How Can the Church Effectively Influence Culture?

by Gabe Lyons

I believe that the church is the hope of the world and is positioned like no other channel of influence to shape culture. Its people are called to be in the world. As John Stott puts it, “we find ourselves citizens of two kingdoms, the one earthly and the one heavenly. And each citizenship lays upon us duties which we are not at liberty to evade.”1

Although the work of culture creation may take place outside the physical walls of a church building, the local church creates a natural space where social networks of leaders, within all seven channels of culture, can work together towards a common goal. Nowhere else does this potential for synergy exist. Unlike other channels, the church is a living organism where God’s spirit constantly moves and seeks to express Himself through a willing Body.

Sadly, by focusing on just the “spiritual” and the afterlife, the Christian church has strayed away from its potential influence in the here and now, positioning itself instead as just another subculture. Many Christians currently hold unique and influential positions throughout the seven channels of culture, but have never been supported by fellow believers.

Engaging Cultural Leaders

Consider my 34 year-old friend Dan, an amazing leader in the business channel of cultural influence who convenes captains of industry and strategic leaders throughout the free world. He cares deeply about Christian engagement in the place God has called him, but doesn’t feel comfortable labeling himself a Christian due to the negative baggage that comes with it. When we first met four years ago, Dan was desperate for a community of believers that could understand him and his life in the culture. Dan desperately needed a community or church that could support him as he tried to fulfill his calling.

His story is all to common. In the work that I do, I come across cultural leaders that feel disconnected from the local church or worse yet, misunderstood or used. The story for some is that the church tends to only be interested in them if the church organization can benefit in some way. Church leaders fail to recognize the current and potential influence these leaders have within the culture and unknowingly drive them away.

Still, an undeniable opportunity for the church to regain ground still exists. My friend Jon, a top model in the fashion industry, experienced something different in the local church. As he pursued the opportunity to lead a culturally redeeming project to captivate the vanguard of the fashion industry, he found help and support. His pastor spent time with him and probed deeply to find ways the church could actively support these efforts. Whether volunteering to help at local events or assisting in the organizational and administrative details of his project, this church provided the back-up Jon needed to engage where God has placed him.

Jon’s Christian community exemplifies a shift in the church. As one piece of a greater movement, we’re just beginning to see what might happen. As Tim Keller writes, “If we produce thousands of new church-communities that regularly attract and engage secular people, that seek the common good of the whole city especially the poor, and that produce thousands of Christians who write plays, make movies, express creative journalism, begin effective and productive new businesses, use their money for others, and produce cutting-edge scholarship and literature we will see our vision for the city realized and our whole society changed as a result.”24 This vision demands that leaders in the church wrestle with the complexity of embodying the Gospel in culture. As the church rediscovers its unique role in culture, and supports the calling of their cultural influencers, it will be a force for good in our communities, cities and the country.

The Way Forward

The call to the church and to all Christians of our time is to rediscover the cultural mandate, embracing the opportunity to influence culture. In the church, we must teach about calling and cultural influence and provide vital support to cultural leaders. We must become an integral piece of the local culture, convening and encouraging creation of future culture that serves the common good. We must become connoisseurs of good culture, recognizing and celebrating the good, true and beautiful to the glory of God and begin to lead the conversations that will shape future culture.

There’s the big idea. The vision. The challenge. The opportunity. If your mind is racing and your heart is beating like mine was that week not so long ago, there are several steps you can take to realize this vision personally and throughout your church.

Educate yourself on the full story explanation of the gospel and become familiar with how the story (creation, fall, redemption, restoration) shows up in all of life and brings clarity to the Christian’s responsibility in a fallen world. Read Genesis 1 and 2 with this perspective in mind and investigate other writings that delve deeply into the topic. Read books by C.S. Lewis, John Stott, Os Guinness, Chuck Colson, Nancy Pearcey, Michael Metzger or Neil Plantinga for specific insight into the cultural mandate.

Inspire people within your church to discover their callings and pursue them with excellence, while celebrating their successes. Educate those around you about how cultural influence happens. Find the people within your church who hold unique and influential positions throughout the seven channels of culture. Help them cultivate and create culture that serves the common good. Your interest in serving them will go along way in building their confidence in the church’s understanding of their opportunity for influence while reminding them of God’s provision.

Ask yourself, “If your church were removed from the community today, would anyone even notice?”25 As an integral piece of your local culture, integrate a missional approach to the needs of your community. Add value to the culture, support local artists, businesses, and schools and serve the community with volunteers for good events that are redemptive in nature. Be an advocate for goodness and beauty throughout your surroundings so that if you ever left, you’d be sorely missed.

Become known as connoisseurs of good culture, able to recognize and pick it out in a fallen world. Instead of being offended when confronted with darkness, be provoked to get involved.26 Challenge yourself to find something good in all things and identify the redemptive nature of humanity and its place in creating a better world.

Initiate conversations about the values of your community. Host them at your church or in a neutral location and drive the cultural conversation instead of simply responding to it. Raise issues of injustice and offer potential solutions. Be the first to praise the good culture being created in your community and inspire imagination around opportunities that support the common good, elevate beauty and align with truth. Most of all, convene the cultural leaders in your church to encourage and inspire them to renew their channel of influence.

John R.W. Stott, Basic Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1971) 155. Used by permission. Used by permission.

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