Missional Church Expert Shares Relationship Between Christ and Culture to Inspire Chinese Churches

The newly-built True Word Church inside Yuankeng Historic Site in Wuhua, Meizhou, Guangdong
The newly-built True Word Church inside Yuankeng Historic Site in Wuhua, Meizhou, Guangdong
By Ruth WangOctober 9th, 2023

Editor's note: Since the 1990s, European and American churches have deeply reflected on the traditional development models of churches. On this basis, missional churches spring up. The trend has gradually spread to Asian countries such as South Korea and Singapore.

In recent years, the trend has caught the attention of theological scholars in China, who are exploring how it can be applied to local situations.

Recently, Dr. Wu Dongri who holds Ph.D. from Yonsei University, South Korea invited Suk Whan Sung, Professor of Presbyterian University and Theoretical Seminary, to share the theoretical and theological basis of missional church models, including specific cases and experiences of different countries and regions, and the potential and application of digital technology in the post-COVID era.  (See episode 2 here)

“Why should we study the internationally arisen model? First, it is suitable for the development of churches in China. Second, it conforms to and withdraws the intrinsic nature of the gospel, which requires us to pursue not only quantity but also quality.”

Professor Sung suggested that in recent decades it has been mainly the trend in Europe and America, but comparing against such a trend, we together need to discover the model of the early churches in the Bible. We should understand the current transformation of western churches while we think about the localization of the model and explore how to apply it to the East.

He first mentioned the theoretical basis of the missional churches by raising the understanding of the relationship between Christ and culture. Richard Niebuhr (1894–1962) was the representative in this field.

The breakthrough point that Niebuhr considered was how to rebuild the United States after World War II with Christian thoughts, Professor Whan added. He made an in-depth study of the problems of American Christianity at that time and reflected on how to live as a Christian at that time. He finally compiled his research results into a book, namely Christ and Culture, published in 1951. The book is one of the most important theological works of the 21st century.

The professor explained that in the book, Niebuhr sorted out five types of relationships between the church and culture: Against, Of, Above, And/Christ and Culture in Paradox, and Transforming.

Among these five relationships, the one that conservative evangelicals hold the most is the first type. However, as a post-World War II theologian, Niebuhr deeply felt that this attitude could not help Christianity exist well in its own situations. Niebuhr believed that the fifth type of relationship, namely the transforming theory, was the most needed in American society at that time. The emphasis was that fish now lived in turbid water, but the water could be made clear.

In fact, Niebuhr’s ideas at that time also drew criticism and caused problems. Among them, the Anabaptists criticized him the most severely. For instance, although the president of the United States must swear by the Bible, candidates need to be Christians to succeed in the election. In order to succeed in the campaign, they will deliberately seek the help of the church. However, it all means that Christianity has become a powerful force in American society. Instead of caring for and serving the weak at the bottom of society, they want to command American society from above.

Therefore, the Anabaptists accused the theory of cultural transformation: "Did you want to change into such a model when you talked about cultural transformation?" They said to Niebuhr, "Did you have the desire to make Christianity the most powerful community at that time?"

As a critic of Niebuhr’s thought, John Howard Yoder, an Anabaptist theologian, thought that what Niebuhr neglected the most was the horror of sin. He emphasized that we should adopt a mindset of both participation in and separation from the world. We shouldn't compromise with the world or allow it to influence us, but we also shouldn't try to change it through violence. Instead, we should uphold the belief in non-violence, like Jesus.

In the 20th century, the theory of cultural paradox and the theory of cultural transformation were opposites. They argued on the premise that Christianity became a vested interest and the center of power at that time. At the same time, the United States was no longer centered on Christianity, which was marginalized,  thus there were two ways to solve it.

The first advocated regaining the former glory, authority, and central position. "If there are obstacles in the way, just break them down. However, many people did not agree with this, and Niebuhr’s theory of cultural transformation caused some violence in the western world. Therefore, people who held the attitude of the first type often accused those who held the fifth type of being superficial Christians who had never changed their lives, just as the Anabaptists criticized that many Christians seemed to pay attention to the renewal of this world, but they did not pay attention to the renewal of their own lives."

In fact, these two issues have covered the sharp arguments within Christianity for more than 2,000 years. More importantly, in the current historical background, as a Christian in China, the learning of missional churches should rest on how to define and develop in the situation of China.

"No matter whether it is the theory of cultural paradox or the theory of cultural transformation, the common point is that the concept and position of the Christian kingdom should be put down. That is to say, the idea that all cultures in the world, such as all movies and music, should be Christian, and the concept that only the Christian kingdom is indispensable, should be put down. So now many western theologians are worried about how the church will develop in the post-Christian kingdom period. In this tendency, missional churches have become a trend. So we have to think about how to influence society in today’s diversified society," he said.

After the decline of Christianity in the West, it has faced many social rejections and oppositions. On the contrary, now European and American churches and China have many common problems to ponder over.

"Looking at the history of world mission, especially the experience of western churches preaching to Asian regions, we can see that if we stop thinking about the gospel through our own social environment and historical background, there will be tremendous tensions if we just imitate the western way."

Churches in China also need to reflect. If they wake up and more Christians think about these issues, then they will not repeat the mistakes of churches in Europe, America, and South Korea.

- Translated by Charlie Li

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