Throughout history philosophers, theologians, and deep thinkers have sought to withdraw from society to remove themselves from the negative influence culture can have on a person. Their goal was to think more clearly and not be tainted by outside thoughts and beliefs. Even today, big name musicians such as Nickelback will retreat from society to write music that is not influenced by other music (check out http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/may03/articles/chadkroeger.asp for more info about their process).
In religious lingo this type of lifestyle is called ascetism. This idea focuses on the belief that cultural influences negatively impact a person’s way of life and takes them away from being fully focused on God. To counteract this people who follow this lifestyle deny themselves things in life that cause pleasure such as good tasting food, comfortable clothes, and wealth. Some even go to such extremes as to cause themselves pain through self-mutilation. This was the idea behind becoming priests, monks, or nuns and living in monasteries or convents.
The other side of this is being fully immersed into culture in order to understand it better. Belief systems such as Humanism and Christian Science use this belief system to involve themselves in everything the world has to offer. This unabashed search for pleasure is called hedonism. This being the opposite of ascetism, its belief system centers around being as involved in the world as possible so that a person is a part of culture and can experience it rather than just learn about it.
The Church has had a struggle with this balance for almost as long as it has existed. Jesus was criticized by the Jews of his day for being too involved with the culture of his day and John the Baptist was criticized for being too separate. Jesus spoke about this in Matthew 11 saying,
 For John didn’t spend his time eating and drinking, and you say, ‘He’s possessed by a demon.’  The Son of Man, on the other hand, feasts and drinks, and you say, ‘He’s a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and other sinners!’ But wisdom is shown to be right by its results.” (Matthew 11:18-19 NLT)
What then, is the answer to this problem? Should a follower of Christ stay separated from the culture of their day and live their life like a monk? Or should they be immersed in their culture and be able to truly understand what their fellow man is going through in the joys and struggles of life? As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I advocate a balanced approach to this dilemma as well.
Hear me out here; I know that some of you have a tendency to lean towards one side or the other. You may be thinking that Christians need to be separated from culture so that they are not influenced negatively by it. Others are thinking that you cannot have any big impact on this world if you separate yourself from it. Call me crazy, but both views are right. They both have positive and negative aspects to consider if they are followed.
Balancing the two can be hard to do; you want to watch popular television shows and movies but are afraid of their content and how it will influence your thoughts. You want to wear trendy clothes but don’t want to cause other believers to stumble in their faith. You want to build a savings account to do nice things with your family and retire securely one day but you don’t want to fall in love with money and be consumed with greed. It takes time and spiritual maturity to find that balance.
Paul dealt with this same struggle as he sought to reach both Jew and Gentile (those who are not Jewish) with the Gospel of Christ. He knew that both groups leaned strongly to one side or the other. He also knew that as a follower of Christ, he was no longer tied to the Law of Moses and so he was not bound to follow its rules and regulations. Yet he also did not want to his lifestyle to cause his Jewish audience to be so distracted by how he lived that they could not fully focus on the message of the Gospel.
It is with this in mind that he wrote:
 Even though I am a free man with no master, I have become a slave to all people to bring many to Christ.  When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ. When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law. Even though I am not subject to the law, I did this so I could bring to Christ those who are under the law.  When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ. But I do not ignore the law of God; I obey the law of Christ.
 When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some.  I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23 NLT)
Paul realized that the most important thing in life was not his pleasure but in sharing the Gospel to those who need to hear it. If he needed to embrace a lifestyle that was less comfortable to make that happen then he was willing. Or, if he was working with a Gentile audience he had no issue living their lifestyle (as long as it did not conflict with Godly morals). He had found balance between ascetism and hedonism and it allowed him to be arguably the greatest missionary in the history of the Church.
What does that mean for you and me? For us, it means being willing to be flexible in our lifestyle to reach the most people for Christ. It may mean being cautious of how we dress in order to keep from causing another believer to stumble. It may also mean that we get out of our comfort zone realizing that a life of worship is not about my preference but about God’s presence.
As you live your life today (and every day) ask yourself is what you are doing will be a stumbling block or a stepping stone to sharing the Gospel? If it is a stumbling block, deny your own pleasure and work for the Kingdom of God. If it is a stepping stone then make sure that you pursue it with excellence. Like Paul, may we become all things to all people so we can reach our world.