In many ways, this is the church’s perennial question: Just how much like the culture should we be?

Why be like the surrounding culture to begin with?  One reason, of course, is to help contextualize the gospel in a way that makes sense to other people.  While historically many Western Christian missionaries imposed their culture on others, today many missionary training programs emphasize the importance of “incarnational ministry,” in which the missionaries themselves change many of their cultural practices and live among the people they’re working with as friends rather than outsiders.  The idea of incarnational ministry stems from the belief that we, like Jesus, should become more like “the other” and go to them, rather than expecting them to come to us and become like us.  When we do ministry incarnationally, there is a value placed on the host culture and an assumption that the Christianity that arises in that place will keep its original cultural flavor.

All of this, of course, assumes that various cultures bring unique beauty and insight into the larger body of Christ.  Our cultures reflect God’s image in a special way, highlighting specific aspects of God’s character and particular values of God’s kingdom.  But every culture also has its blind spots.  As people convert to Christianity from any culture background, they become aware of not only their cultures’ blessings but also their cultures’ incompatibilities with the gospel.  A culture might highly value communal life, a value that contributes positively to the church and jives well with Christian theology; however, the same culture might need to rethink its approach to social hierarchies—just one example.

Of course, we aren’t always aware of the pros and cons of our cultures, especially those of us who live most of our lives in a more isolated cultural context, whether as part of a cultural majority or a more insulated cultural minority.  Without any comparisons, it can become difficult to see our cultures for what they are—both good and bad.  This leads me to the second reason churches might be like the surrounding culture: mere cultural absorption.  Churches often take it for granted that the surrounding culture’s way of doing things is the “normal” or best way, usually without even realizing it.  For as much as some Christians criticize aspects of our culture (e.g., promiscuity, violent movies, racism, etc.), many can’t even grasp how deeply other aspects of the same culture have hold of them.

I was particularly reminded of this through a couple of recent articles from the Wall Street Journal and Christianity Today about the bankruptcy of the Crystal Cathedral, a megachurch in Orange County, California.  I haven’t been to the Crystal Cathedral myself, but living in L.A. county, it is just south of me, and I hear about it here and there.  Basically, they have an extravagant building and extravagant Christmas pageants and other such things, and they’ve finally run out of money.

There may be multiple reasons for the financial difficulties, but I blame a great part of it on a lack of consideration of the cultural blind spots they’ve inherited.  Majority American culture loves to spend, loves everything “bigger and better,” loves flashy entertainment.  We also aren’t particularly good at caring for the poor with the money we’d rather be spending on ourselves (individually, as families, or even as churches).  I find these aspects of our culture to be harmful and not particularly Christian, but they often just come with being American.

We live in our very commercialized, market-driven culture, which affects how we think we should do church.  Perhaps we’re trying to be “hip” by being like the culture, or perhaps we’re completely unaware of the culture at all.  Either way, it’s easy to forget to think critically about our cultural baggage and to be discerning about what level of cultural accommodation can mesh well with our Christian faith.  I don’t think we all need to be Amish, but maybe using corporate America or suburban values as our guide isn’t the best idea either.

Regardless of your thoughts on the Crystal Cathedral, most of us can probably agree on one thing:  Sifting the good from the bad in our cultures is a challenging task.  I think the church has always struggled, to some extent, to culturally contextualize itself, but it has struggled at least as much (maybe more) with being properly countercultural.   It’s not an easy balance to strike, and it often requires dialogue with someone from outside our culture to help us really see the ways in which that culture holds us back from following Christ—as well how our culture itself can bring glory to God.