Monday, March 15, 2010

The Influence of (American) Culture Upon a Christian's Worldview

There will be more posts on this topic coming, looking at various distinctive elements of American culture, and how they affect our way of doing church and living our faith - some good, some bad.

The extent to which our culture shapes our perception of what it means to be a Christian can be quite surprising, and even unnerving. Yet discovering how culture influences our view of reality is highly valuable, as it is a step toward discovering the blind spots in our worldview. By understanding the distinctive elements of an American approach to life, we are in a better situation to evaluate whether the assumptions we identify contradict distinctively Christian thinking, and bring our lives into closer conformity with God's pattern, allowing for the beauty of cultural variety while accepting the universal claims God makes on his image-bearers. One of the distinctive elements of American culture is...


The extreme concept of individual identity and right to self-determination dominates American culture. This sense of independence and personal rights distinguishes our culture from others, bringing positive and negative results. The stamp of the image of God on humanity gives value to every person, and a culture that affirms the dignity inherent in being a human individual fits with a Christian worldview. However, when a healthy concept of individuality progresses to become individualism, problems can occur. The effects of individualism on American Christianity are legion, and a few significant effects are discussed here.

The idea of a right to choose one’s own religion coupled with the desire to determine one’s own destiny has led evangelicals to incorporate Jeffersonian ideals into church structure. Nancy Pearcey observes that, during the Second Great Awakening, “The priesthood of all believers was taken to mean religion of the people, by the people, for the people” (275). This meant the rejection of traditional and hierarchical church structures as authoritative. Just as the nation rejected traditional forms for the “rule of law,” where a document (at least in principle) set the parameters for law, so evangelicals seek to go directly to the text of Scripture, individually determine its meaning, express a personal view, and vote or otherwise influence practice accordingly.

The result is congregational rule and a very loose view of membership: it is an at-will agreement for mutual benefit - result. Spiritual life is viewed as viable apart from a community: “In many churches, the individual alone with his Bible is regarded as the core of the Christian life” (Pearcey, 293). A church is thus viewed as the sum of its members, who are all basically equal. This implies that leaders can be removed easily if the people are unhappy with them - they are not entrenched with nearly the same firmness of authority as in traditional church structures, but are allowed to lead by the consent of the majority of the members.

A celebrity mindset has taken the place of the hierarchical structures rejected by most of American Christianity, so that celebrity status does more to determine the widespread influence of a church leader. This allows individuals to decide whether they like a leader or not based on charisma, dramatic ability, public image, and oratory, then freely make a choice whether or not to follow that leader’s influence. The choice can be reversed, and this kind of "following" does not usually mean incurring any obligation or membership commitment as part of an institution. This fits with the analysis of cultural anthropologists Stewart and Bennett that “Personal relations among Americans are adapted to gaining emotional benefits from social interaction while preserving independence and avoiding obligations” (89). Church affiliations are evaluated according to how well the church environment suits the individual, and are all too often treated with very little commitment to be involved and committed to life within that Christian community.

1. Pearcey, Nancy. Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity. Wheaton:
Crossway Books, 2004.
2. Stewart and Bennett. American Cultural Patterns: A Cross-Cultural
Perspective. Rev. Ed. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1991.


Stephen Proctor said...

This makes me think of a story of a friend's dad, Eric.

Eric was a pastor, but had spent several years as an administrator at a Christian camp. So, after the better part of a decade away from the pulpit, he felt led back into a preaching role.

He became the preaching pastor at a small church right in the nether-region between suburban and rural West Michigan.

His congregation was passive and lackadaisical. They wanted a nice sermon Sunday morning and then wanted to shrug off church for the next six days.

He wanted to engage them. He began to preach with the intent of convicting them. He wanted to see repentance and intentional living for Jesus.

Instead... he was told point-blank by multiple members and elders to tone it down, give them a happy sermon to hang on to for the week and not expect so much out of the congregation.

He quit.

theone withabeard said...

Why be part of that kind of Christianity? I can think of better things to do with a Sunday morning than listen to someone talk while resisting the idea that anything they say should change me. If it has meaning, if it's truth, and it makes you part of something big enough that it's worth living for...that's a different story.

Feanor Ancalime said...

Culture has an astonishing effect on Christian living. I'm looking forward to further posts on this.

In particular, individualism is such a strong component of American culture that any discussion of Christian concepts like submission and commitment (both to Christ and others) are strongly at odds with the culture. This isn't completely uniquely American, as Isaiah laments that we (meaning humans) have gone astray like sheep, each to his own way. That being said, Americans have just about perfected the art of individualism.

Austin said...

Sorry for being passive about commenting on your great blog, Nate. I think that maybe I can offer some insights on culture because I am now in Israel and seeing America from the other side of the ocean and am learning about the strange and conglomerate culture of this land.

It is clear that (secular) Israel is like America, in all the wrong ways. I see the individualism everywhere, and I think I am prey to it also. I ride buses for 2 to 3 hours every day, and so I see how little interaction there is. There is almost tacit animosity that keeps one from speaking to another. It is possible that people are reticent to speak because of the fact that we have no idea whether the other person will understand us: do they speak Hebrew? Arabic? East Coast American English? Russian? Amharic? It is interesting to see how a American-ized country in the Middle East (coupled with the confusion over languages) is causing many individuals in Israel to isolate themselves. This isn't good for Israel.