Before we seek to engage culture, we must come to understand what exactly culture is. The reality is that the term ‘culture’ is actually a very difficult word to define. John Frame, in a series of lectures on the topic of ‘Christ and Culture’, offers the following definition:
[W]e use the term culture to describe anything that human beings work to achieve. So culture is not only what we grow, but also what we make, both with our hands and with our minds. It includes our houses, our barns, our tools, our cities and towns, our arts and crafts. It also includes the systems of ideas that we build up: science, philosophy, economics, politics, theology, history, and the means of teaching them, education: schools, universities, seminaries. Indeed, it includes all our corporate bodies and institutions: families, churches, governments. And culture also includes our customs, our games, sports, entertainment, music, literature, cuisine. (pg. 1-2).
He concludes, therefore, that ‘definitions of culture tend to be fairly comprehensive’ (pg. 2). In fact some scholars believe definitions to be so comprehensive that they are beyond useful. Carol Delaney in her book Investigating Culture argues that the term ‘culture’ should be dropped altogether (pg. 11).
Nevertheless, we need some kind of definition that serves our purposes of understanding culture so as to permit an attempt to appreciate how to engage with culture. Don Carson offers a succinct and useful definition in Christ and Culture Revisited. He suggests that culture, most simply, is ‘the set of values broadly shared by some subset of the human population’ (pg. 1).
Thinking about Engagement
Ed Stetzer, in a 2010 Christianity Today article entitled How should we Engage Culture?, asserts that the church must be ‘a biblically faithful, culturally relevant, counterculture community’. We must admit that this is a difficult task and must be undertaken with great care. Indeed, as Stetzer continues, ‘[a]s I see it, it is both necessary and dangerous to engage culture’.
However, we must be cautious that we do not engage culture as an enemy. John Frame, in the lectures mentioned above, warns us that engaging with culture ‘is not warfare, pure and simple. There is a war, but the war is between Christ and Satan, Christ and unbelief, not Christ and culture’ (pg. 9). Scripture teaches us that culture is something God creates primarily through human beings – and for that reason is not inherently evil. What has become known as the cultural mandate in Scripture is Genesis 1:28:
And God blessed them [Adam and Eve]. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Thus, culture us something that originates with God, and is developed by man’s filling and ruling the earth. It is not anti-christian because it is culture; it is anti-christian because it is tainted by sinful human beings.
The ultimate goal of engaging culture, then, is not to defeat it, or stop it. But rather the ultimate goal of engaging culture is to reach people with the life transforming grace of Jesus proclaimed in the gospel. As summarised by Don Carson at the end of his book:
To a generation that scrambles for the top and then looks around and asks, ‘Is this all there is?’ a biblical vision that focuses on Christ and his cross, on the links between this world and the next, on bold Christian living and faithful witness, and on a large scale vision that makes the world our parish while loving the neighbour next door, raises our eyes above ourselves, and delights in the glory of God. When our churches so taught thrust their members into engagement with the wider world, their members are far less likely to be snookered by the world to which they are to bear witness and in which they are to do good.’ (pg. 228).
Six Steps to Effectively Engaging Culture
With that groundwork laid we are now able to consider six steps to effectively engaging culture.
- Observe: We can very often get caught up in our own Christian circles. It is easy to soon find yourself at church 5 nights a week, spending Saturday nights with Christian friends and any other time is spent working. It is vital that we look beyond the church circle we find ourselves in. We must watch TV; read the local paper; listen to the radio; be involved in local events. We must open our eyes and ears to the world around us to see what consumes their time and energy; what impacts their emotions; to see what the world looks like to them.
- Reflect: However, it is incredibly dangerous to engage culture without discernment. We must think about, consider and reflect on the things we observe. We cannot not ingest all that we observe; there must be grid through which we pass all of the observations we make. That grid must be a Christian worldview. It is beneficial to ask questions such as: Is there truth in these elements of culture? Is sin being celebrated? Why does this particular issue provoke so much emotion? Where do I see illustrations of the gospel?
- Theology: Believe it or not, we are all theologians. But it is not enough to just be a theologian; we must endeavour to be good theologians. How can we acceptably engage with culture if we are weak on our theology? We must be immersed in our Bibles, reading good books, listening intently to good sermons, in discussion and debate with good Christian friends and thus constantly developing our theology.
- Courage: It is important to then have courage to speak into the culture. If we stop at step 3 we have only completed half the job – we may have understood culture but we haven’t engaged it. We must be brave enough to stand up for what we believe; to proclaim the truth of Scripture. However, this is not a megaphone stunt, but a door ajar through which we gently slide our hand. We cannot stand at a distance and yell at the culture, rather we must be close enough for people not only to hear what we say but see what it looks like. Nonetheless, this takes courage.
- Clarity: When we have been courageous enough to engage culture we must then speak into it with clarity. Christianese and Christian jargon must be retired. We are required to speak in a manner that the culture will understand. We must be careful not ramble of a load of Christian words that are ‘necessary’ in proclaiming the gospel. Our tone and vocabulary should not need to change for us to communicate the message of the good news about Jesus Christ.
- Love: This is the coup d’état. We must love those we are engaging with because they are people made in the image of God and Jesus has commanded us to do so. Engaging the culture must be undertaken with a love for the culture and people subsumed in that culture – otherwise it will be unproductive! People can very quickly tell whether your interest in them is genuine or not.
Although pushing 1,300 words this post does not even scratch the surface of the vast conversation that is cultural engagement for the Christian. Subsequently I find it necessary to point you in the direction of some further reading:
For a more popular approach: M. Driscoll, The Radical Reformission, Zondervan 2004
For a more technical, yet still accessible approach: D. A. Carson, Christ & Culture Revisited, Apollos 2008
For free reading see John Frame’s lectures here.