Religious affiliation & culture

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, president of Chicago Theological Seminary, in her discussion of the new findings about how Americans are always changing their religious affiliations, offers some provocative insights that we have posted over the last few days. She is, of course, utterly liberal in her own theology. She considers people changing churches not as a matter of belief or spirituality but as mainly finding “a better cultural fit”:

The shift in religious affiliation, or away from religious affiliation, has the most correlation, in my view, with that range of religious cultural assumptions than with any specific doctrine. And when people move from one affiliation to another, they are choosing a better cultural fit.

I would say that cultural Christianity is, indeed, what the liberal mainline Protestants are pursuing, as are, unfortunately, many culturally-conforming evangelical ones. A person should, however, look for a church that teaches what is TRUE and where CHRIST can be found.

And yet, “cultural fit” is surely a factor, with people raised back in the woods in a little country church becoming Episcopalians when they go to the big city and become rich. Should this be? Is there a legitimate search for “cultural fit” in a church?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • organshoes

    Only in our own hearts and minds. And we know where those hang out.
    Sort of starting out on the wrong foot, no? Which makes for a bad dance.
    It’s as wrong as selecting a church for its size. Or its decor.

  • organshoes

    Only in our own hearts and minds. And we know where those hang out.
    Sort of starting out on the wrong foot, no? Which makes for a bad dance.
    It’s as wrong as selecting a church for its size. Or its decor.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I would say culture (especially class) should never be a factor. Read the book of James.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I would say culture (especially class) should never be a factor. Read the book of James.

  • Rose

    Often local churches hide the policy of the national church. In 1983, Presbyterians declared abortion is understandable if a woman was in “economic covenant” with her post-born children. My local pastor refused to allow our congregation to discuss the resolution.
    How many voters know that Obama’s UCC allows a lesbian couple to share a pulpit (Grand Ledge, Mi., 2007)?
    Theological drift has increased since the feminization of the Church. Another reason we need men pastors–it’s a warrior profession.

  • Rose

    Often local churches hide the policy of the national church. In 1983, Presbyterians declared abortion is understandable if a woman was in “economic covenant” with her post-born children. My local pastor refused to allow our congregation to discuss the resolution.
    How many voters know that Obama’s UCC allows a lesbian couple to share a pulpit (Grand Ledge, Mi., 2007)?
    Theological drift has increased since the feminization of the Church. Another reason we need men pastors–it’s a warrior profession.

  • Booklover

    “Is there a legitimate search for “cultural fit” in a church?”

    Attending church where “Christ crucified for sinners” is preached should be where our search ends. But at the risk of sounding uppity, it is hard for me to worship at a church with particular music styles. So I guess I might look for a different fit in that arena. It is a strong feeling within me that God likes us to use a little intelligence in our singing. Being the God of love that He is, He may accept whatever from whomever. But does that mean I have to take part? :-) And the poor woman in sin broke an entire bottle of nard over Jesus’ feet. Can’t we give more “valuable” stuff in our music worship?

  • Booklover

    “Is there a legitimate search for “cultural fit” in a church?”

    Attending church where “Christ crucified for sinners” is preached should be where our search ends. But at the risk of sounding uppity, it is hard for me to worship at a church with particular music styles. So I guess I might look for a different fit in that arena. It is a strong feeling within me that God likes us to use a little intelligence in our singing. Being the God of love that He is, He may accept whatever from whomever. But does that mean I have to take part? :-) And the poor woman in sin broke an entire bottle of nard over Jesus’ feet. Can’t we give more “valuable” stuff in our music worship?

  • Bror Erickson

    One thing I have always admired about the Roman Catholic church is their ability to be a classless church. By that I do not mean a Church without class, but a church that some how manages to minister to all classes, better than I see most protestant denominations doing. I believe one of their most effective tools in doing this is the liturgical worship style.
    I think some churches are able to do this better in smaller communities also. When I grew up Lutheran in a small town in Minnesota it seemed the worshiping congregation was made up from all segments of the community. That could be though that in a small town the community tends to be more homogeious anyway. But even there it seemed that the some churches drew bigger numbers from different segments of society.
    In the cities congregations and churches seem to find little niches. I do not think that is a good development, but I also wonder how much it has to do with birds of a feather flocking together. maybe the congregation doesn’t really intend to be the uppermiddle class congregation, but it ends up being that by default, and another congregation becomes the homeless shelter church. The problem there is we are all God’s Children together, and it would be a shame if my family didn’t let me sit down to thanksgiving dinner with them, because my brothers and sisters make more money than me. A congregation has to work hard to bridge the cultural gaps though.

  • Bror Erickson

    One thing I have always admired about the Roman Catholic church is their ability to be a classless church. By that I do not mean a Church without class, but a church that some how manages to minister to all classes, better than I see most protestant denominations doing. I believe one of their most effective tools in doing this is the liturgical worship style.
    I think some churches are able to do this better in smaller communities also. When I grew up Lutheran in a small town in Minnesota it seemed the worshiping congregation was made up from all segments of the community. That could be though that in a small town the community tends to be more homogeious anyway. But even there it seemed that the some churches drew bigger numbers from different segments of society.
    In the cities congregations and churches seem to find little niches. I do not think that is a good development, but I also wonder how much it has to do with birds of a feather flocking together. maybe the congregation doesn’t really intend to be the uppermiddle class congregation, but it ends up being that by default, and another congregation becomes the homeless shelter church. The problem there is we are all God’s Children together, and it would be a shame if my family didn’t let me sit down to thanksgiving dinner with them, because my brothers and sisters make more money than me. A congregation has to work hard to bridge the cultural gaps though.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    “Taize Lent.”
    I didn’t know what it meant. I’m a Lutheran pastor. Its on the sign out front of the church up the hill with the really nice copper roof. I just assumed it meant – “Lent for rich people.”
    Now I know that Taize is a fairly interesting view on what a specific form of music can do to help the focus of the worship service. Maybe its actually something to look into and make a part of our worship music? Then I actually find out there’s some of this music is in our new hymnal. Funny. But I won’t forget my original thought: “Taize” = “for rich people.”
    If I jumped to such dismissive conclusions so easily myself, I wonder what cultural impressions which have nothing to do with the message or theology cause people to write off (or embrace) a certain congregation or denomination or concept as a bad (or lovely) cultural fit for them personally.

    Confession: When former Lutherans tell me that they’ve found a new church body that just “fits” them. I really have a hard time listening to them or taking them seriously. Especially if its not a confessional Lutheran church body.
    Someday I’ll be a better listener – and less judgmental.
    Come, Lord Jesus!

  • Bryan Lindemood

    “Taize Lent.”
    I didn’t know what it meant. I’m a Lutheran pastor. Its on the sign out front of the church up the hill with the really nice copper roof. I just assumed it meant – “Lent for rich people.”
    Now I know that Taize is a fairly interesting view on what a specific form of music can do to help the focus of the worship service. Maybe its actually something to look into and make a part of our worship music? Then I actually find out there’s some of this music is in our new hymnal. Funny. But I won’t forget my original thought: “Taize” = “for rich people.”
    If I jumped to such dismissive conclusions so easily myself, I wonder what cultural impressions which have nothing to do with the message or theology cause people to write off (or embrace) a certain congregation or denomination or concept as a bad (or lovely) cultural fit for them personally.

    Confession: When former Lutherans tell me that they’ve found a new church body that just “fits” them. I really have a hard time listening to them or taking them seriously. Especially if its not a confessional Lutheran church body.
    Someday I’ll be a better listener – and less judgmental.
    Come, Lord Jesus!

  • David Ling

    “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at may times and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through who he made the universe.” Hebrews 1:1.

    “Jesus Christ is the same yseterday, today and forever.” Hebrews 13:8

    “Someone asked him, ‘Lord are only a few people going to be saved?’ He said to them, ‘Make every effort to enter throught he narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and not be able to.’” Luke 13: 23-24

    Isn’ trying to find a church with a “better cultural fit” like trying to fit HMS Titantic to the iceburg?

  • David Ling

    “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at may times and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through who he made the universe.” Hebrews 1:1.

    “Jesus Christ is the same yseterday, today and forever.” Hebrews 13:8

    “Someone asked him, ‘Lord are only a few people going to be saved?’ He said to them, ‘Make every effort to enter throught he narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and not be able to.’” Luke 13: 23-24

    Isn’ trying to find a church with a “better cultural fit” like trying to fit HMS Titantic to the iceburg?

  • Don S

    I think that the term “cultural fit” as it would be defined by Thistlethwaite is irrelevant to a discussion among those who take their theology seriously, because she is equating “cultural fit” to theology. She has no real theological beliefs, other than doing social justice, so in her mind it is appropriate for folks to choose a church venue which has similar-minded people, with similar ideas as to how to further social justice. Church, to people such as her, is a social club of sorts, rather than a means of worshiping with others in the Body, and seeking to know God better and commune with Him.

    So there are two different value systems at work here. For us, it’s theology, and for her it’s “cultural fit”.

  • Don S

    I think that the term “cultural fit” as it would be defined by Thistlethwaite is irrelevant to a discussion among those who take their theology seriously, because she is equating “cultural fit” to theology. She has no real theological beliefs, other than doing social justice, so in her mind it is appropriate for folks to choose a church venue which has similar-minded people, with similar ideas as to how to further social justice. Church, to people such as her, is a social club of sorts, rather than a means of worshiping with others in the Body, and seeking to know God better and commune with Him.

    So there are two different value systems at work here. For us, it’s theology, and for her it’s “cultural fit”.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    One one hand, I cringe to see people select a church based on “cultural fit.” On the other, shouldn’t the Gospel impart, to a degree, a specific culture? Shouldn’t it speak to our politics, habits, taboos, and such?

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    One one hand, I cringe to see people select a church based on “cultural fit.” On the other, shouldn’t the Gospel impart, to a degree, a specific culture? Shouldn’t it speak to our politics, habits, taboos, and such?

  • S Bauer

    Bridging the gap between the church’s culture and that of the community that the church lives in is, and should be, a struggle. Whether the culture we are in is today’s culture, or that of the Enlightenment, or that of the Middle Ages, or that of the Early Church, we are always to be “in the world, but not of the world.” Perhaps we today have things better than in the past, when it seems the culture of the church and the culture of the world around the church were more in alignment (Christendom). But how much of that alignment in the past was due to the outside culture pulling the church’s culture into patterns it would have been better not to follow? How much of the church culture that we have received is more a product of the left-hand kingdom’s culture than of the Gospel itself? Is a cathedral a means to the worship of God or a monument to human power? It can be either…or both. God never commanded Israel to have a king…or a temple. Both institutions were the result of the desire of Israel “to be like the other nations.” The Lord “accommodated” Himself to their desire and worked to guide these cultural influences from the outside to His ends, but, as the prophets clearly indicate, the record of both institutions was mostly negative.
        To me the real “culture” of the church is Jesus Christ and His Gospel (and all its articles). The Church itself is the bridge and translator of that culture to the culture of the community it lives in. That means Christians are themselves responsible for knowing both cultures and translating and transmitting the Christian faith in ways that those unfamiliar with the church’s culture will understand. And even if the cultural expressions used inside the church are congruent to those of the culture outside, Christians will have to continue to convey what it means in the kingdom of God to those who hear. To rely on church signs, or particular musical styles*, or buildings to do the translation on their own or to think that God prefers some of these over others, is, to my mind, kind of like saying God prefers the Packers (pace all Green Bay fans).

    *by style I am referring simply to the arrangement of sounds, harmonies, rhythms, and instrumentation and not to the words/content of a song or the structure/content of the liturgy.

  • S Bauer

    Bridging the gap between the church’s culture and that of the community that the church lives in is, and should be, a struggle. Whether the culture we are in is today’s culture, or that of the Enlightenment, or that of the Middle Ages, or that of the Early Church, we are always to be “in the world, but not of the world.” Perhaps we today have things better than in the past, when it seems the culture of the church and the culture of the world around the church were more in alignment (Christendom). But how much of that alignment in the past was due to the outside culture pulling the church’s culture into patterns it would have been better not to follow? How much of the church culture that we have received is more a product of the left-hand kingdom’s culture than of the Gospel itself? Is a cathedral a means to the worship of God or a monument to human power? It can be either…or both. God never commanded Israel to have a king…or a temple. Both institutions were the result of the desire of Israel “to be like the other nations.” The Lord “accommodated” Himself to their desire and worked to guide these cultural influences from the outside to His ends, but, as the prophets clearly indicate, the record of both institutions was mostly negative.
        To me the real “culture” of the church is Jesus Christ and His Gospel (and all its articles). The Church itself is the bridge and translator of that culture to the culture of the community it lives in. That means Christians are themselves responsible for knowing both cultures and translating and transmitting the Christian faith in ways that those unfamiliar with the church’s culture will understand. And even if the cultural expressions used inside the church are congruent to those of the culture outside, Christians will have to continue to convey what it means in the kingdom of God to those who hear. To rely on church signs, or particular musical styles*, or buildings to do the translation on their own or to think that God prefers some of these over others, is, to my mind, kind of like saying God prefers the Packers (pace all Green Bay fans).

    *by style I am referring simply to the arrangement of sounds, harmonies, rhythms, and instrumentation and not to the words/content of a song or the structure/content of the liturgy.

  • LAJ

    Weak music (harmonies, rhythms, sounds) nearly always spawns weak content, which historically has weakened the doctrine of the church body. Read or sing a Paul Gerhardt hymn and compare the rich content to what passes as Christian music in so many churches today. New members properly instructed can learn to appreciate the rich doctrine and comfort found in Lutheran hymns. Culture should not dictate what kind of music is used in the worship service nor which church one choses.

  • LAJ

    Weak music (harmonies, rhythms, sounds) nearly always spawns weak content, which historically has weakened the doctrine of the church body. Read or sing a Paul Gerhardt hymn and compare the rich content to what passes as Christian music in so many churches today. New members properly instructed can learn to appreciate the rich doctrine and comfort found in Lutheran hymns. Culture should not dictate what kind of music is used in the worship service nor which church one choses.


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