American Cultural Captivity

Kerby Anderson provides an overview of ways in which American Christians are culturally captive: individualism, consumerism, racism, church growth values and globalization.

Cultural Captivity

Probe Ministries has dedicated itself to helping Christians be freed from cultural captivity. Therefore, I want to focus on how we as Americans are often captive to an American form of Christianity and thus are culturally captive.

Download the PodcastBefore we address the issue of cultural captivity, it might be worth mentioning how small American Christianity is compared to the rest of the world. Philip Jenkins reports that “the center of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably southward to Africa, Asia, and Latin America.”{1}

We can put this in perspective by looking at what happened last century. In 1900, about eighty percent of the Christians in the world lived in Europe or North America. Now more than seventy percent live in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

A century ago, if you were to describe a typical Christian in the world, you would probably describe a Christian living in the middle of the United States. Today a typical Christian would be a mother in Zambia or a college student in South Korea.

Christianity has also become diverse. “More people pray and worship in more languages and with more differences in styles of worship in Christianity than any other religion.”{2} Put simply, American Christianity is no longer the norm in the world. Yet we as Americans often make the mistake of assuming that our Western values and assumptions should be the standard for the rest of the world.

Many of my observations come from insights in the book, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity.{3} Soong-Chan Rah provides numerous examples of how the American church is captive to a white, Western view of the world and thus is culturally captive. Obviously, the church has been captive to materialism, but I will focus on some of his other descriptions of captivity, namely, individualism, consumerism, and racism.

It is worth noting that the phrase “captivity of the church” has been used in different contexts with varied meanings throughout church history. Martin Luther, for example, wrote the tract On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church in which he compared the Catholic Church’s teaching on the sacraments to the captivity of the Israelites by the Babylonians.{4} R.C. Sproul has written about how many Christians are captive to the Pelagian view of the basic goodness of humanity instead of holding to the biblical view on original sin.{5} And Nancy Pearcey’s book Total Truth was written as an attempt at “liberating Christianity from its cultural captivity.”{6}

American Christians don’t like to think of themselves as being culturally captive. But the truth is that they have to a significant extent been assimilated into American culture. While they rightly criticize many of the sins and failings of American society, they are more conformed to the culture than they would like to believe.


One example of American cultural captivity that Rah uses in his book is American individualism. He is hardly the first person to talk about this. Many social commentators over the last century have discussed and documented American’s obsession with individualism which has created an individual-focused worldview.

On the positive side, the rugged individualism of Americans is responsible for the willingness to explore, build, and being willing to “go it alone” when circumstances required it. An individual willing to take a bold stand in the midst of theological heresy or cultural captivity is a good thing.

American individualism also has many negative sides. Christians should be aware of the impact of individualism on their theology. Rah says “the church is more likely to reflect the individualism of Western philosophy than the value of community found in Scripture. The individualistic philosophy that has shaped Western society, and consequently shaped the American church, reduces faith to a personal, private and individual faith.”{7}

To put this in perspective, consider that most of the books of the New Testament were written to churches and communities of believers. Only a handful of books (such as Titus and Philemon) were written to individuals. Yet when most Americans read the New Testament, they focus on the individual aspects of the biblical truth rather than consider the larger corporate aspect being presented in Scripture.

Often our Bible study focuses on the individual and personal understanding of God’s Word when so much of it applies to our relationship to the entire body of Christ. Often worship is self-focused and self-absorbed.

Ask a typical Christian about sin, and he or she is likely to describe it in personal terms. Sin certainly is personal, but it can also be corporate. But if you only have a personal, privatized faith, then you are also likely to see sin as merely a personal matter. Rah concludes: “Evangelical theology becomes exclusively an individual-driven theology instead of a community-driven theology.”{8}


Another example of American cultural captivity that Rah gives is consumerism. This is a topic that I have addressed before not only on radio but in my book Making the Most of Your Money in Tough Times.{10} Even secular commentators have noticed that American culture is infected with “affluenza.”{11}

Rah says, “Materialism and consumerism reduce people to a commodity. An individual’s worth in society is based upon what assets they bring and what possessions they own.”{12}

How has consumerism affected the American church? First, it means that we have been willing to include materialistic values into our worldview and lifestyle. Often it is difficult to distinguish Christian values from the materialistic values of American society. Some commentators point out that many of our churches look more like shopping malls than like churches.

Second, consumerism affects our mindset and perspective about spiritual things. A consumer mindset sees the spiritual life as a consumable product only if it benefits the individual. Believers with a consumer mindset usually aren’t living for eternity but for the here and now. Essentially they are so earthly minded, they are no heavenly good.

Third, consumerism affects the way we choose to fellowship with other believers. “American evangelicalism has created the unique phenomenon of church shopping—viewing church as yet another commodity and product to be evaluated and purchased. When a Christian family moves to a new city, how much of the standards by which they choose a church is based upon a shopping list of their personal tastes and wants rather than their commitment to a particular community or their desire to serve a particular neighborhood?”{13}

Finally, consumerism even affects the way we measure success. We should be measuring success by the standards of Scripture. Often, we measure it by the American consumer value system. Consider what many refer to as the ABCs of church growth. These are: attendance, building, and cash. Often the success of a church is measured in the same way a secular business would measure its success. The bottom line is often the number of attendees or the size of the church budget.

Jesus asked in Mark 8:36, “What good is it for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul?” A consumer mentality often chooses short-term solutions instead of eternal values despite the possibility of long-term negative consequences.


Another example of American cultural captivity that Rah gives is racism. Not only was this a chapter in this book, but he actually wrote another book on the subject of racial and ethnic issues.{14}

Let’s begin by stating that the idea of race is actually artificial. As I pointed out in a previous radio program on Race and Racial Issues, both the Bible and modern science reject the idea of what today we call race. For example, the Bible teaches that God has made “from one blood every nation of men” (Acts 17:26). Here Paul is teaching the Athenians that they came from the same source in the creation as everyone else. We are all from one blood. In other words, there are no superior or inferior races. The Bible refers to people groups and nations, but does not label based upon skin color.

Race is also an imprecise scientific term. For example, people of every race can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. It turns out that the so-called differences in the races are not very great. A recent study of human genetic material of different races concluded that the DNA of any two people in the world would differ by just 2/10ths of one percent.{15} And of this variation, only six percent can be linked to racial categories. The remaining ninety-four percent is “within race” variation. That is why “many scientists are now declaring that the concept of race has no basis in the biological sciences, more and more are concurring that race should be seen as a social invention.”{16}

How have racial ideas and prejudice affected the church? It is tempting to say that this was merely a problem in the past and should be no concern for a country moving towards a post-racial society. Soong-Chan Rah disagrees: “We are quick to deal with the symptoms of sin in America, but oftentimes are unwilling to deal with the original sin of America: namely, the kidnapping of Africans to use as slave labor, and usurping of lands belonging to Native Americans and subsequent genocide of indigenous peoples.”{17}

Race is an important issue not only in our past, but our future. Many church growth methods are based upon the idea of racial homogeneity. If it is true that the most segregated place in American culture is an American church at 11 AM on Sunday morning, perhaps we should pay more attention to race and racial issues.

Church Growth and Globalization

We can even see cultural captivity in the way we build our churches and the way we interact with the world. We can see the impact some of these ideas about race and racial issues have on church growth.

The popular church growth movement places a high priority on what is called the “homogeneous unit principle” in order to have substantial numerical growth within a congregation. Homogeneous churches tend to grow faster because church attendees are more comfortable with people with similar racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.

Racially and ethnically segregated churches are the natural result of such teaching. And not only are segregated churches unbiblical, they are impractical. America in the twenty-first century will be more diverse than any previous century. It will no longer be dominated by white, Eurocentric people.

Church growth principles also prioritize “an individualized, personal evangelism and salvation over the understanding of the power of the gospel to transform neighborhoods and communities. They also emphasize a modern, social science approach to ministry, focusing on a pragmatic planning process that leads to measurable success goals.”{18}

Globalization is another challenge in the twenty-first century and can also illustrate how we spread our cultural captivity to the corners of the world. Globalization often means that one nation’s values and mindset predominate. In this case, American Christian values (which often are not biblical) are spread and dominate other cultures.

Thomas Friedman says, “Culturally speaking, globalization is largely, though not entirely, the spread of Americanization—from Big Macs to iMacs to Mickey Mouse—on a global scale.”{19} Globalization not only allows us to spread the influence of Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and McDonalds, but it also is the means by which American cultural captivity is spread to believers around the globe. Once these values are transmitted to the rest of the world, we will have a global Christianity that is just as culturally captive to American values as American Christians have been.

This is our challenge in the twenty-first century. American Christians cannot merely look at Christians in other countries and shake their heads about their captivity to their particular cultural values. We too must be aware of culture captivity in our midst and “see to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception” (Colossians 2:8). We have been assimilated into the American culture and should “not be conformed to this world” but instead should be “transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

1. Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 2.
2. Ibid.
3. Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009).
4. Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church trans. A.T.W. Steinhaeuser, Three Treaties (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1947).
5. R.C. Sproul, “The Pelagian Captivity of the Church,” Modern Reformation, May/June 2001.
6. Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005).
7. Rah, The Next Evangelicalism, 30.
8. Ibid., 40.
9. Ibid., 43.
10. Kerby Anderson, Making the Most of Your Money in Tough Times (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2009).
11. John DeGraaf, David Wann, and Thomas Naylor, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2005).
12. Rah, The Next Evangelicalism, 48.
13. Ibid., 55.
14. Soong-Chan Rah, Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church (Chicago: Moody Press, 2010).
15. J. C. Gutin, “End of the Rainbow,” Discover, November 1994, 71-75.
16. Audrey Smedley, Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview, 3rd ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2007), xi.
17. Rah, The Next Evangelicalism, 69.
18. Ibid., 95.
19. Thomas Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree (NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 199), 8.

© 2011 Probe Ministries

Kerby Anderson is president of Probe Ministries International. He holds masters degrees from Yale University (science) and from Georgetown University (government). He is the author of several books, including Christian Ethics in Plain Language, Genetic Engineering, Origin Science, Signs of Warning, Signs of Hope and Making the Most of Your Money in Tough Times. His new series with Harvest House Publishers includes: A Biblical Point of View on Islam, A Biblical Point of View on Homosexuality, A Biblical Point of View on Intelligent Design and A Biblical Point of View on Spiritual Warfare. He is the host of "Point of View" (USA Radio Network) heard on 360 radio outlets nationwide as well as on the Internet ( and shortwave. He is also a regular guest on "Prime Time America" (Moody Broadcasting Network) and "Fire Away" (American Family Radio). He produces a daily syndicated radio commentary and writes editorials that have appeared in papers such as the Dallas Morning News, the Miami Herald, the San Jose Mercury, and the Houston Post.


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