Gospel and Culture: What Goes and What Stays

An unchanging gospel in a changing world:

Some things change in life. Some things do not change. Knowing which is which is vital. As to the former, people change. Cultures change. Societies change. But as to the latter, God does not change. The Christian gospel does not change. Our fundamental need as human beings does not change.

So how does the Christian know how best to present an unchanging gospel to a changing world? At the risk of oversimplifying things, when it comes to the gospel and our presentation of it, there have been three quite broad options to run with. They are:

-Keep the message and the methods the same – fundamentalist Christians.

-Keep the message but change the methods – evangelical Christians.

-Change the message and the methods – progressive Christians.

Others have made use of this threefold scheme, and all three of these positions need to be teased out more fully to do them justice. But roughly speaking, that is sort of how things have panned out in the West over the past few centuries. And the three Christian camps also need to be discussed a bit further. So let me seek to unpack all of this.

The term “fundamentalistgets a bad rap today, and it is usually used as a term of derision. And it does not help when Christians who can be described as fundamentalists are put in the same category as fundamentalist Islam. The term arose over a century ago when believers chose to affirm the fundamental truths of the gospel, and oppose the liberal theology and social gospel of the day. See this article for more: https://billmuehlenberg.com/1999/07/26/what-is-fundamentalism/

Evangelicals in part sprang out of the fundamentalist camp (but go back before that as well) and they too strongly champion unchanging biblical doctrines that can never be jettisoned nor diluted. Thus the Trinity and the deity of Christ are must-believe core doctrines that of course go back to the early church creeds. See more on them here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/03/19/what-is-evangelicalism/

Progressive Christians tend to be those of the religious left, who not only embrace various political and social agenda items usually championed by the secular left, but tend to have a very weak view of biblical basics as well. In fact, most are quite happy to insist that we must reject or radically redo most basic Christian beliefs. I explain this in more detail here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/01/23/progressive-christianity/

Gospel and method

As to the three main ways to present the gospel, let me look at how the three groups might proceed:

Fundamentalists are quite right to not want to change the core gospel message. But they might be wrong when it comes to how we present the gospel. For example, they might resist such things as newer and more easy to understand Bible translations, perhaps insisting that one can only use the KJV.

Or they might insist that no modern forms of music (electric guitar, drums, etc) can be used in worship services. Or they might say that we cannot use some of the new technologies, such as some aspects of the internet and the like. They seem to think that the older methods are almost as sacrosanct as the gospel itself.

Evangelicals also believe in an unchanging gospel, but they are far more open to using newer methods to better reach people in a changing culture. So moving with newer Bible translations, different ways of doing worship and the like are no problems for them.

Sure, some new methods might be questionable. One can look at the pros and cons for example as the seeker-sensitive services that were all the rage for a while – and still are in some quarters. While those pushing this might have had the best of intentions to help reach out to the lost, some now with the benefit of hindsight are wondering if it might have done more harm than good.

And related to this has been the whole push of the megachurch movement. It too has had its proponents and its critics. And it too has gone through a bit of a rethink, at least in some Christian circles. See this article for example: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2007/10/31/a-major-rethink-on-church-growth/

But the progressives, as I have already noted, are happy not just to change the methods of proclaiming the gospel, but also to change the gospel itself. But then it ends up being no biblical gospel at all. As I said in the article I link to above:

Indeed, biblical Christianity becomes unrecognisable in this new faith. One simply has to look at a few of the many websites devoted to this movement to see that it can no longer be called Christian at all. It is all about rejecting historic Christian creeds and promoting a mushy and content-less religion.


The motto of the Progressive Christian Network of Victoria is “Open Hearts, Open Hands, Open Minds”. Of course the trouble with most open minds is that they need to be closed for repairs. Being open-minded in this context usually means being open to any whacko belief and teaching other than biblical Christianity.


Thus the website of this group proudly proclaims that it is into “Investigating alternatives to traditional religious belief and practice and new ways to understand religious faith”. It is suspicious about, even hostile to, any claims to doctrinal or theological certainty.


Indeed, this is a common theme of such progressives. The Progressive Christian Alliance puts it this way: “Faith is not about concrete answers, religious absolutes, creeds, or dogma.” The Center for Progressive Christianity expresses it this way: “We are opposed to any exclusive dogma that limits the search for truth and free inquiry”.


Of course all this flies in the face of the clear teachings of Scripture. Everywhere in the Bible we find an insistence on holding to sound doctrine and correct teaching. The very thing the progressives detest and want to jettison the biblical writers affirm and champion.


So where does all this leave us? Well, as should be known by now, I am an evangelical Christian. I firmly believe that the gospel cannot and must not be changed. But I am open to seeing some of our methodology changing if it helps make the message more readily heard, understood and embraced.

But as I noted above, there can be disagreement among evangelicals as to which methods might be better and which might be worse. Sometimes you move with trial and error. And sometimes we discover that some methods we thought might be helpful were not after all.

And it should be pointed out that it is not just evangelicals that have to wrestle with some of these matters. All sorts of other Christian groups can as well. Just think of some of the debates and conflicts within the Catholic church over such issues as retaining or letting go of the traditional Latin Mass. Many more examples could be mentioned.

So all believers need to think long and hard about these kinds of issues. At the end of the day, as our culture rapidly changes all around us, we must retain an unchanging message. That is non-negotiable. But we can be open to new methods – at least to SOME new methods. But even here real care and prayer is needed as to the best way to proceed.

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4 Replies to “Gospel and Culture: What Goes and What Stays”

  1. A serious question: Where do you put Catholics in your schema? I mean devout traditional Catholics, not liberal reformist Catholics.

  2. Thanks Marla. Well, as an evangelical Protestant, I make no claims to being an expert on all things Catholic. But I suspect the same sorts of differences can be found there as well to some extent. Indeed, you mentioned two such differences, and those can probably be further subdivided.

  3. Bill, I don’t understand your take on these matters. I identify as Anglican, probably more high church than low. I have never considered whether I fit in a box labelled fundamentalist, evangelical or progressive. You’re probably aware that Sydney Anglicans have departed the fold and joined a different communion, but they’ve always been a bit different. But everybody is entitled to practice the faith as they see best from their own perspective on scripture and tradition and informed by their personal faith journey.

    It just doesn’t seem right for anyone to claim that their own faith practice is the best way, the right way, or the only way. Similarly, it doesn’t seem appropriate to align Christianity with a particular political affiliation.

  4. Thanks Jason. But I of course nowhere spoke about ‘aligning Christianity with a particular political affiliation’ in this article. Nor did I say anywhere that people have to ‘fit’ in one of these groupings. I merely offered them as a broad and general way of looking at how all this can play out at times. What I did say was that for what it is worth, I happen to be an evangelical – which is true. And I said that progressive Christianity has clearly removed itself from historic, orthodox Christian teaching – which is also true.

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