Counter-culture. Engaging the culture. The “culture wars.”
For all our talk about “the culture,” it often seems that evangelicals don’t know what culture is. This confusion creates barriers both for Millennials who need the gospel and for the churches that are trying to reach them. Specifically, deficient views of culture cloud the purpose of human existence, hinder the mission of the church and diminish interest in (important) conversations about culture, especially among Millennials.
Culture: Like the Air You Breathe
The late David Foster Wallace once told a story about two young fish who were swimming along when they happened to pass an older fish going the opposite direction. The older fish nodded at them and said, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” The younger fish swam on for a bit until one of them looked at the other and said, “What the heck is the water?”
Wallace’s story insightfully illustrates how some of the most formative facets of our lives are so pervasive and so constant that they are difficult to notice, much less discuss. That is precisely what culture is like.
Indeed, culture refers to the entire scope of human life: values, perspectives, opinions, facts and falsehoods, virtues and vices, rituals, relationships, associations, memories, preferences, personalities, artifacts, etc. Culture is anything created by the exercise of man’s will upon the material of God’s world.
This means Christians must abandon any view that sees culture as something we can choose to partake of (or not); culture is not optional. Neither is culture intrinsically hostile, as if ‘the culture’ were only descriptive of whatever is antagonistic to the church. Instead, we must see that culture is inescapable. It is part of life because culture is a way of life.
A Cultural Mandate and a Cultural Mission
The nature of culture matters for two significant reasons. First, it highlights the uniqueness of being made in the image of God. Humans are inescapably cultural beings by design. God has created us to be culture-makers, culture-consumers, and (after the entrance of sin into the world) culture-critics. This is God’s blueprint for humanity, spelled out in Genesis 1:28, which theologians call “the cultural mandate.”
There God gave us a calling to match our composition, a purpose to fit our nature. Specifically, God tells us to populate the world with image-bearers who rule responsibly on his behalf as they create and cultivate—make culture—to the glory of God.
Yet why should God care about culture? Because the entire universe is a theater for his glory! Both Shakespeare and the Sun radiate the wisdom and power and goodness of God. The earth is already filled with his glory (Isaiah 6:3), but through God’s work in humanity the earth is being filled with the knowledge of his glory (Habakkuk 2:14). Culture discloses the Creator, even in spite of the marring effects of sin.
Secondly, the nature of culture matters because it is not only something made by us but also something that molds us too, affecting how we think and speak and act and feel. The implications of this reality are myriad (warranting another post for another day), but Christians must see how cultural context impacts the Great Commission. Because of the pervasive and comprehensive nature of culture, there is no such thing as culture-less communication. This means the gospel must be contextualized well if we want our hearers to understand it.
We see instances of such cultural awareness throughout Scripture. For example, it is well known that the four gospels were written with particular communities of readers in mind. Similarly, Paul tailored the sermons of his missionary journeys to the cultural contexts of his hearers, subverting the unique idols of every culture while preaching the good news in a way that each could understand. We too must follow the lead of the apostles and biblical authors if we hope to communicate the unchanging gospel clearly to the ever-changing cultural contexts around us.
Concerning Millennials and Their Culture
In truth, culture is a worthy object of study for every Christian, not just Millennials. Nevertheless, Millennial Christians in particular should care about culture for one additional reason: historical hindsight has already revealed the failures, weaknesses and oversights of previous generations, but our own blind spots are still being exposed.
In other words, if the idols of every age were identical there would be no value in talking about generations—but such is not the case. With apologies to Tolstoy, all godly generations are alike; each ungodly generation is ungodly in its own way. The false love of the 1960s was a rebellion against the false righteousness of the 1950s, to give just one example. Yet both groups had difficulty seeing these errors clearly in their day.
In the same way, my generation—the Millennials—has only just come into its own. We do well to consider the ways in which our generation differs from those that have gone before us. What have we improved upon? What have lost? What particular sins need repenting of? What is the origin of the latest trend to sweep across our age group—a move of the Spirit or a breeze blowing in from Zeitgeist Bay? What does hipster culture say about us? How about slacktivism? Why is quinoa now in everything and gluten in almost nothing? Why is doubt praised and certainty scorned? Why is deliberate childlessness on the rise? Why are pets now considered people? Why do selfies even exist?
Millennial peculiarities are not meaningless—for my generation they are a mirror; for generations looking on they are a magnifying glass. In both cases, however, our task is the same: we find a way communicate the gospel to this group of people as those who have been called for such a time as this.
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 David Foster Wallace, “Commencement Address at Kenyon College,” May, 2005. Accessed 1/31/2016. http://intelligentlifemagazine.com/story/david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words
 When preaching to Jewish audiences Paul began his sermons with the Scriptures, arguing that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. When Paul addressed pagans unfamiliar with Messianic prophecies, however, he employed a drastically different tactic, arguing from creation and from Jesus’ resurrection. Yet in both cases, Paul insists that he was preaching the gospel.
 Cf. Bruce Ashford, “The Gospel and Culture” in Theology and Practice of Mission: God, the Church, and the Nations (B&H Academic, 2011), 109–127.