Running from culture

Warning: If you haven’t seen the movie, this article could possibly spoil your future viewing of it. Consider yourself warned.

In his book, “An Unstoppable Force”, Erwin Raphael McManus presents the following question for local Churches, “Is our Church a refuge for the world or from the world?”

It has been my experience that many local congregations have become safe havens for their members. While they proclaim to be a light to the world, they are in practice places of refuge for people who want to hide from the realities of their culture. ManyChristians view their places of worship as a medieval castle they can flee to and once safely inside they can raise the drawbridge to keep out their perceived enemy known as “The World.” In this article, I will use M. Night Shyamalan’s movie “The Village” as a metaphor to illustrate the Church’s tendency to be a place of refuge from culture.

The Village” is a thriller about a group of people who chose to separate themselves from modern society. Their decision was motivated by the horrible experiences each had with the evils of culture. A family member or loved one of each person in the group had been brutally murdered. In an attempt to live a life free of horrors, these people decided to move away from society to a remote place where they could be evil free. This is not much different from what many of our Churches have become. Instead of engaging our culture with the Gospel of Christ, we have tucked tail and ran. Our congregations have become monasteries catering to the needs of the Churched and setting itself up to be the enemy of the world while it should be a place offering refuge for the world. We have created our own subculture that has imprisoned the Gospel to the point that anyone living outside of our surreal reality finds it impossible to interpret it. The villagers were living a lifestyle that was hundreds of years outdated. Many Churches are guitly of the same by trying to bring back the “golden days” of the past and holding to tradition. Jesus told us to be in the world but not of it. We have become so focused on not being of the world to the point of no longer being in it. The result is the outright rejection of Jesus’ command to “go” into the world.

In order to ensure their new way of life would continue, the group of village elders fabricated stories to keep their posterity in line. The stories were of monsters that lived in the surrounding woods of the village. They were referred to as “the people we do not speak of.” Watchtowers were erected and people stood watch to warn the villagers of an intrusion of the imaginary foes. Even rituals of peace were offered to the monsters of the forbidden woods. And to top it all off, the elders of the village would dress as “the people we do not speak of” and roam the village at night to make their lies believable. Fear became the motivating factor to keep their surreal life intact. Once again, this is not at all unlike many of our Churches. Well intentioned Pastors have preached lies to their congregations in an attempt to keep it clean and unspotted. Many Christians have been taught to fear the world. They have been brainwashed into believing that contact with culture is sin. Legalism becomes dominant to keep members in check. Members of these Churches become afraid of society and forget that greater is the Spirit of God that dwells in them than the spirit of the world. Their image of Jesus is that of a strict judge that is out to only punish sin. Becoming like the Pharisees, they do not see how Jesus could associate Himself with prostitutes, drug addicts, and homosexuals. As a result, they never move out into the culture to redeem it and the individuals that occupy it.

As the drama of “The Village” unfolds, one of the leading characters, Lucious, is stabbed by a mentally challenged villager out of jealousy. The elders’ worst nightmare is realized from the attempted murder; there is no true escape from evil. In spite of leaving modern society and creating the perfect community, the elders could not stop human nature. The very evil that had driven them into the woods and to create a life centered around deceit was not purged from their existence. Take an honest look at the congregations that have separated themselves from cuture, and you will find that sin can even reign inside their walls. Having successfully isolated themselves in their fortresses from evil, many Christians have become blind to their own sin. This blindness leads to one of the most repugnant sins of all, self-righteousness. Just recall the horror stories of these hermit Churches. Power struggles between deacons and the outright backstabbing of deacon wives have often been the playground of Satan. An isolation attempt from culture does not eradicate the sinful nature of man. Often, engagement with culture reminds us Christians just how much we are in need of God’s grace keeping us in check with our own spirituality.

As the movie climaxes, the elders’ realize their survival depends on going back to the society they left to get Lucious the needed medications he needs in order to live. Lucious’ fiance is sent into the “towns”, and she returns with the proper medicines. In the same way, the Church can not continue into the future without engaging culture. The Church must have a missional mindset. Our mission is to lead our communities to Christ and redeem culture. In order to do this, we must do more than evangelize. The Church must see herself as a community of missionaries. Missionaries get engrossed in the culture. They learn it and live among it. Many missionaries to foreign countries have been known to wear the clothing and hairstyles of the people they were trying to reach. In like manner, we are missionaries to our communities. We can not effectively reach them without becoming as them, or at the very least, we must appreciate their ethos and understand their metanarratives. The Church is one generation away to being exstinct. It is our responsiblity to engage culture so the Kingdom of God can be advanced through His Church.

Even after obtaining medicines that saved Lucious’ life, the elders were still adamant about mantaining their surreal life. Is this not often also true of the Church? Many times the Lord draws people from the culture into our local Churches and instead of acknowledging the opportunity for new life the Church systematically conforms these new believers to its subculture. Within a short amount of time, new believers have lost total contact with the culture they once were apart. The consequence is evident. An opportunity to redeem culture is lost and the Church slips further away from its surrounding community. It seems as though congregations are more concerned about winning people over to their subculture instead of bringing people to Christ and training them to reach others in their context. Being open to culture is vital to the growth, maturity, and advancement of the Church. There is absolutely no way around it.

“The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few; therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest. Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:2-3).

Brian Turner publishes the website Renascent Faith – an internet medium that seeks to communicate the message of Jesus by connecting faith, culture, and relevance.