Michael S. Horton Tells Us to Quit Dissecting Culture

Give Praise to GodI’ve finally arrived at the end of Give Praise to God. You need to read it. Following a chapter on Calvin’s theology of worship (that was more interesting and insightful than I expected), the book’s last chapter is a contribution by Michael S. Horton entitled “Challenges and Opportunities for Ministry Today.” I expected some practical applications of the issues addressed in the book: more on the singing of psalms and hymns, the centrality of preaching, etc. That would have been fine. Instead, Horton offers a refreshing perspective on the role of the church in our culture–how we “fit” the culture, how we should view it, and what we should be doing to impact it.

Horton insists that our fascination–our “obsession”–with the need to identify and understand our culture with tags like “modern” and “postmodern” is so much wasted time. He argues that while secular scholars have finally admitted that making distinctions between such fluid ideologies is profitless, Christians are still determined to let typologies of ideologies determine our modus operandi. Horton complains that for many ministries “the sociological ‘is’ determines the theological ‘ought,’ instead of being challenged by the latter” (p. 439). As the church allows the unregenerate to dictate how and what we sing or how and what we preach, Horton asks a question that deserves some thought: “are we losing the reached instead of reaching the lost?” (p. 441). Commenting on the tendency for Christians to adjust our ministries so that they are more culture-friendly, Horton asks, “when will we learn what so many of our forebears knew from experience: that the success of the Christian gospel lies precisely in its offense” (p. 442).

That’s all excellent. However, here’s what really grabbed my attention. Reflecting on the church’s relentless pursuit to “get” our culture in order to help them “get” our message, Horton makes two striking observations:

1. Our dissection of culture isn’t working.

“A host of recent studies confirms that the ecclesiastical ideology of ‘mission to postmodern culture’ works least among the people who are supposed to be the most impressed: the so-called Gen-Xers and younger. Even aside from the all-important challenge of biblical fidelity, not even the demographics support the hype that almost tyrannically controls contemporary approaches to mission and worship” (p. 443).

2. Our dissection of culture isn’t biblical. We’ve made things far too complicated.

“What if, instead of adopting the division of history into modern and postmodern, we followed the New Testament distinction between ‘this present evil age’ and ‘the age to come,’ the reality of life ‘in the flesh’ versus ‘life in the Spirit’?…In this typology, ‘That is postmodern’ no longer becomes a get-out-of-jail-free card, a justification for all sorts of deviance from historic Christian norms in the name of evangelism, mission, and outreach to the postmodern culture” (p. 444).

In other words, as I recently posted, what we need is “normal measures.” People haven’t changed–not in their basic nature and need. Listen to Horton:

“So which is it? Is postmodernism the big new thing or the same old thing? For mission, at least, it just does not matter” (p. 445).

There are essentially two kinds of people: the redeemed and those who need to be redeemed. Pretty simple, isn’t it?


(Note: I have an article along the same lines in the upcoming edition of The OBF Visitor, part of which focuses on Paul’s “de-contextualizing” the Gospel in his message to the Areopagus. You can subscribe to the Visitor here.)


19 Responses

  1. Chris, I agree that the message should not change. But I’m not sure about ignoring the differences in each generation. Each generation has the same sinful nature, and needs the same Lord Jesus Christ, but what about the changing ways they are thinking. Shouldn’t we be aware of those differences and confront the particular wrong thinking? It seems to me that this could be helpful.

  2. That’s reasonable, Andy. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying. Perhaps Horton is. But I think he’s addressing a real problem: we act as though there is some mysterious secret to reaching GenX, GenY, GenZ, etc., when the reality is that there is nothing new under the sun.

    Should we recognize that teens today think differently than teens of the 50’s? Sure…at least in some ways. But I think much of the discussion is really just a distraction. Not all, but much.

    Back to the Athens example: if Paul sought a special understanding of the Athenians, it was so he could address their idolatry head-on and call them to repentance–which is precisely what the prophets were doing in OT Israel. There’s nothing new under the sun.

    If we didn’t know that Horton is a professor at Westminster Seminary and the president of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, we might assume that the chapter was written by a fundamentalist with his head in the sand. But Horton isn’t so easily dismissed.

  3. I was just reading this online lesson about classroom discipline and came across some interesting observations. The Ohio State professor is not speaking from a biblical worldview but he makes some interesting points about the difference of thinking between the generations.

  4. Piper addressed this well, I thought, at the Desiring God Conference last October. In one of the panel discussion, Justin Taylor asked Piper and Driscoll to explain their different views concerning “contextualization.” Piper replied that he didn’t think he needed to be “up” on contemporary culture, because every person in every culture has certain needs that the gospel meets. He preaches to those needs without concern for the latest pop fads.

    At the same time, I do see Andy’s point. We do need to be aware of the lenses unbelievers, and even our own church folk see through when they hear (OK, so I’m straying in my metaphor now) us preach. But knowledge of these things does not require contextualization; just possibly clarification and explanation about exactly what we mean.

  5. Confession is good for the soul, so here goes. While what Horton says resonates with me, I admit that I need to study the issue further. For example, I posted a while back on Phil Johnson’s helpful lecture on postmodernism. What he said was helpful; it wasn’t “so much wasted time.” At any rate, I’m thinking here, and needing to think some more. There’s got to be some balance between obsessing about culture and ignoring it altogether.

    I do think (as I’ve said repeatedly) that II Timothy 3-4 is very germane to this conversation. How do we deal with the fierce times in which we live–times which are bad and getting worse? By preaching the inspired and profitable Word. Period. Does understanding the intricacies of various “isms” help us do that more effectively? Probably. Again, I’m working on it. I don’t have it all figured out. (Shocker.)

  6. I think Horton is here at least somewhat guilty of my objections made elsewhere, namely that he is objecting to something that many contextualizationalists would also object to, while not representing contextualization with complete accuracy. In other words, he is beating on a straw man, to a large degree. There are some, no doubt, who would be guilty of Horton’s charges. And while I haven’t read this book, I can’t help but think that Horton does not distinguish between those.

    The contextualizationalist would be quick to point out that Horton is doing the very thing he seems (from Chris’s comments) to be condemning. He has “gotten” that the some in the current church culture are trying to “get culture.” How did Horton get that? Because he studied the culture. He looked at what churches are trying to do.

    They would also point that Horton himself is contextualizing by using English, modern English no less, and some of his books have been translated into other languages, which is also contextualization.

    They would point out that Horton has contextualized his message to the audience of this present age, nothing that 100 years ago, this message would have made no sense.

    Now, Horton may indeed be right in the philosophical bases of his objections. But he has done exactly that which he objects to: he has “gotten” the culture and addressed it in language that they can understand. Whether or not they agree … well, that’s a different issue, as every contextualizationalist would acknowledge.

    And if you think that my examples of contextualization (language, current events/trends) are not really what contextualizationalists are talking about, then you perhaps should read more of them. They use examples of going to foreign cultures and learning languages and cultural practices as examples of and the basis for contextualization. We can argue whether or not some contextualization they are doing is of the same nature as learning a new language, etc. But that is one of the supports they use.

    So I would simply caution us to make sure we understand exactly what we are objecting to, lest we show ourselves to be hypocrites, being guilty of the very thing we condemn.

    Or to put it differently, we need to be more precise to what we are objecting to. To make a blanket objection to contextualization is, IMO, absolutely absurd. You can’t object to it intelligibly without practicing it, at least to some degree.

  7. Chris, another great post. A humble suggestion? Sit in on some evening Adult Ed/GED classes. Walk through the halls of your local high school or community college. Hang out in the student union. Attend a high school sporting event and speak with the students.

    In my class I have stoners, strippers, goth, wiccans, pagans, reincarnationists, Baptist, Methodist, atheist, 16&17 yr-old mothers, ad infinitum. There are two things they have in common: they are there to further their education [actually acheive the first step in their education], and they need Jesus Christ as Savior. Come and hang out in my class. Chris, the foundation of the Gospel is love [for God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotton Son…]. If it were not for the love of God sending his Son to die on the Cross, we would all certainly be damned. God loves sinners, of whom I am chief.

    The students who attend my class know with certainty that I love them, and that I believe in a God who loves them. Period. That is not up for discussion. We can discuss anything [and we do], and they know that I love them. I may throw them out of my class with vehemence [and I have], but some come back begging “forgiveness”. God gives ample opportunity for me to share his wonderful gift of grace with many of my students because they know I will not stand in judgment of them when they are in the shelter of my class. Consistantly reflecting the love of Christ, whether through a calm presentation/discussion of the Gospel or throwing a student out of class for offesnses, has had more impact on leading some of my students to Christ than if I were to go to a shopping mall and hand out tracts.

    No, the Gospel is eternal and unchanging, and there is nothing new under the sun, but, I fear, we have forgotton how to relate to sinners because we are constantly looking for ways to judge them, shun them, or just ignore them because we think they are beyond grace. They are not. My students are hungry for something that will give them hope and stability in the sea of uncertainty. Look to the fields as they are ripe for the harvest. Jesus calmed the storms. He is still the answer for the storms of the souls of those whom he has called to be in our path. Let’s take the Gospel to them where they are, and meet them with love.

  8. The last paragraph should start with “Yes, the Gospel is eternal…” My mistake.

  9. I’m running into a lot of this right now because I am reading through Colson’s book, How Now Shall We Live? He makes the following incredible statement, “…when the church is faithful to its calling, it always leads to a reformation of culture” (37). ‘

    He illustrates this by offering an analogy with an oyster. “Oysters make their own shells, so if the shell is badly formed, the problem is not in the shell but in the oyster. Likewise, when a culture deforms and decays, don’t ask what went wrong with the culture; ask what went wrong with the cult – the religious core.”

  10. Thanks for the thoughts. Larry, I understand your frustration, and am starting to see your point more clearly. I think part of the struggle (as a friend explained) is that the word “contextualization” is so flexible. To some, it means that we adapt the message itself, and they wrongly cite Acts 17 as an example of that. To others it’s just the adapting of the method–though I think it is possible to do so to such a degree that the message itself is changed. But as you say, we all contextualize to some degree. We don’t approach a JW the same way we approach a Roman Catholic, etc. The gospel message is constant, but our approach to it will differ.

    In all the discussion over contextualization, we would probably be wise to stop arguing for a moment and ask, “What do you mean when you use the ‘C’ word?” There’s some irony for you: the discussion of the legitimacy of contextualization hinges on what we understand to be the meaning of the word contextualization. Hmmm…. :)

    Since much of this discussion focuses on Paul’s ministry in Athens, I’ll point out some helpful resources:

    Several friends recommended an article by Stonehouse (available here). He’s really helped my understanding of the passage, especially by highlighting the similarities between that message and others in the book of Acts. (My article that I mentioned in the initial post will reflect that.)

    Another friend recommended D. A. Carson’s chapter “Athens Revisited” from the book Telling the Truth. It’s helpful. Carson is definitely a proponent of contextualization–of “dissecting the culture,” to use this post’s title–as long as it is understood that the message itself is a nonnegotiable. In “Athens Revisited” he refers to it as “worldview evangelism.” Here are a few pertinent quotes:

    “[T]he evangelist must find ways into the values, heart, thought patterns—in short, the worldview—of those who are being evangelized but must not let that non-Christian worldveiw domesticate the biblical message. The evangelist must find bridges into the other’s frame of reference, or no communication is possible; the evangelist will remain ghettoized. Nevertheless, faithful worldview evangelism under these circumstances will sooner or later find the evangelist trying to modify or destroy some of the alien worldview and to present another entire structure of thought and conduct that is unimaginably more glorious, coherent, consistent, and finally true.” (387)

    “These, then, are his priorities: God-centered cultural analysis, and persistent evangelism of both biblical literates and biblical illiterates.” (391)

    It is interesting, however, that Carson notes the similarities between this address and other sermons and epistles of Paul:

    “[I]f you want to know a little more closely just how [Paul] would have expanded each point [assuming the message in Acts 17 is condensed], it is easier to discover than some people think. For there are many points of comparison between these sermon notes and, for instance, Romans.” (391-392)

    “What Paul expresses, according to Luke’s report of the Areopagus address, is very much in line with Paul’s own theology, not least his theology in the opening chapters of Romans.” (396)

    This quote summarizes Carson’s perspective in the article nicely, I think:

    “For Paul, then, there is some irreducible and nonnegotiable content to the gospel, content that must not be abandoned, no matter how unacceptable it is to some other worldview. It follows that especially when we are trying hard to connect wisely with some worldview other than our own, we must give no less careful attention to the nonnegotiables of the gospel, lest in our efforts to communicate wisely and with relevance, we unwittingly sacrifice what we mean to communicate.” (395-396)

    Again, I think the definition of CZ is what we’re tripping over. If it’s used within those parameters, though, I can see it. I obviously need to do more reading on the subject. Carson’s upcoming book on culture will probably help.

    One more link, this time from a fundy: Sam Horn addresses the issue of taking the gospel to distinct cultures in this article. In it he summarizes much of the Carson chapter I discussed above.

    I still think Horton makes some outstanding points. How’s that for straddling the fence?

  11. I think this point of defining “contextualization” is key, because I’m not sure, for instance, that Carson and, say, Driscoll mean the same thing when they use the term.

    If by contextualization we mean, understand the presuppositions our audience has and what they think when they hear us use certain terms, than I’m all for contextualization.

    However, if we mean what I think guys like Driscoll mean when they say we need to watch the pop movies and listen to the pop music so that we can package the message (albeit unchanged in content) in ways more comfortable to unbelievers, I think it’s invalid.

    Personally, I think that the second definition is what most people mean…

  12. Dale, your comment made a lot of sense. Good stuff. And Jim, I agree that Colson’s take is odd.

  13. Thank you, Chris.

  14. Good points Chris. I think defining it is essential. However, I wonder (with reference to Scott) if Driscoll and Carson really see this that differently. I have not heard Carson or read him on this particular topic, so I don’t know. I would be curious to find out if Carson has interacted with Driscoll’s approach.

    I think that to understand the culture, we must understand the things culture enjoys. Why do certain TV programs grab their attention? Certian musicians? etc? What is it in their worldview that makes that attractive and how does the gospel interact with that? Do we need to immerse ourselves in that? Probably not, especially to the degree that Driscoll appears to. But if you don’t know it, how can you address it?

    Contextualizationalists, by and large I think, would argue that “separating oneself from culture” is like separating yourself from air. It is impossible. Culture is just what we do … what is around us. They would also say that culture is not necessarily sinful. There are sinful parts of culture that cannot be redeemed; there are sinful parts of culture that can be redeemed; and there are neutral parts of culture.

  15. Chris and all, I have read a bit of Michael Horton, including his interesting ineraction with Brian MacLaren in a book I recommend titled The Church in Emerging Culture. Several contributors interact. I think that a couple of comments may have missed Horton’s point about the error of contextualization. He is saying that when it is done so that the church’s modes are acculturated and its forms homogenized with culture with mainly missional (convert-making) objectives, that the effect is harmful. It is so because the Scripture clearly lays out some foundational realities which are essential starting points for doing church, etc. One of those realities is what he calls the “spirit of this age” versus the kingdom and such and another of those realities is the “metanarrative” of redemption – the divinely given stage where God has revealed, in His Word, the truth. These things ought to condition our approach to worship and evangelism and should be the things around which we take the specific aspects of worship and evangelism and design a paradigm of sorts. The changes in this paradigm will be reforms but not complete reinventions based on the demands of culture. Culture is the clothing for the soul of the times, nothing more. Horton is no stranger to “understanding” the culture, or reading up on it, or interacting with it. His knowledge of many subjects and his own habits indicates that he is in full contact with his own age, as well as the stream of history and human thought. He is saying that the “aping” of the age, whether the motive is worthy or not, is a mistaken strategy. The power of the church lies in its gospel and its differentness in the ways that are timeless and Scriptural. Mike Rake

  16. Upon rereading my post above, I should make a change. My last paragraph that “there are sinful parts of culture that can be redeemed” should say “there are parts of culture of that can be redeemed.” In other words, there are ways that certain cultural things are used sinfully, but the cultural thing in and of itself is not sinful.

  17. Mike,

    Interesting. I’d like to read more of Horton’s work. Do you recommend “The Church in Emerging Culture”?

    Your distinction between understanding culture and “aping” it is helpful. Knowing what people are thinking and allowing them to set our agenda are two very different things. It did seem, though, that he critiqued the modern church for giving too much time and effort to even the study of culture. It seems that he criticized more than just imitating culture, at least in this brief treatment of the topic.

  18. Chris,
    I think I’ll have to get the book you have cited to see what Horton says, but I think perhaps – guessing from the book’s title and your comments – that Horton is probably saying that in developing our theology and practice of worship we waste too much time consulting the culture. Perhaps he means this, you can clarify that for me. I know from reading some of his book “A Better Way” and reading other material by him that he sees a clearly laid out paradigm for our worship in Scripture and the patterns of Scripture (remember the radical idea of the sufficiency of Scripture), and I think he also seems to be saying that the main things, in even their basic presentation, in our worship have an aspect of timelessness and perrenial weightiness as Scripturally prescribed and defined actions (prayer, preaching, the Supper and such).

    I certainly do recommend that people read “The Church in Emerging Culture”, since the contributors interact with one another and represent various major perspectives. The contributors have some good give and take, and Horton’s replies to MacLaren are very astute in bringing to light the problems with MacLaren’s epistemology, suspicion of classic orthodoxy, and the implications of his thinking.

    A couple of other thoughts on this would be to take a look at Os Guinness’ book “Prophetic Untimeliness” (Sam Horn said he really liked the book when I heard him at Lansdale). Second, I think that Horton would advocate studying culture much as one lives in the world of his time and is conversant with it, not as a kind of magic key to reaching your generation. I like to say that Paul took the gospel to Mars Hill where he could talk with those there – he did not make the church into Mars Hill by in order to preach the gospel to his culture. I think Paul would consider that approach to be quite literally “backward” and one that lacks a view of the church that sets it apart in distinctive ways from any timebound cultural paradigm – something I think Horton is getting at in his complaint about culture-driven worship and stage management. Regards, Mike Rake

  19. […] on Challenges and Opportunities for Ministry Today November 20, 2008 Chris Anderson over at My Two Cents had the following to say regarding Mike Horton comments about Challenges and Opportunities for […]

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