In his high priestly prayer, Jesus prayed for his Church in this way:
I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. (John 17:14-18)
These words have commonly led to the sentiment that Christians are called to be “in, but not of” the world we live in. To many, this idea might seem simple enough on paper. But as most of us know, the lived reality of this expression is far more complicated.
Every Christian is a product not only of her theological beliefs, but also of her surrounding culture and personal experiences. As a result, Christians often relate to their surrounding culture in very different ways. While one person might be inclined to have a positive outlook both on the culture and the Church itself, others might be far more critical on the culture and the work of the Church in the world. These differences are no small matter. A quick glance on Twitter and the major Christian websites reveals that we are quite divided with one another over how to faithfully live and witness in the world.
There is little doubt that the issues which Christians are encountering today are, in many ways, far vaster and more complex than previous generations. While we must be prepared to defend our faith along theological lines, we must be equipped to faithfully represent Christ among increasingly complicated ethical and moral lines as well. As Pastor Abraham Cho recently remarked on Twitter,
At Redeemer, we talk about defeaters: barriers that keep people from hearing the Gospel. They’ve mostly been rational: The Bible’s reliability, science, and suffering.
Defeaters today are ethical: Is Christianity racist, sexist, nationalist, or bigoted?
Christians who are sent into the world must be equipped to respond to this ever-expanding range of complex issues. The answers we give and methods we use will vary based on our theological beliefs as well as our understanding of the culture itself.
We could add to these difficulties of being “in, but not of the world” many other factors and challenges. For example, the rampant individualism in our churches has weakened the bonds of fellowship and mutual responsibility among Christians. This raises important questions today such as: Am I as an individual Christian responsible in any way for the sins of other Christians? Must I take part in confessing sins which I do not think I have committed? Do I have any part in the moral and ethical failures of the broader Church? Answers to these questions must be given, and ought to be a key part of our faithful discipleship in our churches.
Consider also the increasing levels of fear among Christians today. Fear has become a commodity among Christians which fuels our skepticism, anger, and defensiveness. PCA and Reformed Theological Seminary Historian Dr. Sean Michael Lucas captured this phenomenon well in a recent essay:
But while the rogues change, it is fear upon which evangelical leaders always trade. That’s how all too often they build their platforms, secure donations, justify their reasons for existence. And fear is what drove the past two national election cycles: fear of Hillary Clinton, fear of various agendas, fear of Black Lives Matter, fear of “socialism” and AOC, fear of “losing our country.” Fear is what has caused evangelical believers to fall for QAnon and will keep them from receiving the COVID vaccine.
This pressing fear among evangelicals runs contrary to the words of Jesus, who repeatedly told his followers, “Do not be afraid.” Indeed, the Holy Spirit given to all believers is not of fear, but of power, love, and self-control (2 Timothy 1:7).
Add to this list of challenges our own understanding of Christian history. Do we know Christian history for what it really is? Or do we know merely a one-sided story that highlights our good over our bad? How does our complicity in past sins, such as racial injustice or gender inequality, inform present practice? Evangelicals in the United States, with their triumphalist attitude of “taking back the culture” often over-emphasize what they regard to be their successes, while minimizing their moral or ethical failures.
I could go on. My point here is not to be thorough in details, but to highlight the more significant challenges Christians have today of being “in, but not of” the world.
How should we respond to these many challenges? What does faithful Christian witness look like in our surrounding culture? How do we interact with other Christians – even those in our own church – who may arrive at very different responses than us?
The purpose of this series is not to give (what I think are the correct) answers to each of these challenges. The great problem I see among Christians today is not that we have different answers to these challenges. Instead, I believe the problem is that we do not have good categories for thinking through why we may have arrived at the answers we did, and why others may have landed in a different place from us. As a result, we lack the tools we need to even have conversations that can create healthy churches, stronger fellowship, and true unity.
In what follows, I will as briefly as I can (it’s not brief at all, thus five separate posts) provide what I think are 3 useful grids for Christians in culture. I cannot say all that needs to be said, but I believe these grids would be very helpful for many Christians today.
The first grid is what I call “historical humility.” Do we have the ability to look at both the distant and recent past of the Church with honesty and humility? Do our sins, and the sins of other Christians (both past and present), lead us to public and corporate confession of sin? Or are we instead defensive of ourselves and fearful of others? Are we even determined to get back to the “glory days” of how things used to be?
The second grid is our general posture toward the culture. Over the centuries, Christians have developed many different ways of seeing and interacting with culture. Rather than making a case for any particular position, within this grid I will focus on two broad spectrums among Christians. The first spectrum is how positively we view our surrounding culture. The second spectrum focuses on how active we believe Christians/churches should be in influencing the culture. This grid will help us understand why Christians have varying views on politics or cultural issues such as Critical Race Theory.
The third grid centers on our understanding of apologetics. I will trace two different approaches to apologetics (how we make a case for the Christian faith). The first approach is theological apologetics, which includes weighty matters such as how we make a case for God, the reliability of the Bible, the resurrection of Christ, and so on. The second approach is cultural apologetics, the means by which we make a winsome case for Christian ethics against varying cultural views. Much of the miscommunication I see among Christians today results from those trying to take a theological approach on a cultural issue, or vice versa.
Finally, I’ll conclude this series with some practical takeaways for Christians today. How can an application of these three grids foster better conversation and unity in our churches? How can we better understand one another? How can we better witness to the world rather than burning all of our energy arguing with one another?
I have some disagreements with how Dr. Carl Trueman has recently chosen to engage “in the culture,” yet I cannot help but agree with these words from his newest book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self:
The task of the Christian is not to whine about the moment in which he or she lives but to understand its problems and respond appropriately to them.
My hope and prayer over this series is that it will help you understand not only our culture, but one another. May we press on together toward a greater unity and witness for Christ’s name, honor, and glory.
 In this essay, I will use the term “culture” in the widest possible sense: the surrounding world in which we live. This broad use of the term might disappoint readers looking for more nuance. However, the purpose of this article is not to analyze “culture” in detail but instead to focus on the Christian posture toward “culture.” Readers looking for a more detailed analysis of culture would be satisfied by reading The Idea of Culture by Terry Eagleton, Culture Making by Andy Crouch, or the first three chapters of Cultural Engagement, edited by Joshua D. Chatraw and Karen Swallow Prior.
 Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, pg. 30