There’s a book that was written back in the 50s by a guy called Richard Niebuhr, called “Christ and Culture”. It mentions the importance of every church understanding what the outside culture’s attitude is towards the church. He looks at different ‘seasons’ that churches go through.
In winter, it’s as bad as it can possibly get, there’s wide scale persecution. It’s do or die. During wintertime, the options are crude but clear: “Is Jesus Lord or is Caesar Lord?” Churches in wintertime aren’t having debates about women becoming bishops or gay marriage, they’re either confessing Jesus or denying Jesus – it’s a very clear-cut situation.
There are many churches around the world right now where that’s their season. In wintertime, the only real response is condemning the dominant culture that is telling you to oppress and quiet your faith. The only response is to forge a counter-culture posture and condemn anything that tells you that Jesus is not Lord, even at pain of death.
Spring is what’s happening in a lot of underground churches at the moment, for example, in China. By the way, I saw some research once, that in 1929, the most represented Christian in the world was a 42 year-old white British man. In 2009, the most represented Christian across the world, was a 29 year-old African woman.
In spring, when there’s a crisis in the outside culture, there’s a unique opening for the gospel. So right now, one of the fastest growing churches in the world, is in China. It’s springtime, there’s something that’s happening which is causing the church to grow very quickly.
The next season is summer. It’s when, for whatever reason, the church is at the centre of cultural life. It’s happened in this country before. I grew up in the Bahamas – at the time when it was clearly regarded as a’ Christian nation’- if you wanted to get a bank loan the manager asked you what church you went to. That’s how big an impact the church had around cultural life. You think it’s heaven on earth, but it’s really not. In summertime, the challenge for the Church is to communicate the distinction between the two kingdoms – the Kingdom of the world and Kingdom of God. You have to really explore what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and to challenge constantly the assumption that you’re a Christian for mere cultural reasons.
The last season is autumn. This is arguably where we are now. The attitude is: am I bothered? There’s apathy and cynicism. We go out onto the streets, give out hot chocolate, do backflips, shout Jesus Christ is Lord, etc., and we usually don’t get too much attention. The climate that you’re up against in autumn is the question ‘what is church actually for?”.
When it’s autumn, what matters most is that there’s a demonstration of the gospel of the Kingdom- particularly in the area of social justice. What Christians do well, is we look after the poor. There has to be a demonstration of how people on the outside of society can be drawn into the centre – how they can acquire value.
I work with homeless people, in the social care sector, and when I go to events where the word destitution is in the title, or asylum seekers, or poverty, suddenly you’re in a place which is dominated by Christians. There’s a role for us to be that demonstration of justice.
So, if we’re in autumn, where does this leave us? We need to be the salt of the earth. In Christianity, there’s a particular paradox, (a man called Os Guinness first said this) it’s “world affirming and world denying” at the same time. As Christians, we know we’re not supposed to love the world. As ‘light to the world’, we expose and oppose what is wrong in the world around us. But Christianity is also world-affirming, because it is for the common good. Through the years, Christianity has a legacy of creating schools, contributing to education, philanthropy, etc.
This can be seen in the imagery of what it means to be salt of the earth. Salt preserves what is good and Christianity must also preserve what is good in humanity. If you go to a pub, you always find that they give out salty snacks – salted nuts, pork scratchings, crisps, etc. They do this so that people will become thirsty and order drinks. Salt creates thirst. It is our antidote to this culture of apathy – salt creates thirst for truth. This is what the church is supposed to do. The culture of the church should create thirst for righteousness.
When I first came to this church, for the first time in my life, I wanted to be a better person, privately as well as publicly. There’s something about being around Christians that made me not okay with living a double life anymore and not okay with treating people the way I used to.
When there’s a frost, they sprinkle salt on the roads because it melts the hardness. Salt melts the hardness of indifference and apathy in society. We tell the world by our actions, “Look, it’s not okay to ignore people in society or to treat them as if they’re less important than others.”
The thing about salt is, there’s also a tension between being world-affirming and world-denying. Salt has to be distinct – if it loses its savour, it’s worthless. It is defined by its capacity to be salty.
Interestingly, before Jesus uses this metaphor about us being the salt of the world, it’s right after he talks about rejoicing when we’re persecuted. So when we’re in a situation where we’re not trying to please the world anymore, ironically, that’s when we become most useful to the world. It’s when we’re comfortable with our uniqueness, our distinctness, that’s when we become most potent.
Now the other end of the spectrum of being distinct, is that salt belongs on the earth. We have to be clear enough to have something true to say, but we have to be close enough to be able to communicate something useful. So we can’t be totally separated from the culture around us, in a sense – we have to get involved with people. As with the incarnation (the word becoming flesh, Jesus coming and dwelling among us), salt has to be sprinkled on the earth. Salt has to be salt, and salt has to be sprinkled on the earth.
That’s the creative tension that we have to live with as a prophetic church. Finding out what it means to be the light, to expose and oppose the culture around us, to condemn it where necessary, to critique it, to discern it. But also to bless it – to be a culture of salt on the earth that can continue to contribute to God’s purposes.
It’s not all about being salt so that people can come and join your church, there’s a bigger picture of a witness that brings glory to God when people see the good deeds that are done. When we live together and there’s equality, there’s peace, we’ve done away with the power that money has to separate people, we are proving to the world that it can be done.
In his review of Niebuhr’s book “Christ and Culture”, D.A Carson says that we have to deliberately create culture. It can’t be something that we accidentally do or hope will happen, because the tendency of the human heart isn’t to drift towards holiness, but towards compromise. We don’t drift towards truth, we drift towards superstition. We have to be very deliberate about the kind of culture we create, and it has to be grace-driven.
When we drift away from things, we call it change, freedom, something new, but if we’ve drifted from a place where we should have been, that’s not the kind of change that we want. We want a fresh expression of what it means to be counter-cultural. So we have to define what it means to be deliberate about the kind of culture that we create.
CS Lewis once said that it’s not the ideas that are argued about in society that are dangerous, it’s the ideas that are assumed. It’s the culture that we assume and don’t critique, these are the things that have the danger to overwhelm us. A very practical thing you can do is just a practice of fasting. Fasting is about being able to do without essentials. When you try to live without something for a period of time, then you suddenly see the power that it has over you. You have to experience fasting from the culture at times, not total abandonment, but we have to see where the power lies, so we can challenge assumptions.
If we in the West we are living in a season of autumn, of apathy, we need to combat that. We need to be people that are confident in being salt, in being unique, in being what we are but also being close enough to people to change and shape society around us.
This piece was adapted from a talk given at a local church meeting.
 The Church Against the World by H. Richard Niebuhr, Wilhelm Pauck and Francis P. Miller as adapted by Tim Keller in Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City