by Nathan Storms
My earliest memories of church took place at the movies. Growing up in a pastor’s family, the first congregation I can remember was a young church plant that met in a local movie theater. Those Sunday mornings were colored by neon marquees and scented by day-old popcorn, the latter of which was swept away by church planters before the congregation arrived. For the pastors, I’m sure the situation was less than ideal, but in my 6-year-old memory, it was always exciting to walk into the theater for church service.
Looking back, this memory is a beautiful picture of what the Church can be. The culture of our world is largely built upon the media we consume, whether in the form of movies, music, news, art, or social media feeds. Although Christ-followers are in many ways called to live differently than the surrounding culture, this doesn’t mean we live totally apart from it. We cannot—and, for the sake of our witness, should not—only ever keep culture at arms’ length. The people of this world desperately need to be able to step into cultural centers and be greeted with the Gospel. When the Church engages culture well, someone might walk into a movie theater and discover a community of faith.
So, how does the Church engage culture well? How do we engage—and create—in a way that is meaningful, attractive, and good?
In the past, the Church has tried to create a “Christian culture” that stands opposed to worldly culture…but this is not the answer. When we take an oppositional approach, our art reflects that attitude; our films focus on straw man apologetic arguments or end by begging viewers to mass text a detached statement of truth. These aggressive tactics are rooted in fear that our faith could be blotted out by a stronger culture.
But the Gospel is not threatened by the world’s culture. Followers of the risen Christ have no need to fear—the Truth in whom we believe is stronger, better, and far more beautiful. The Church can survive and thrive in any culture because it is a different entity entirely, just as a seed sprouting under concrete can eventually push through the pavement burying it. All we need to do is stand firm.
This approach to engaging culture requires wisdom. The apostle Paul exemplifies this in Acts 17. When sharing the Gospel with the Athenian people, Paul speaks in both the synagogue and the marketplace. In his sermon to the Greek audience, Paul quotes their own philosophers and poets back to them, using their words to point to the true God rather than cultural idols. Standing firm for truth, he wasn’t scared to use secular culture as a vehicle for the Gospel.
Engaging culture also requires vulnerability on our part. Art that is inattentive to human emotion comes across as cheap and shallow. There’s a reason the same rags-to-riches, “hero’s journey” stories keep our attention. What do all box office hits have in common? Their narratives of redemption and triumph resonate with something in the viewer’s spirit, even if they don’t know the story of Christ’s sacrifice to save creation and His resurrection to conquer death.
The Church must be faithful in our own internal wrestling, becoming familiar with Truth, Beauty, and Goodness for ourselves so that we can honestly identify it in our surrounding culture. Led with vulnerability and wisdom, the Church can and must live out our faith in Christ from within our cultural context. When we are able to identify fragments of truth in our culture, we can turn them around to passionately point people to the Gospel of Jesus!
Nathan Storms is a Resident at Southeast Christian Church.