Cultural Christianity and the Gospel

This morning, I read a blog post penned as a break-up letter to American Cultural Christianity. It resonated with me in a way nothing has in a while. Maybe, in part, because the author left the country in 1999; the late ’90s was a time when I was most deeply immersed in Cultural Christianity.

It was also one of the darkest times of my life.

Those years were filled with anger and depression, with broken relationships and poor life choices. Yet, for almost twenty years, I tried to make myself fit what Cultural Christianity informed me that I should be. Browse my iTunes library, and much of what you’ll find is Christian music. I have boxes of Christian books and Christian movies. My Kindle library is full of Christian books, too. Scattered across several computers and mobile devices, I have gigs upon gigs of sermons downloaded through podcasts. Even audiobooks.

Over the last two decades, I went through ebbs and flows of chasing that elusive ideal; time of unrelenting fervor and times of absolute apathy. I would throw myself at anything I thought was real and recoil in horror whenever I was confronted with a reality that didn’t match expectation

Five years ago, I couldn’t have a conversation about Cultural Christianity. I simply didn’t understand what the term meant. I was doing what I was told God wanted, spending money on things that held promise of making me a better Christian. I thought I was pursuing my walk with God.

It is only now, with more of my life lived than yet to live, that I’m starting to understand what Cultural Christianity is. It is only after pursuing the Bible, studying the teachings of Christ, and being forced under fire to decide what I believe that I’ve been able to begin separating myself from Cultural Christianity. It is only within the last four years that I’ve even begun to understand what the Gospel means.

It’s not that Cultural Christianity is a bad thing. There are untold numbers of souls who have found support and peace and encouragement in Cultural Christianity, which has led them closer to God. But Cultural Christianity cannot replace the Gospel.

Cultural Christianity is something altogether different than the Gospel. So much of what’s written in Christian books, sung in Christian songs, portrayed in Christian movies, and even much of what is preached from Christian pulpits speaks of our culture rather than the Gospel.

There is a difference. It’s a difference few Christians in America are willing to admit.

Rejecting Cultural Christianity — refusing to allow your faith to be defined by a series of other people’s opinions — is as radical today as Jesus rebuking the religious leadership of His time.

Each of us are called to our own relationship with God, to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. For many of us, that journey was nurtured and shaped by Cultural Christianity. Yet, the true test of any faith is not whether it can survive inside a bubble designed exclusively to support it. The true test is whether faith can survive in a hostile world, to be a light in dark places without becoming tarnished by sin of various kinds.

Cultural Christianity tells us that life will be perfect once we accept Jesus; it may not say this in words, but the implication is clearly felt. If life isn’t perfect, there’s a product to help — a book, an album, a conference, a mid-week revival service. All these things hold the promise that something can be fixed, and once it is, we’ll be back on track for that perfection we seek.

Rarely does Cultural Christianity admit that life often sucks and that’s part of the journey.

In many ways, Cultural Christianity encourages us to fake it ’til we make it, to smile when we’re sad, to pretend the pain doesn’t hurt anymore, to sing and dance because that’s what we think we’re supposed to do. Because no one wants to hear our problems. Because we’re supposed to suck it up and move on. Because pain makes people uncomfortable.

Cultural Christianity often convinces us that we know Jesus because we’ve seen so many portrayals of Him, whether we’ve read the gospels and sought to know Him or not. Cultural Christianity often convinces us that we know the Bible because we’ve heard so many people’s interpretations of it, whether we’ve actually read the Bible or not.

Cultural Christianity tells that we’re walking in the life Jesus called us to because the emotions we experience inside the culture feels so real. And when those emotions fade? There’s a new song on iTunes, a new album, a new book, a new sermon series, a new movie, a new class, a new cultural experience.

The Gospel isn’t so easy. The Gospel is about trusting Jesus, about following His teachings. The Gospel is about denying our own self interests, living a life that is truthful even if it’s ugly, of sacrificing earthly things and overcoming our own selfishness through obedience to Christ. Even when it feels bad. Even when it hurts. Even when it costs us.

Especially when it costs us.

In order to impact a culture for Christ, we must first be impacted by Christ. We must know what the Bible says. We must walk in the ways of Christ. We must live out His teachings. We must be surrendered to the Holy Spirit’s power to change us from the inside out. We must be willing to give up everything we know as life in order to follow Christ and be changed by Christ. We must be able to call out lies, to recognize truth — not in the lives of others, but in ourselves. We cannot hold to double standards, we cannot do one thing and say another. We cannot make excuses for the things God condemns. We must be honest and say that we are not perfect, and we must stop pretending to be perfect. We must be real, be willing to live in the light. We must stop being afraid that people will judge us.

We must stop being angry with people who don’t agree with us. The gospels never record Jesus being angry with sinners and pagans, only with the self-righteous religious elite who claimed to know God but didn’t.

The Gospel says we must stop isolating ourselves from to those who don’t look like us, don’t act like us, and don’t think like us. In other words, we have to go test our faith in the real world.

To know God, to walk in His ways and to know the Bible and to know that the Bible means what it says — that is a form of rebellion. It is a rebellion not only against a secular culture, but also against a Cultural Christianity that feels like the very definition of our faith even though it was never meant to be that way.

For me, Cultural Christianity led to selfishness. It led to arrogance. It led to pride. It made me think I was pleasing God even though I was living and acting and thinking in ways contrary to scripture.

Jesus said to the religious leaders of His time in John 5:39: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me…” And in exactly the same way, I studied a culture that I thought would lead me to a better life, if not eternal life. 

I’ve come to realize that the Gospel, the Bible itself, was missing in my Cultural Christianity experience. That’s not meant to indict Cultural Christianity, it’s meant to serve as a warning. The Gospel has been around for 1800 years or more. It will still be around long after the latest book, sermon, or song has been forgotten. It’s value is far greater to the Christian than any cultural experience. It is far better for any Christian to study the Gospel and seek to understand all the teachings of Christ rather than to measure their life and their faith according to the standards of Cultural Christianity.


Also published on Medium.