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Pop culture: mission field or menace?

by Brian Ross

Imagine that you are preparing to serve as a missionary in China. What steps would you take to become a part of Chinese culture? You would need to study the culture in depth in order to know its people. You would become familiar with Chinese dress, social codes, forms of entertainment, and narratives that shape the culture.

Similarly, in order to think more like missionaries than like chaplains, we need to cultivate a deeper under-standing of our North American culture. Films, songs, TV shows, and video games are worldview-shapers, especially for people under the age of 45. But because so many Christians denounce these entertainment forms, many of today’s younger, educated adults label Christians as naïve and ignorant. By thoughtfully engaging pop culture, those of us in the Church can demonstrate that we truly care about the people we are trying to reach, even as we live for a different kingdom.

Where the real danger lies

The potential that human hearts and minds will be swayed more by the spirit of the world than the Spirit of Christ always exists. However, isolating ourselves or sampling only the entertainment offerings from Christian book distributors does not prevent this from happening. The corrupting spirit of the world is not limited to Hollywood film sets or New York City music studios; it can also seep in to “Christian” entertainment.

The ultimate danger is not pop culture. It’s our rebellious hearts. We can immerse ourselves in YouTube and movies on demand and be led into selfish, sensuous thinking. And we can immerse ourselves in religious films and music and be led into selfish, morally superior thinking, like the Pharisees.

Becoming all things

Read Peter’s sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2, and then take a look at Paul’s message to the Athenians in Acts 17. The differences are startling. Peter makes repeated references to the Hebrew Scriptures as he speaks to culturally conservative, ethnically religious, Torah-savvy Jews. Paul, though equally adept (or more so) at quoting Scripture, alters his approach when interacting with the spiritually diverse and secular audience in Athens. To connect with Athenians, Paul engages with their culture, quoting Greek philosophers and poets (Acts 17:22, 28) and recognizing their commitment to “religious” or “spiritual” cultural pursuits, even as he points them to the true God (Acts 17:22–23).

Paul models what it means to become all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:19–23). He becomes like those who do not have the law to reach those without the law. He makes himself a slave to everyone. He is not a pastor fighting a culture war. He is a missionary building bridges for the Gospel.

Jesus Himself demonstrated this when He became the incarnation of a Holy God, entering our world and culture so that we might know Him more fully. He had strong words for the separatist and “Bible only” teachers of the law.

To all people

The benefits in engaging culture are clear: We learn to speak the language and build bridges with our seeking friends. We gain a better understanding of people’s values, which helps us to wisely share the Gospel. We act like Christ when we do.

Historically, the Gospel message has been presented as the way to forgiveness, true morality, and heaven—all of which is true. Yet these are not the topics on which many of the people we are trying to reach these days are focused. Today’s younger generations are searching for personal freedom and community. They want to find their identities as individuals by becoming a part of something bigger than themselves. It’s unfortunate, then, when we cast the Gospel message in ways that fail to address the existential questions that many young adults are asking, or, even worse, when we present the Christian faith in ways that make it seem irrelevant or intellectually dissatisfying. We need to re-frame the way we share God’s good news, just as culturally sensitive missionaries do and as Peter and Paul did.

When pop culture walks in

Now don’t get me wrong. I agree that we should avoid entertainment that tempts us where we are weak, and we should shield children from these influences when they are not able to discuss and process the issues involved. But shielding only goes so far. If our discipleship plan is based on avoidance, we are in trouble and in denial about the true influence culture has on our everyday lives.

We are called to a mature, incarnational faith that is devoted to Jesus. Immature faith tries to hide from the world and then collapses when it can’t shut the door before North American entertainment walks into the room. That is not the Spirit of Jesus. It’s the spirit of the Pharisees. It’s the spirit of the world.

This article originally appeared in the winter 2007 issue of In Part magazine.
Brian Ross

Brian Ross is the founding pastor of Koinos Church in Reading, Pa., and a student in the Doctor of Ministry program focusing on Leadership in the Emerging Culture at George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland, Ore.

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