearance of evil." In other words, this approach tends to draw a broad black line between good behavior and bad, and prefers to stay well on this side of that line. Christians who approach culture this way are deeply concerned with holiness.

On the other hand, this approach has a couple of disadvantages. For one, if you want to flee all appearance of evil, then you have to clearly identify what evil looks like. We had a saying for that, too. "I don't smoke, cuss, drink, or chew—or run around with girls that do!" In other words, this approach has a tendency to identify the misdeeds of culture in terms of a select few easily observable behaviors. Smoking, cussing, drinking, and chewing—along with certain types of music, hairstyles, tattoos, etc.—were obviously worldly, and thus immoral. This is an overly simplistic view of culture that tends to focus primarily on externals.

A second disadvantage is that stubbornly resisting all values that appear to be non-Christian in origin can cause us to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Social justice, for example, was once a serious concern for American Protestants. With the rise of secular social outreach programs in the early 20th century, though, such ministries were increasingly viewed by many as a secular, liberal project. For this reason many Christians resisted social justice, even though they had previously supported it, until evangelicals "rediscovered" it in the last decade. When our default approach to culture is be different, we can end up with screwy convictions.

"All Things to All People"

If previous generations valued being "in the world but not of it," the emerging generation tends to take a different approach. Their motto might be "Be all things to all people." This doesn't necessarily mean that they compromise biblical standards. Rather, they follow Paul's example in adapting his methods and engaging the culture in order to give the gospel a wider hearing.

People who take this approach to culture want to leverage cultural trends for the gospel's sake, even while remaining aware of the dangers of conforming to the world. Younger Christians in particular seem to sense that there's some wisdom in worldliness. They want to be relevant, to speak the cultural idiom, in order to connect with people outside the church. And in direct contradiction to my elders' advice not to "smoke, cuss, drink, or chew," today many young Christians enjoy puffing on pipes or cigars, sipping a pint of beer (especially if it is craft brewed in small batches), and are less concerned about avoiding profanity. (To be fair, I don't think chewing tobacco has become any more popular.) For many young Christians, these behaviors are not immoral if enjoyed in moderation. And participating in them offers opportunities to engage the culture. They feel they are embracing a different teaching of Jesus: to be "as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves" (Matt. 10:16).

Trend trackers have noted that the emerging generation of young Christians rejects the value of separating from the culture. According to Gabe Lyons, author of The Next Christians, they don't view themselves as a subculture. They don't want Christian versions of popular music and movies. They don't want to separate from the world. Instead, they want to work as restorers, making the world better from the inside.

As with previous generations, the emerging generation feels their credibility is at stake. But instead of proving the power of the gospel by retreating from culture, they want to demonstrate the power of the gospel through its ability to transform and redeem the world and its structures. For them, the validity of the faith is proven when its relevancy for the broader culture is demonstrated.

An advantage of this approach is its outward focus and commitment to translate God's truth into cultural forms. At its best, it recognizes the complexity of culture, that many values are deeper than the surface. They see, again with the apostle Paul, that some restrictions have the appearance of wisdom or righteousness but don't really make a person a better Christian (Col. 2:23). They may push other Christians to recognize the inconsistency of avoiding alcohol for the name of Christ while ignoring things like justice, which are ultimately more important. They remind us all that the Christian community has a long history of engaging, shaping, and redeeming the culture in which it finds itself.

A disadvantage of this perspective is that it can numb people to the subtle and profound influence of cultural values on Christian discipleship. If the older generation drew a broad black line between faith and culture, the line this generation paints is thinner and fainter. And emerging Christians are often more willing to walk close to the line. They can forget that behavior often leads to belief. Behave like our cultural neighbors too long and you just might start thinking like them. The active pursuit of holiness, so important to previous generations of believers, can be obscured by the desire to be relevant and engaged.

Another danger the younger generation faces is that, in an effort to be relevant, it can limit its convictions to those the broader culture finds acceptable. Culture can certainly call us to greater faithfulness, as it has with the increased Christian concern for the poor. But we make a grave mistake if we only concern ourselves with those commitments that resonate with the broader culture. Scripture calls us to be active in worship and evangelism and pursuing holiness, activities that are unfashionable in the eyes of popular culture.


Grandma and I never did see eye to eye on the issue of entertainment. But our conversation illustrates the value of talking across generational lines about how we view our calling as Christians differently. Together we may find a way as the Christian community to boldly engage the culture with the full power and creativity of the Giver of Life, while remaining profoundly committed to mirroring the purity of the Holy One of Israel.

Brandon J. O'Brien is a writer and teacher whose most recent book, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes (IVP 2012) is forthcoming. He lives with his wife and son in the Chicago suburbs.

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