I remember being asked a question once, “How do you boil a live frog?” Though it sounded gruesome, I quickly realized that the question was given to me as a riddle. While it’s really difficult to place a lively frog into boiling water, if you place the frog into a pot of tepid water, he will swim around and enjoy it. All the while you can turn up the heat, slowly cooking the poor unsuspecting amphibian—and he enjoys it.
Within any culture there is a chasm between societal norms and the gospel, but this canyon needs to be crossed. This is where the rubber meets the road concerning the Great Commission (Matt 28:19), the great sending of God. The church is sent out into the world to gather lost, broken, and sinful people. But somewhere along the way, the evangelical church has compromised. Jesus declared, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matt 16:26a ESV). I fear, much like the frog, the church is forfeiting its soul, without even noticing it.
Striving For Acceptance
Enculturation; what is it? For some of you, this may be the first time you are hearing of such a term, and you may be thinking, “Please spare me the big ten-dollar words, save them for the theologians, and just spill it…” But while the word enculturation is indeed a big word, it is because of its all-encompassing meaning. Enculturation is defined as “the process whereby an existent, prevailing culture influences an individual or community (e.g., the church) to imbibe its accepted norms and values so the individual or community is pressured to find acceptance within society of that culture.” In layman’s terms: enculturation is when you’re pressured to follow the crowd, the desire to be one of them—also known by teenagers as, extreme peer pressure. This is not to be confused with bullying, or even the emergent church movement, no—not at all. Enculturation is more similar to peer pressure because teenagers have a desire to be the cool kids, they don’t want to be left out of the in-crowd; especially if they’re ridiculed for not following. To validate, just in case you may be asking: what’s the difference between the church wanting to be relevant, or cool and hipster, compared to enculturation? Isn’t that the same thing? Actually, no, it’s not the same thing; enculturation is being pressured to accept society’s norms—the culture prevails by influence. This is not the same as the “when in Rome…” theory, which many emergent churches were attempting, for the sake of sharing the gospel.
Honestly, the church must be different, for so it is called. The cross has always been and always will be offensive (1 Cor 1:18). But so that we understand, a rudimentary analogy may work. Let’s take capitalism, which sometimes is the leadership model for the American evangelical church. In capitalism, a company provides a service, which is desired and does so intentionally to be different from any other. For the most part, this makes businesses successful, when they can maintain consistency, pricing and customer service, along with demand. A business provides a service, which the community needs. When the business does not follow through with providing a good product and service, it files for bankruptcy and dies.
Unfortunately, many evangelical churches believe in this model; that the church is deemed as a business organization and must provide something that society wants. Once again, they believe that the something is the gospel, and to help sell it to the culture, they fall prey of changing it to make it more palatable. And so, they fashion sexual immorality as not applicable, accountability to be non-existent, and the gospel to be either all grace (antinomianism), or Universalist (everyone gets in).
Unfortunately again, sometimes the cross doesn’t taste so good, but that’s how it’s supposed to be. For clarity, I’m not proposing that it’s the evangelical church’s music or liturgical styles that are its downfall; no, it’s specifically the enculturation of the church. The evangelical church is more than on a proverbial slippery slope—those days are behind us—it’s been pressured into acceptance, for when it does not then it’s labeled as intolerant. Anything which is deviant from the societal norm, and the church might as well file for chapter 11, right? Wrong. The church has lost its first love (Rev. 2:4)—its unyielding passion for Christ, its mission to be Christ and use the message of brokenness to reach broken people.
The Mission & Inculturation
Here we go again, another ten-dollar word—inculturation—not to be confused with enculturation. The word inculturation refers to the mission of the church with the gospel; to evangelize a culture by embracing how a society of people communicates, much like contextualizing. Inculturation could possibly be considered the “when in Rome” theory (possibly, depending upon how you view it). But because the church has its identity and mandate in Christ, the church is Rock-solid in its fundamental core; namely, the gospel. The church seeks the lost of all cultures and societies by telling them about Jesus in a way that doesn’t change the gospel, but helps them to understand it’s depth, richness, and truth. When the cross stops pointing out the sin of humanity then the cross is no longer about redemption.
Let’s briefly look at the Great Commission in Acts 1:8. Jesus proclaimed, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Why would Jesus give power to the church? Is it to conform to the world or to reach it? Is it possible that Jesus knew the cultural and societal divides in which the church was about to face? Assuredly it is. I believe Jesus knew the forces of evil, human sin and rebellion, coupled with the pressures of cultures and societies. For this reason He gave the church authority and power to stand strong and be authentic, in Him.
Authentic doesn’t necessarily mean different, but the Spirit of God must move it. There are times when the church needs to reach across its society by using application; to be able to communicate the gospel in such a way as to allow the Holy Spirit to work in the hearts and minds of people—to be on mission with God. For example, the Apostle Paul utilized some of the writings of Greek poets in his contextualization of the gospel to those in Athens (Acts 17:22-31).
Inculturation is how the church fulfills the mission of God among different people groups. However, in none of these circumstances does the gospel change, or the identity of the church. This is now at the core of what I believe is causing the evangelical church to lose its soul.
The Loss of the Church’s Identity
It is no secret that Christians believe that God created Adam in the image of God (Gen 1:26). In so doing, God gave Adam dominion and rule of the Garden; he commanded him to subdue the earth and be fruitful (Gen 1:28), to begin and spread a kingdom on earth. To make a long story short, then came along the fall of humanity and sin, so the Word of God became flesh to redeem and reconcile humanity. Jesus, the second Adam (1 Cor 15:45), being crucified for the forgiveness of sins (Eph 1:7; Col 1:14), rose from the dead, was given all authority, and then gave that authority to the church (Matt 28:18-19).
The church exists only in Christ and has its purpose of fulfilling the mission of God as the image of God. As His body on earth, the church’s identity is solely wrapped up in Him, but by enculturation, the church is trying to separate itself from being the image of God; perhaps unknowingly. Rather than possessing Christ’s DNA (2 Cor 5:17), some in Christianity are more worried of being liked, than to be like Christ (Eph 5:1). If in Adam all have sinned (1 Cor 15:22) and have fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23), then in Christ all of humanity can be reconciled and redeemed, but this is not possible when the church loses its soul and gains the world.
By enculturation the church is losing its soul, which has a catastrophic domino effect: the loss of identity causes the loss of the power of the cross, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the power from Christ. There is no longer any convicting influence from the Holy Spirit (John 16). The church becomes a mere extension of society, a feel-good gathering place of niceties. The church loses the power to confront personal sin. But more importantly, the church loses the power from Christ, which heals the brokenness, serves the poor, loves with compassion, and rescues the rebellious. While the enculturated church may be able to perform some of these duties—they’re not done in the love of Christ, but in self-pride.
Therefore, the gospel will not be good news because there’s never any bad news. A church without Christ’s identity is without Christ; therefore, it’s just an organization, a gathering of people void of the redemptive power and love of Christ. Love is not love is there is no discipline. Enculturation is killing the evangelical church, but unfortunately the church is swimming in tepid water, enjoying itself and oblivious to its demise. This is not about being judgmental, boisterous, or Bible thumping, but about holding on to the uniqueness of Christ—the beauty of the cross is its brokenness to a broken world. The church has only one identity, Jesus Christ—the very image of God. Let us not be like the world, but reach the world. Let us not love the things of the world, but the people within it.
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matt 16:26a ESV). These words of Christ were not meant to be a suggestive warning or some type of symbolic format for how Christians view life, but a reality as to the impact of culture and society. Unfortunately, it seems the ears of the church have become desensitized. Even the pop-culture Christian rapper Toby Mac made this verse into a catchy tune; it’s become bumper sticker material, refrigerator Christianese, and anecdotal regurgitation—but it’s also becoming a realism of the church. Enculturation is how the church is losing its soul.
 Hastings, Ross. 2012. Missional God, Missional Church: Hope for Re-Evangelizing The West. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 38.
Matthew Fretwell is married, has three daughters, loves Jesus, being a dad, people, and coffee. Besides being an author (Denied Desires; Identity Theft, Sanctificagious, 30:1 Manhood), he’s pastor of a 112 year old revitalized church planting church (Oak Hall Baptist) in Sandston, Virginia, and is the founder of Job 31 Ministries. Matt’s an advocate board member of Living Bread Ministries, a global comprehensive Church Planting organization. He also writes for Church Planter Magazine.
Twitter: @w84harpazo or Facebook