Trying to define the church’s relation to its culture is kind of like eating soup with a fork. That’s because both culture and church are dynamically related to each other in ever-changing ways that defy our best efforts to classify them. That does not mean we should stop trying, only that we cannot hope to fully succeed. And it’s a good thing too!
I begin with three terms often used to qualify the noun “church” these days: “parallel,” “alternative,” and “counter.” These terms certainly overlap though they are not identical in meaning. I believe they provide us with a continuum of relationships or forms in which church and culture may exist in different circumstances. The phenomenon of the triple point of water may provide a helpful analogy. The triple point is that point of pressure and temperature where water, ice, and vapor coexist in a state of stable equilibrium. Alterations in pressure and temperature, however small, can change all of the substance to either ice, vapor, or liquid (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triple_point).
This analogy captures, I think, the dynamic nature of the church-culture relationship. Rather, the potential for a variety of relations exists at every moment (a hypothetical “state of equilibrium). The specific form embodied depends on the changing circumstances of the relationship. I’ll try and make this more concrete by using the three terms mentioned above.
Parallel-alternative-counter are, as I noted above, overlapping terms (like water-ice-vapor). But they can be nuanced like this. A church in parallel with its culture is one that shares life with it in every way. It stands in solidarity with it and identifies with its hopes and hurts, dreams and doubt, experiences the same ups and downs, joys and despair. In every way from the most mundane to the exalted the church lives parallel to, or right alongside, those where it lives. Though their faith commitments may differ, both church and culture are “in it together” as subjects and objects of cultural life. Or, to say it in terms of my title, the church is “in” the world in the fullest sense of that word.
From within this fundamental solidarity, the church is also and at the same time an alternative community. That is, it is different from the other groups and communities that it lives and shares life with. By constitution and calling it is different from them. The church is to live in and among them as a community that is not “of” them, in the sense that it lives by another life and another wisdom. It does not promote or flaunt its difference, or act superior because of this. The church simply lives out its calling in humility and service to the community trusting God will use their life to witness to the good news of Jesus Christ.
There are times, however, when the church must stand against the grain in which its community and culture are moving. At such times its character as counter-cultural community comes to the fore. In times such as these the church
-which stands shoulder-to-shoulder “in” and “with” the community
-as one that lives from a vision and vitality of life not “of” the community,
-stands against it as one who is yet “for” it even its resistance to its present path.
There is no easy formula for how to work out all this. It will take discernment and prayer to know when and how the church lives “in” the community but not “of” it and yet “for” it even when it stands against its community and culture. This hard work, this gospel work of bearing faithful witness to the world in which we live, this is the missional work of the people of God.