An Interview With Brad Brisco on Missional Living

Last week I posted a review of Brad Brisco and Lance Ford’s Missional Essentials here.  Brad has graciously agreed to answer some questions I sent him about missional living.  I hope you’ll find this encouraging and helpful.  My thanks to Brad for his willingness to do this.


I wonder if you could offer a good definition of “missional” for those who may be unfamiliar with the word?

I usually say I have a short answer and a long answer when defining missional. The short answer is that missional is simply the adjective form of the noun missionary. Therefore missional, like any other adjective, is used to modify or describe a noun. So when we use the phrase “missional church” we are simply saying that the church is a missionary entity. The church doesn’t just send missionaries, but the church is the missionary.

However in most cases that very brief definition isn’t enough. To provide a more comprehensive way of understanding the word I will talk about core characteristics that should inform the way we understand the missional concept? I believe there are at least three major theological distinctions that help to undergird the missional conversation. Without such a foundation we run the risk of simply attaching the word “missional” onto everything the church is already doing, and therefore ignoring the necessary paradigmatic shift. Those three key theological foundations include: 1.) The missionary nature of God and the church; 2.) Incarnational mission; and 3.) Participation in the missio Dei.

How would a “missional church” look different from an “evangelistic church”?

I think the best way to answer that is to say a missional church is one that is organized around, informed by, and/or catalyzed by mission. In other words, the programs and activities of the church are shaped by God’s mission. Therefore, it is not just about having a “missions” department, or an evangelistic committee, but everything the church does has a missionary component. The reality is that the nature or essence of the church is rooted in the nature of a missionary God. If God is a missionary God (which He is) then we as His people are missionary people. Every member is to think think and act like a missionary in their local context.

I’ll be honest:  I’ve resisted studying the missional movement mainly because of a sense of “movement fatigue.”  But Missional Essentials as well as a number of conversations with people I truly respect has led me to think that what’s happening here is really quite important.  Still, for the skeptical part of me, is this all just a fad?  Twenty years from now, will we look at the word “missional” the way most of now look at the phrase “seeker sensitive,” as kind of a quaint moniker that came and went as so many trends do?

I think what is different here is two fold. First this is not a recent phenomenon. Serious theological reflection around missional thinking has been talking place since the 30’s with Karl Barth. Later in the International Missionary Councils in the 50s and 60s. Later through the influence of Lesslie Newbigin, David Bosch and others. It has deep theological and missiological roots. Second, because it has such roots it is not a renewal movement, but instead is a missiological movement. It is not about strategies, human ingenuity or church growth techniques, but instead it is about recapturing the missionary nature of the church.

Are there examples in church history of movements that we might call “missional”?

I think there have been many times in church history when the people of God understood themselves as a sent people. In large part it has been in the last four decades, as the result of church growth mentality, that the church moved from being a “go and be” people to a “come and see” people. The church growth movement put too much emphasis on how to get people to come participate in what the church was doing. With our actions we told the world that if they wanted to know Jesus they needed to come be with us, and be like us. Rather than seeing ourselves as the missionary people of God who are sent to where people are.

I’m curious to know whether or not you think the presence of church sanctuaries and architecture undermines missional living conceptually?

Buildings certainly do not have to be a hinderance. They can become that if the emphasis is on getting people to come to the building, but the reality is that we are a called and sent people of God. We do still need to gather together for worship, study, prayer, etc. We can and should gather together to be equipped to be sent out to participate in what God is already doing. I love the Lesslie Newbigin quote about the church when he states: “[The church] is not meant to call men and women out of the world into a safe religious enclave but to call them out in order to send them back as agents of God’s kingship.”

You write a lot about the missional use of our homes.  It has resonated deeply with my wife and me and we are now involved in discussions about home stewardship and reaching our neighborhood.  Should we abandon the idea of the home as an escape?  Should we feel guilty about closing the blinds and doors and unwinding?  Where do we draw the lines on this?

We have to use wisdom in knowing where healthy boundaries need to be set. But in most cases, Christians look at their homes as places of security rather than a vehicle for biblical hospitality. Our focus on the family as a place of safety has been disastrous for missional living. We must learn to overcome our fears and open our lives and our homes up to others. We must welcome the stranger!

What do you see as the great challenges to missional living within the institutional North American church?

There are several challenges, including fear of the world, living lives without time margins, consumerism, and the idol we have created called the American dream.

Finally, how have you and your family lived missionally in your community?  What lessons have you learned?

I like to frame living out missionality in three arenas; where we live, work and play. Where we live includes being a good neighbor to those we live around and opening up our home. Where we work is about vocation. We must rethink what it means to contribute to and participate in God’s mission through our work. And where we play has to do with engaging social space in our community. We must engage Third Places and public space. We must have eyes to see and ears to hear what God is doing in our community and neighborhoods. We must then ask how He wants us to participate in what He is already doing.

Brad Brisco and Lance Ford’s Missional Essentials

46092205Some months ago, Dave McClung of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention wanted to know if I would like to participate in one of a few small groups working through Missional Essentials by Brad Brisco and Lance Ford.  Now, Dave is a cool, eclectic, smart, well-read guy with a deep love for the church and a keen eye on how the church engages culture.  Furthermore, I have for some time now regretted the fact that I have never seriously wrestled with the whole missional concept , so I said yes.

Missional Essentials is a workbook, though it has some strong sections of insightful prose on the missional church as well.  It is an insightful primer to missional thinking as well as a practical challenge to many of the assumptions undergirding the institutional church today.  The reading sections are helpful and make very good use of other sources and the workbook interaction sections do a good job of (a) leading the reader to interact with scripture and (b) challenging the reader to think through the practice of missional living.

In essence, the missional movement is calling the church to see itself as a missionary in its culture.  What this means is that the local church should stop seeing itself as an entity that engages in mission projects and trips and instead should see itself as the mission project.  What this means is that church doesn’t send out missionaries, the church is God’s missionary.  Therefore, all believers are to embrace missional living, in and through their church, to be sure, but in their neighborhoods as the church preeminently.  If you have grown up in the conservative, institutional, North American church, you will readily get what is so revolutionary about this thought and against what fallacious ecclesiological concepts it is pushing.

I would caution you in one way about reading Missional Essentials:  if you do not want to be seriously unsettled in your complacency concerning loving and reaching your neighbors, do not read this work.  This workbook, especially the last third of it, really engages the reader with pretty direct questions about whether or not we love our neighbors, are actively forming relationships with them, and are being good stewards of our homes.  It has certainly caused me to have a number of conversations with my wife about developing a strategy to reach the streets on which we live.

I have every intention of leading Central Baptist Church through this study.  I believe this is fantastic, biblical, soul-stirring stuff that I, for one, desperately needed to hear.

Danny Akin’s Five Who Changed the World

Danny Akin’s Five Who Changed the World was distributed for free at the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting in Indianapolis last month.  They are apparently for sell somewhere, though I’ve yet to figure out where.  Akin’s personal website has a link that takes you to a blank page.  This is a shame, and I hope to figure out where to get these soon, because this is a fantastic and moving look at five great missionaries that will inspire and, I honestly believe, change you.

Originally delivered as five sermons at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, these missionary portraits are delivered to the reader (and, I’m sure, the original audience) with conviction, passion, and an obvious desire to see the readers moved to action by this inspiring accounts.  Akin looks at William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Lottie Moon, Bill Wallace of China, and Jim Elliot.

Akin depends heavily on the standard biographies of each of these, which is fine.  His goal here isn’t original historical research.  His goal is to pass on the stories of five great champions of the gospel and to remind us of the high cost that many have paid to take the good news to the world.  He obviously is wanting to shake us out of our own complacency, and he does so with genuine conviction and in a non-manipulative way.  In other words, Akin’s agenda is clear and it is correct.  We desparately need to hear these great stories again.

My wife and I were frequently and deeply touched by these biographies.  The essay on Lottie Moon was particularly moving and Akin chose well from her letters.  In short, Roni and I have been moved to have sincere conversations about our own failure in the area of following the Great Commission and I believe we will be much more sensitive to this crucial need today and in the days to come.

Timothy George and John Woodbridge’s The Mark of Jesus: Loving In a Way the World Can See

What a unique and interesting book Timothy George and John Woodbridge’s The Mark of Jesus: Loving In a Way The World Can See is.  The title and content are meant to pay homage to Francis Schaeffer’s tremendous little book, The Mark of a Christian, and to Schaeffer’s idea of love as the “final apologetic.”  Maybe it’s best to see this book as an update and extension of Schaeffer’s work.

Much has changed since Schaeffer wrote, and yet so much has not.  What has not changed is the need for the Christian witness to be grounded in love and borne on the wings of love.  With the rise of Islam and an increasingly tendentious religious scene in the United States (and around the world, for that matter), there has never been a better time for a renewed call for the final apologetic.

Love is the final apologetic because it cannot be refuted or argued against.  Our arguments for Christ or against other religions can be bandied about, debated, and dissected, but genuine love for people cannot be.  This is the case that George and Woodbridge are making, and they do it well.  This is not, by the way, a lapse into sentimentalism.  Strong arguments and truth claims are needed.  But when these are buttressed by love, how much stronger they become.

Anything by Timothy George is worth reading (and I’m sure by Woodbridge as well, though I’m not as familiar with him).  It is nice to see a popular level book by Dr. George, and I do hope he will do even more of these.  Of course, being from the pens of two academic, this book occasionally wanders in fields that some might find a bit tedious.  The long chapter on the rise of fundamentalism was fascinating, but I did occasionally wonder, while reading this chapter, who exactly this book’s target audience is?  Regardless, that chapter in particular is important and helps explain a great deal about media terminology in covering religious realities in North America as well as about how people view evangelicals and fundamentalists.  Furthermore, the authors do a good job in this section of questioning the oft-repeated supposed linkage between Christian fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism.

There’s helpful and practical wisdom here about what Christian ecumenism should look like.  The authors refuse to sell doctrine down the river in exchange for dialogue and peace.  No, we are to hold to our biblical convictions and seek to communicate them clearly.  But we communicate our convictions with hearts of love and understanding.

Personally, this is a word I needed to hear.  I suspect it’s a word we all need to hear.  I highly recommend this book.

Jesse C. Fletcher’s Bill Wallace of China

I would like to encourage any and all of you to take some time and read Bill Wallace of China. It is currently out of print, but shouldn’t be too hard to get a copy of.  I do not think I can recommend this book strongly enough or that I can adequately describe how powerful an experience reading it was for me. Jesse C. Fletcher is to be commended for crafting a work that is at the same time beautiful, shocking, convicting, and inspiring.

This is the story of how a quiet, unassuming, humble, middle-aged, American bachelor from Tennessee gave his life to the people of China. William Wallace was a medical missionary in Wuchow, China, during the turbulent times of the Japanese assault on China leading up to World War II and the rise of Chinese communism that ensued in the wake of that war. It is the story of a man who refused to leave his post when all others had. It is the story of one who won fame as a doctor among the Chinese, won many to faith in Christ, committed heroic deeds in his obstinate refusal to let a Baptist hospital die, and who ultimately died a brutal death in a Chinese communist prison at the hands of his guards.

If ever a culture and people needed true heroes, it is our culture and our people. Dr. Bill Wallace should rightly be presented as just that: a hero. It is hoped that you will purchase and read and share and be moved by this powerful testimony of one of God’s special children, martyr Bill Wallace.

H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture

Christ and Culture represents a cogent and systematic approach towards the categorization and evaluation of the Church’s interplay with culture throughout space and time.  It is a seminal articulation, as evidenced by the strong feelings that it elicits from modern authors writing in the same field today, fifty-two years after its initial appearance.  One begins to sense, when surveying a merely random sampling of modern works on the subject, that there is something of a Niebuhrian specter over the entire field which one may resist, acquiesce to, or curse, but never ignore or deny.

Niebuhr’s foundational contention is bold and provocative in its Christological assertions.  He quotes approvingly Rabbi Klausner’s contention that Jesus threatened culture “by abstracting religion and ethics from the rest of social life” and postulating a concept of an otherworldly, a-cultural kingdom.1  Niebuhr speaks of Christ and culture as “two complex realities” and argues that “Christ leads men away from the temporality and pluralism of culture” and towards a radical devotion to God.2  To prove this contention, he points to the claims of the early antagonists to Christianity and their perception that Christ presented a threat to their culture.

It must frankly be asked whether or not this picture of Christ is true.  Did Jesus teach a radical devotion to the God outside of culture and in so doing not only not concern Himself with the advancement of culture but frankly disregard it as well?  This assertion would appear to be a gross oversimplification, and we may defend this by a number of means.

To begin with, there is no explicit evidence in the instructions of Jesus that this was His intention.  Such a bold claim should ideally be able to point to some extant biblical claims to this effect.  In truth, given the radical nature of Klausner and Niebuhr’s claim and given the far-reaching implications of such a claim, one would hope to see an abundance of such evidence.

Instead, what the Gospels offer us are claims that are either enigmatic or seemingly contradictory to Niebuhr’s Christology.  Mark 12:17 (“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”) may be seen as postulating a radical dichotomy between the Way and the culture, but it could also be read as a theological statement about the supremacy of God, the recognition of which might, in actuality, cause His followers to enrich and guide culture.   Furthermore, John 17:11,15-16 (“I do not ask that You take them out of the world…They are not of the world.”) could be read as an expression of Jesus’ desire that His people live with no regard to the culture, but it is perhaps better to see it as an appeal to the Father on behalf of His followers who will be exhibiting other-cultural values (yet not necessarily a-cultural values) in the dominant world system.  Furthermore, the salt and light word-picture given by Jesus in Matthew 5:13-16 would appear to flatly contradict Niebuhr’s picture of Jesus through its emphasis on such restorative, preservative, and life-sustaining mediums.

Niebuhr’s Christology has also been poignantly critiqued in the work of John Howard Yoder.  In The Politics of Jesus, Yoder takes great pains to show that, far from ignoring culture or abolishing it, Jesus’ teachings offered a revolutionary political ethic that was a far cry from the simply sectarian privatized spirituality to which Niebuhr appears to limit His focus.  Yoder argues that the cross was “a political alternative to both insurrection and quietism,” that Jesus was killed for sedition, not heresy, that the very forming of the disciples had “political import,” and that Jesus ushered in a quite this-worldly jubilee.  Furthermore, Yoder contends that Christ represented and taught a new kingdom on earth then (as opposed to a merely future kingdom), that Jesus rejected precisely that separatistic a-cultural spiritualism which Neibuhr claims He adhered to, and that He sought to create “an alternative social group” and not simply an anti-social group.3  Through many other examples, Yoder demonstrates that Christ not only did have great concern for culture, but that the redemption of man in his entirety was the crux of His coming.

Yoder’s critique, which, while it may be forced and overstated at times, is quite solid in its central assertions, also calls into question Niebuhr’s understanding of the reasons why Christ and the Church were resented and resisted by the culture.  Niebuhr argues that early Christianity was resisted because they threatened culture through disinterest in it and through directing “their hopes towards another world.”4  Niebuhr contends also that Christ was understood to have failed to motivate His followers to “human achievement” and that He fostered “intolerance” in His followers.5  However, it would seem that the opposite was the case.

Christ was resisted not because He bred indifference to the culture in His disciples thereby rendering them effectually useless in the construction of a better social order, but rather because He introduced a culture that stood in such radical contradistinction to the prevailing culture that it was seen as a threat to the power structures of the day.  It was not, then, that Jesus and His followers were so intolerant that it engendered ire in those outside of the community of faith.  Rather, they were so tolerant that their counter-cultural alternative threatened the very survival of the world’s norms.  Thus, Christ may be accused of threatening culture, but for very different reasons than Niebuhr suggests.  Most importantly, his understanding of the cultural and socio-political import and, indeed, thrust of Christ’s teachings is misguided.

Flawed though his Christology is, however, Niebuhr’s typology of Christ and culture may still be evaluated.  This is because of the fact that his typology more readily reflects the Church and culture.  The body of Christ and Culture is ecclesial more than Christological.  Niebuhr expressed five types of approaches the Church has taken towards culture:  “Christ Against Culture,” “The Christ of Culture,” “Christ Above Culture,” “Christ and Culture in Paradox,” “Christ the Transformer of Culture.”  Before interacting with the individual types, we must deal with the overall typological structure itself.

Fairly serious charges have been leveled against Niebuhr’s framing of the problem by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon (who have rather famously claimed that “few books have been a greater hindrance to an accurate assessment of our situation than Christ and Culture.”).6 Hauerwas and Willimon argue that Niebuhr affirmed “Constantinian” social strategies and that he dismissed those outside of his own liberal tradition as being narrowly sectarian. They also argue that Niebuhr sacrificed the radical nature of the Christian community in his call to responsible participation in the power structures of the culture, and that, in his typology, he “failed to describe the various historical or contemporary options for the church” and  “simply justified what was already there.”7  This last charge is a direct criticism of the typology itself.

Hauerwas and Willimon are, overall, quite persuasive in their critique of Niebuhr, but one suspects that they protest too much and have not adequately considered the qualifications which Niebuhr himself put on the types.  In truth, Niebuhr recognized a “multiplicity” of approaches that churches and individual believers have taken towards culture.  Furthermore, the categories are merely “typical partial answers” that have been recurrent throughout history.8  He saw the entire discussion as dynamic and ongoing.  The types do seem insufficient with the benefit of fifty years of hindsight, but Hauerwas and Willimon go too far in their implication that Niebuhr was being underhanded by framing “the argument in such a way as to ensure that the transformist approach would be viewed as the most worthy” and by employing “subtle repressiveness” in his construction of the types.9

It must also be stated that Niebuhr’s methodology is commendable.  In presenting each type, he offers an in-depth expression of its thesis, points to representative examples of the type, and then offers the positives and negatives of the position.  Hauerwas and Willimon go so far as to be suspect of his affirmation of the positive aspects of each type, seeing in these affirmations a strategic ploy which subtly promoted pluralism as a virtue thereby preparing the reader to see Niebuhr’s own pluralistic position as the most admirable.10  It is difficult not to feel that Hauerwas and Willimon, for all of the brilliance of their own proposals concerning the problem of Christ and culture, occasionally lose themselves in the moment.  There is no reason to suspect that Niebuhr was being anything other than objective and fair with the types, even if, as seems clear, he preferred one over the others.

Niebuhr depicts his first type, “Christ against culture,” as that approach which rejects culture, sees it as fundamentally evil, and turns from culture’s political and societal expressions in an attempt to find protection and avoid spiritual contamination.  Those who use this approach view the Church as “a third race” which stands apart from the fallen culture.11 Representative of this type were Tertullian and Leo Tolstoy.

Niebuhr’s handling of 1 John under this type illustrates one of the deficiencies of his approach:  the tendency and temptation to force the scriptures into these categories.  Admittedly, he does qualify that no book of the Bible fits neatly into any of these categories, and that 1 John simply “contains the least ambiguous presentation of this point of view.”12  However, Niebuhr’s rather conjectural assertion that the author of 1 John was so sure of the imminence of Christ’s return that he gave little thought towards creating a cultural ethic or set of instructions in this area reveals a certain tendency towards eisegesis in his handling of the text.

Even so, Niebuhr’s critique of this position is quite thorough and balanced.  He correctly notes that those who have adopted this approach often end up influencing and advancing the culture as well as drawing from the culture at the same time.  In short, the great Achilles’ heel of this type is its assumption than one can truly detach oneself from the culture.  It is, in actuality, impossible, and even those that have adopted this approach end up trafficking in cultural forms of thought, speech, and interaction.13  This approach appears to be naïve of the cultures’ role in forming who we are.

As balanced as Niebuhr’s handling of the “Christ Against Culture” type is, it must be noted that there are subtle but serious problems that arise here as well.  By lumping “Protestant sectarianism” in with the ascetic and nearly monastic Tolstoy and the legalist Tertullian, Niebuhr appears to imply that viewing the Church as a separate culture (i.e., “sect”) means abandoning it to irrelevance.  Yet, there is a powerful school of thought, of which Hauerwas, Willimon, Yoder, Clapp, and many others are a part, which have convincingly shown that the Church as a separate people among the people not only has the potential to redeem the culture but is, in fact, the model which Christ himself taught.  That is, there is a form of sectarian engagement which the Niebuhrian categories cannot allow.

For instance, Christian political thinkers Timothy Sherratt and Ronald Mahurin would almost certainly be considered by Niebuhr to be in the “Christ Against Culture” category.  They see Christians as inhabiting a unique culture, a Kingdom within the culture, so to speak.  However, they argue that the ethics of the Kingdom will enrich the culture even though they will do so through the use of non-cultural tools (i.e., the infusion of love instead of power into the political process).14  Furthermore, Lawrence E. Adams has demonstrated that, given the inner turmoil and self-contradictions of American public opinions, and given the willingness of the American culture to follow leadership which is clear and engaging, “the acting out” of kingdom principles within the community of faith, regardless of any use of or involvement in the normative cultural power structures, will likely prove to be its most effective tool in reaching the culture.15  Thus, the suggestion that all sectarianism is a form of negation and isolation proves to be too simplistic.  In truth, a sectarianism that would offer the wider culture a powerful display of countercultural ethics, political, economic, and otherwise, might possibly be the best way of engaging the culture.

Niebuhr’s handling of “Christ in Culture” is quite admirable and balanced.  Those in this camp are theological liberals, those who seek to wed what is best in Christianity with what is best in culture.  They are “this worldly” and are concerned less with the purported miracles of Scripture than with human achievement and attainment.  The Gospel is posited in cultural terms, and Jesus is seen as the apex of civilization.  These are the enlightened ones, rationalists whose Christianity ultimately ends up being a vague form of Gnosticism wearing a Christian jacket.16

While pointing out that Fundamentalist critics of cultural-Protestantism are often guilty of the same cultural loyalties and societal causes (albeit, of a different stripe) as those they criticize, Niebuhr actually repeats many Fundamentalist objections to this position.  He points out, for instance, that those who have adopted this approach do not seem to draw others to Christ, that they must, of necessity, compromise on the scandal of Christ in order to accommodate to culture, and that they seem to open the door for mere humanism.17  Consequently, his overall tone of this position is one of rejection.

Niebuhr classes his final three types under the umbrella term “the church of the center” and argues that these churches represent “the great majority movement in Christianity.”18  The “church of the center” expresses itself, according to Niebuhr, in three ways:  through the synthesis of Christ and culture (“Christ Above Culture”), dualistically (“Christ and Culture in Paradox”), and with a conversionist emphasis (“Christ the Transformer of Culture”).  This grouping together is important insofar as it implicitly relegates separatistic strains to the realm of the tangential.  At this point, Haurwas, Willimon, and others who are arguing for the creation of a radical culture within the culture seem justified in their frustration with Niebuhr.  Again, separatism and sectarianism are too easily dismissed by Niebuhr’s types as being those approaches which impact culture only incidentally.  Clapp, Yoder, Hauerwas and others have very convincingly shown that this is simply faulty.

The synthesist is the believer who understands the distinction between the Lordship of Christ and the temporality of culture, but who nonetheless seeks to bring Christian verities to bear on his immediate culture.  He seeks a unified system, though not, like the “Christ of Culture” believer, to the point of sacrificing the supremacy of Christ.  There is no confusion in his mind about his priorities.  Christ is preeminent.  However, he wants to see the Kingdom lived in the culture now.

In many ways, Francis Schaeffer is the champion of this approach.  Through his use of culture in apologetics and his call for a return to a Christian America, Schaeffer, who clearly reflects elements of “Christ the Transformer of Culture” as well, represents a modern attempt at the synthesis of Christ and culture.  Yet, Schaeffer offered tragic but clear affirmation of Niebuhr’s criticism that synthesists “tend, perhaps inevitably, to the absolutizing of what is relative, the reduction of the infinite to a finite form, and the materialization of the dynamic.”19

This is seen nowhere more clearly than in Schaeffer’s most blatant call for Christian engagement with the culture, A Christian Manifesto, a book which was instrumental in the solidifying of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the 1980’s.  Here, Schaeffer bizarrely attacks Christian lawyers and intellectuals for the “loss” of the culture to the humanist worldview and rather shrilly calls for Christians to see the “conservative swing in the United States,” as evidenced by the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, as a temporarily opened window which offers Christians the greatest opportunity to impact the culture.20  In so doing, Schaeffer “absolutized the relative” (i.e., a political opportunity in a particular election) and reduced the “infinite to a finite form” (i.e., the Church within the structures of the state).  In this, Niebuhr’s evaluation of the synthesists proves not only amazingly accurate, but prophetic as well.

Ultimately, Niebuhr appears to favor “Christ the Transformer of Culture.”  He refers to the adherents of this position as belonging to “the great central tradition of Christianity” and seeks to show how this position avoids the extremities of the others.  Once again, those who see Christ as being “against culture” are relegated to the category of largely irrelevant and reactionary separatists.  True engagement, according to Niebuhr, comes in operating within the structures of the culture.  His appeal to this position as being not merely a position, but a “motif” which runs through “the Gospel of Matthew and the Letter of James through Paul’s epistles to the Fourth Gospel, or proceeds from Tertullian, the Gnostics, and Clement to Augustine, or from Tolstoy, Ritschl, and Kierkegaard to F.D. Maurice” further reflects his admiration of it.21  Clearly, then, Niebuhr sees this type as that which not only has the widest biblical support but is also so pervasive that those of other types inevitably return and partake of it.  Indeed, for Niebuhr, this type strikes something of a via media between “the anti-culturalism of exclusive Christianity, and against the accommodationism of culture-Christians.”22

Yet Niebuhr’s optimism for this position has proven to be naïve.  One must question whether or not such an optimistic understanding and approach to the Church’s interaction within culture is truly able to impact culture and, perhaps more critical to the question at hand, to avoid cultural accommodation.  The charge that such an approach merely reinforces a “Constantinian” approach to culture, downplays the restorative and reforming power of a community exhibiting other-cultural values in the midst of the dominant cultural system to change that system, and binds the church to necessarily ineffectual means is frankly difficult to contest.  Furthermore, it has perhaps been demonstrated in the fifty years which have elapsed since the initial publication of Niebuhr’s work, that the optimistic liberalism of his approach has simply not achieved the type of results that adherents to this position might desire.

Ultimately, the dismissal of “sectarianism” as irrelevant and reactionary is too simplistic.  It inappropriately neglects the great potential for cultural transformation through the establishment of a community of believers who see themselves not merely as consumers and manipulators of existing cultural models but rather as harbingers of a radical new Kingdom ethic which might be exhibited among the larger culture, thereby creating a distinct new alternative to decaying cultural norms.

1 H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (San Francisco:  Harper & Row, 2001), 3.
2 Ibid., 39.
3 John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 36-39,62,96,106.
4 Niebuhr, 6.
5 Niebuhr, 6-7.
6 Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1989), 40.
7 Ibid., 40-41.
8 Niebuhr, 40.
9 Hauerwas and Willimon, 40-41.
10 Hauerwas and Willimon, 41.
11 Niebuhr, 49.
12 Ibid., 46.
13 Niebuhr, 66-69,72.
14 Timothy R. Sherratt and Ronald P. Mahurn, Saints as Citizens (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Books, 1995), 38.
15 Lawrence E. Adams, Going Public (Grand Rapids, MI:  Brazos Press, 2002), 131,133,152,154.
16 Niebuhr, 85-90.
17 Niebuhr, 108,113.
18 Ibid., 117.
19 Niebuhr, 145.
20 Francis Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto (Wheaton, IL:  Crossway Books, 1982), 47,50-51,73-74.
21 Niebuhr, 190-191.
22 Ibid., 206.