Posted by: Rodney Shaw | September 22, 2009

How Do We Minister?: Theology and Method, Part 2

“They live in their own countries, but only as nonresidents; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh. They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws.”

—The Epistle to Diognetus, “The Distinctiveness of Christians,” circa second century


“Modern culture is a mighty force. It is either subservient to the gospel or else it is the deadliest enemy of the gospel. For making it subservient, religious emotion is not enough, intellectual labour is also necessary. And that labour is being neglected. The Church has turned to easier tasks.  And now she is reaping the fruits of her indolence. Now she must battle for her life.”

—J. Gresham Machen, “Christianity & Culture,” Princeton Theological Review, 1913


“Debates with Christians who embrace pop culture are frequently hamstrung by the tenacity with which they insist on discussing the audible sound only, and never the actual meaning of the word. Modern evangelicals have a clear eye this way; they have a true imitative genius. They can copy anything the world produces, down to slightest flourish or embellishment. Whether trafficking in guitar licks or designer logos, they can always ape the real thing with exactitude. The only thing they don’t know is what it all means. Modern evangelicals are like a drunk Japanese businessman in a kareoke bar singing along with the Stones. In his own boozy way, he knows everything about the song except what it is about.”

—Douglas Wilson, “Got to Be Good Looking Cause He’s So Hard to See,”


Christianity has always been contextualized within local cultures, and like the relentless waves of an ocean, these cultures have constantly rubbed up against Christianity. The pressing issue for Christians is how to live out our faith in our particular culture; that is, how do we live out our faith in our particular social, political, economic, and technological environment?

Our reflections on this question will eventually lead us to the always challenging work of devising ministry methods that are effective in our particular culture. As discussed in Part 1, ministry should occur in the following sequence: (1) our theological reflection yields non-negotiable theological affirmations; (2) we contextualize these theological affirmations within our particular culture resulting in ministry methods; (3) these methods produce outcomes consistent with our theology. In other words, we formulate methods that serve our theology, and hopefully our methods generate the outcomes determined by our theology.

An old issue

We are not the first Christians to wrestle with the relationship of the church to culture. These issues began in the New Testament. The first dispute in the church was culturally oriented (Act 6). Culture stood in the way of the gospel being preached to the Gentiles (Acts 10). The first church council was to resolve the issue of how to make disciples in foreign cultures (Acts 15). The conflict at Antioch was rooted in culture (Galatians 2:11–14). Paul had Timothy circumcised but refrained from having Titus circumcised, both for cultural reasons (Acts 16:4; Galatians 2:1–5). The apostles stood against the evils of culture. (See particularly I Corinthians and I John.)

Although we frequently draw on the Old Testament as a resource for how God’s elect should live in the world as a holy nation, the circumstances for Christians are quite different from those of ancient Israel. As a religious nation, Israel’s religion, penal code, and social mores were all woven together in a single fabric, and this all was defined in the law of Moses. (This changed somewhat in exile and in the diaspora.) Additionally, Christians have always been faced with something ancient Israelites were not: conflicts between the church and the state—not mere conflicts between a backslidden king and a prophet, but conflicts of allegiance, cause, motivation, principle, and purpose. (See Matthew 22:17–21; John 18:36; Romans 13; I Peter 2:11–19.)

As a covenant people that spans all nations, languages, and cultures, Christians have always faced issues with secular culture.

“Ever since Pentecost Christians have had to think through the nature of their relationships with others. Christians soon multiplied in number and across an amazing number of racial and social barriers, constituting a church, a fellowship, a body, that transcended the established categories of empire, ethnicity, language, and social status. Even within the pages of the New Testament, Christians are told both to view government as something ordained by God and to view at least one particular government as representative of antichrist” (D. A. Carson, Christ & Culture Revisited, viii).

“In the move from the old covenant to the new, the locus of the covenant people passed from the covenant-nation to the international covenant-people. That inevitably raised questions about the relationships this people should have with the people around them who were not part of the new covenant. . . . The issues the church faced by being an international community claiming ultimate allegiance to a kingdom not of this world were much more than governmental. They also had to do with whether Christians should participate in socially expected customs when those customs had religious overtones (e.g., 1 Corinthians 8), with styles of governance (e.g., Matthew 20:20–28), with an array of relational expectations (e.g., Philemon; Peter 2:13–3:16), with the challenge of persecution (e.g., Matthew 5:10–12; John 15:18–16:4; Revelation 6), and much more” (D. A. Carson, Christ & Culture Revisited, 4, Emphasis his).

Guiding principles

It is easy to fall into the trap of knee-jerk reactions to new cultural concerns. But seeing that culture includes so much more than music styles, clothing preferences, and technological trends, it is necessary that Christians develop a working philosophy and theology of culture. Before we engage issues related to the arts or technology, for example, we need a philosophical and theological understanding of the church’s relation to the cultures in which it is embedded. We need guiding principles more so than reflexive actions.

There are many resources available to aid in this task. Some, like H. Richard Niebuhr, have offered particular “types,” methods, or approaches that we can use when thinking about Christianity and culture. (D. A. Carson and a host of theologians have offered responses to Niebuhr.) J. Gresham Machen offered a succinct template that I have found to be as helpful as any. Machen suggested there are three ways that the relationship between Christianity and culture can work out: (1) Christianity is subordinated to culture and becomes a human product, a mere part of human culture; (2) culture is subordinated to Christianity, and art and science are seen as incongruent with faith and therefore categorically denied or dismissed; and (3) Christianity “consecrates” the benefits of culture for Christian use (“Christianity & Culture,” Princeton Theological Review, 1913).

Machen ruled out the first two as incompatible with evangelical Christianity, and agreeably the third option of consecration seems to be the most helpful approach to cultural issues. The church can and should use what is available from culture in order to proclaim the gospel. The church can consecrate secular inventions and creativity and use them for the sake of the gospel. This is in line with New Testament references on the matter. The New Testament presents Christianity as a life to be lived—in the world. Although Christians are not to indulge in sinful activities, neither can they cloister themselves away as if they did not live in the world. Otherwise, it would be impossible to live out the Christian principles of love and witness. (See John 17:11, 14–18; I Corinthians 5:9–10; 9:19–22; Titus 2:12.)

But we are still left with the practical question: How does the church consecrate secular means for the sake of the gospel? Here are a few principles that may help.

The priority of theology

Before we can appropriate any particular aspect or benefit of culture, we need to know what we hope to accomplish by doing so. We should not use technology or the arts, for example, simply because they exist. The church is not a showcase for innovation. Innovation is merely a tool. Our theology demands that the proclamation of the Word, worship, the sacraments, and the moving of God’s Spirit are the only things to be really showcased in churches. Accordingly, appropriating aspects of culture must always be in the service of some higher theological purpose. Theology always takes priority over culture. Theology that is overrun by meaningless cultural clutter prostitutes the gospel for some other end, usually “results” as measured by head counts.

Pentecostal theology holds to a restorationist hermeneutic. This means that the New Testament is our sole authority for doctrine and the apostles’ interpretation of the Old Testament as well as the words of Christ are our pattern. The apostles’ theology and practice are our model.

Additionally, we must distinguish between cultural preferences and doctrinal imperatives. We cannot make cultural expressions into theological positions, be they from fifty years ago or be they the latest technological fad. There must always be a distinction between theology and culture, and theology always reigns over culture. This does not mean that every cultural expression or invention is appropriate for worship. But what it does mean is that our theology critiques culture. Even so, we cannot use theological language to support our own cultural preferences or to deny someone else’s if there truly is nothing theological at stake.

Seek relevance

Relevance is not a bad word. Jesus and Paul both were culturally relevant. Jesus used cultural references in teaching, most notably in His parables. Two of Christ’s most impacting lessons, the Good Samaritan and the footwashing narrative, are deeply situated in the Jewish culture of the first century. Paul used aspects of culture on numerous occasions, e.g., his use of rhetoric, his appeal to the “unknown God” at Mars Hill, his citation of poets, and so forth. Paul was committed to relevance for the sake of the gospel:

“For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; to them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (I Corinthians 9:22).

In his book Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture (Harvard University Press, 2001), Grant Wacker attributes the success of early Pentecostals to a balance of primitivism (looking backward to the apostles and relying on the Spirit) and pragmatism (conforming to practical needs in local contexts).

“In this book I describe this longing for direct contact with the divine in a number of ways. . . Most often, however, I call it primitivism. . . . Before long it became clear that pentecostals [sic], though primitivists, were never purely so. For all of their declarations about living solely in the realm of the supernatural, with the Holy Spirit guiding every step of their lives, they nonetheless displayed a remarkably clear-eyed vision of the way things worked here on earth. . . . [T]he one term that seems best to capture all of these meanings, and thus the one I use most often, is pragmatism. This word suggests that at the end of the day pentecostals [sic] proved remarkably willing to work within the social and cultural expectations of the age. Again and again we see them holding their proverbial finger to the wind, calculating where they were, where they wanted to go, and, above all, how to get there. That last instinct, the ability to figure the odds and react appropriately, made them pragmatists to the bone” (12-14).

To use Whacker’s terms, balancing the primitive and the pragmatic is a challenge, but it is a key in building effective churches. The only alternative to being relevant is to be irrelevant.

Missiological vision

Although we want to preserve a godly society, we must keep in mind that the kingdom of God is not the same as any kingdom of men. America is not the kingdom of God. And while we want to strive from within our national identity for desired social and political outcomes, we must always see ourselves as outsiders, pilgrims in this world.

It would be helpful if North American ministers could view North America in the same way a foreign missionary views a foreign country. We need to be prepared to abandon our own cultural preferences, if necessary, in order to reach the lost around us. Likewise, we should be willing to adopt various methodologies that are culturally relevant to the audiences we are trying to reach. A missionary to Tasmania would ask, How do I reach these people in their culture? He would not make Tasmanians adapt to his culture. We too should step back and look at North America and ask, How do we reach these people? This includes respecting cultural and methodological diversity that we may not personally like. 

The leadership issue

Leading a church in the twenty-first century is hard. When we preach repentance, water baptism in Jesus’ name, and the infilling of the Holy Spirit evidenced by speaking with other tongues, we will naturally run into opposition. When we call people to a life of holiness, some will not follow. These challenges often stretch ministers to the extent of their leadership abilities.

This is why it is important to remember the ministry sequence discussed in Part 1: theology => methods => outcomes. If we are not seeing the outcomes we desire, one reason could be a leadership issue, and admitting that we are incapable of leading beyond our current situation is very difficult. When this happens, it is easy to drop theology from the mix altogether and wind up with the following: desired outcomes => methods. 

Although hardly anyone would admit to doing this, when we elevate outcomes as our primary concern, we open ourselves up to abandoning any meaningful emphasis on theology. So if our outcomes are defined primarily by attendance or “growth,” then it becomes easy to make both methods and theology subservient to our outcomes. This is precisely what happens to some when they run up against the limits of their leadership abilities. Instead of pushing through their personal limitations in order to lead people further, they remain as they are and simply lead people down a different path, an easier path.

Under the guise of “being blessed” or “just loving people,” some have changed their methods to generate more outcomes (people in attendance). Although we all want more in attendance and we should devise methods accordingly, when these changes lead to fewer people receiving the Holy Spirit, being baptized in Jesus’ name, and living a godly life that is distinguishable from the world, the outcomes have superseded our theology. 


There is nothing more ineffective than a person grasping at the latest cultural trappings in an attempt to be relevant if that person is not naturally inclined to use such things. Simply having a piece of technology or doing a particular thing will not make one effective in ministry. It is imperative that each minister be authentic—true to his or her calling, gifts, and temperament.

A great example of this is Tim Keller, senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, which meets in three locations with a combined Sunday attendance of 5,000. Although Tim Keller is not Apostolic, and we would not agree with his doctrine, he is doing what every denomination as well as the emergent church leaders want to do: He is reaching college students and young, single professionals in an urban center. One would think Tim Keller is a rebel in his thirties who wears ripped-up jeans and bashes institutional Christianity. Wrong! One writer described is experience at Redeemer as follows: “Standing 6’4”, with a bald head, glasses, and a coat and tie, Keller, 58, does not look hip. Nor is his sermon funny, charming, or daring. He preaches from the first chapter of Genesis, on the doctrine of Creation.” “Redeemer’s worship is seemly and traditional. Instead of using video monitors, casually dressed worshipers follow a 20-page bulletin that includes hymns, prayers, and Bible texts. Organ and a brass quartet lead the music. For evening services, jazz musicians play contemporary Christian songs” (Christianity Today, June 2009, 20). 

Why is Tim Keller effective in a mainline denomination while a majority of mainline churches are declining? Tim Keller’s effectiveness is not the result of him trying to be cool or using the latest methods. He is effective because he is ministering in a way that is authentic for him.

For us to be authentic requires that we grant the liberty to our fellow ministers to be authentic, and this will clearly lead to diversity. This, more than culture, may be at the root of much angst. 

We have the right message. We have passion. But these two alone do not translate into new church plants and successful churches. We have to build a bridge between our message and our world. This bridge is method. Do our methods encourage people to experience the new birth or do they hinder people from experiencing the new birth? Could we be more effective with different methods? Have we maximized the evangelistic capacity of our existing methods? Do our methods hide the message from those who are seeking? We will never escape these questions.


© Rodney Shaw and 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Rodney Shaw and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



  1. I am thankful for your ‘pen & paper!”

  2. Great stuff!!!!!!!!!! Lot’s to think and pray about. Thank you!

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