"Engaging the Culture"

“Engaging the culture” has become one of the biggest buzz phrases in American Christianity today. The idea of seeking new and better ways to connect with unbelievers so that we can more easily give them the gospel is currently enjoying immense popularity. But what if as a result Christians in America have become more interested in engaging the culture than evangelizing it?

Take Lecrae for example. Christianity’s most famous rapper has recently made waves with his new stand on producing music. Ignoring for our purposes the debate over Christian rap, I think it his new philosophy models much of what is common thinking among Christians today. Lecrae has changed his lyrics from being explicit gospel presentations to a more subtle message of Christianity in his music. As one blog put it:

Rather than preach to his listeners, Lecrae aims to form a common ground. He will not share the gospel in every song, but he’ll address issues which relate to everyone. This allows him to reach a broader audience with the gospel when he feels God give him the green light. Even when Lecrae is writing about non-religious cultural issues, he’s still doing so with a Christian worldview.

Basically, he’s taking the back door approach. Try and address life with a Christian worldview, expose them to how Christians think, and they will be impressed and start looking for more. Whamo! The gospel! And while he may be the most popular example, he’s not the only one to think like this. Ted Dekker, borrowing form the thinking of C.S. Lewis, is another example of this mindset.

In a blog post entitled “Latent Christianity” Dekker quotes Lewis as saying, “what we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent.”

Dekker goes on to state,

[My books] are all about characters thrown into extraordinary circumstances, searching for significant meaning which comes with the discovery of truth. Does this make them “Christian?” Lewis would probably say no. Yet all of my novels are infused with hope. Their worldview is saturated in redemptive history… Meanwhile, you tell me, should I write “one more little book about Christianity?” Or should I do what I’ve always done as recommended by Lewis: Tell stories in “the language of our own age” on other subjects with my “Christianity latent?”

While some of this may be fine, it feels as if more and more this is the Christian philosophy of evangelism. In other words, if we are really going to spread the gospel, we have to make sure we connect with people first. So we should drink and get tattoos because that helps us connect. We should be excited about a Hollywood movie very loosely based on a Bible story that totally distorts God and salvation because it gives us an opportunity to talk about the Bible. We need to make sure that we have spent much time getting to know someone before we feel free to share our faith with them. Because if we don’t first build common ground with people, they will not want to accept our message.

As I’ve said, while I do think there is room for some of this, the unhealthy emphasis on engaging the culture has very little Scriptural precedent. Christ went up to complete strangers and told them to follow Him. Peter stood in front of the very people who had cried for Christ’s death and preached the gospel, and so did Stephen. Paul went into cities and started by preaching in the synagogues until he got kicked out! The idea that there must be a lot of preparatory work getting to know someone before we ever give them gospel finds no room in the New Testament.

But shouldn’t we be doing both? Shouldn’t we engage and evangelize our culture? Why set up one against the other? After all, didn’t Paul find points of commonality with the paganism around him in Acts 17? Yes, he did. He begins the sermon by pointing out that they were worshipping an unknown God, and went on to introduce them to that God. He later quotes the philosophies of pagan poets as evidence in his case for the gospel, which means he admits they got some things right. But then he proceeded to teach the resurrection of the body, an idea that was absolutely ridiculous to Greek thought that believed matter was evil and spirit was good. Paul did find points of commonalty between Christianity and the world around them, and then proceeded to use that common ground to give the gospel in such a blunt and offensive way that most people laughed him off. Paul engaged the culture right before he offended it by evangelizing.

Kept in balance, engaging and evangelizing are both important, but based on the example of the New Testament the balance should be a whole lot of evangelism with a little bit of engagement, not the other way around. The only example we have of anyone in Scripture “engaging the culture” is Acts 17. It should make us nervous when Christians make a big deal about something the Scripture gives so little attention to.

Both should be happening. But my concern is that Christians are spending a lot more time engaging the culture than evangelizing it, because engaging is easy. Befriending unbelievers, showing them how “normal” Christians are, and having nice civil talks where we each discuss our worldview is enjoyable. Explaining to them that they will go to hell if they don’t accept Christ is not. While few would actually admit it, engaging the culture has become an end in and of itself. To use an old illustration, we spend all our time building bridges, but we never cross them.

Some of the attempt to engage the culture seems to be born out of a sincere desire to better proclaim Christ. The thinking goes that if we just tell them that they are sinners they will tune us out. So if we “prepare” them for the gospel by making it more understandable or drawing connections with their experience, that will increase our chances of a conversion. Basically we don’t want to offend people too soon. So we have to prepare them for the ugly truth that they are miserably wicked people who are under the condemnation of a holy God. To be honest, some of it seems to be born out of a desire to not appear like the crazy religious nutjobs who just preach hellfire and brimstone. In this day and age, to tell someone they are a sinner headed to hell if they don’t repent is offensive.

But if we are afraid of offending people and having them reject us and our message, we don’t really understand the gospel. Paul wasn’t afraid to look stupid. Paul wasn’t afraid that he might offend someone and he didn’t think that he needed to develop close relationships with people before giving them the gospel. He preached Christ. He preached the foolishness of the cross. He was ready to look ridiculous. He was ready to be rejected. Are we? Are we really ready to have people laugh at us, get angry at us, or be cold to us?

The other thing we forget when we overemphasize engaging the culture is that the Bible teaches only the Holy Spirit brings the conviction and illumination necessary for salvation. Or, as we were taught in Sunday school, only God can save people. And while we haven’t changed our creeds, our actions just might betray that we don’t really believe that anymore. We think it is up to us and our ingenuity, our understanding of culture and worldview, and ultimately our cleverness to get people saved. The idea that simply telling someone they have sinned and need to be saved by going through the Romans road is almost passé. We have done the very thing that Paul warned us not to do in 1 Corinthians 1-2—we have put our confidence in the wisdom of man rather than the foolishness preaching of Christ crucified.

When I say we need to stop engaging the culture, I don’t mean altogether. I mean we need to stop at some point and just give them the gospel. I’m all for engaging the culture. My problem is that engaging the culture has become the end goal of much of evangelical Christianity to the point where we have backed off the gospel because we’re afraid people will get offended and won’t give us a listen. But according to Paul and Christ, if people aren’t being offended, we aren’t preaching the gospel! Instead of simply giving the exclusive and offensive truth of the gospel to a pluralistic and proper world, we have tried to sneak in the back door by “exposing them to Christian themes,” “seeking to challenge their worldview,” and “developing redemptive relationships.” While none of these things are wrong, if they aren’t accompanied by a verbal, Scriptural proclamation of the gospel, they are woefully incomplete.

The ironic result of all this is that the more we seek to engage the culture the more pagan it becomes (and the more pagan we become). Maybe by trying so hard to meet the world halfway we’ve given up something important. Maybe Satan has found a way to get us to shut up while we pat ourselves on the back because we think we’re just being smart about how better to share our faith. Maybe by trying to make the offensive gospel palatable we’ve become savorless salt. Maybe we should be a lot more concerned about evangelizing this increasingly pagan culture than by trying to connect with it.

Works Cited

Daniels, David. “Lecrae Tells All: Why the Face of Christian Hip Hop Changed His Style.” 1 April 2013. The Wade-O Radio Show. 31 March 2014, http://wadeoradio.com/lecrae-tells-all-why-the-face-of-christian-hip-hop…

Dekker, Ted. “Latent Christianity.” 8 December 2008. TeddDekker.com. 31 March 2014, http://teddekker.com/2008/12/08/latent-christianity/

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There are 9 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Found this thought provoking. I think in the case of Lewis and many others engaged in the arts (though I don't know anything at all about Lecrae), there is a completely different motive for "latent" Christianity. For these, being deeply Christian in the arts is not about a means of gaining a hearing to communicate the gospel but a means of living the Christian life comprehensively--including doing art Christianly. But they want to avoid the superficial idea that doing it Christianly simply means turning it into preaching. To them, there's much more to it than that (see Col. 3:23, and 1 Cor. 10:31). So, like mowing grass or designing buildings or selling products, or "whatsoever ye do," believers should be looking for deeply Christian ways to do art also. It think this is more like what Lewis had in mind.

On the other hand, is it often easier to be deeply Christian instead of overtly Christian and try to be cultural secret agents instead of gospel proclaimers? For sure. It's also really easy for some to be gospel proclaimers but not engage in their other activities in a consciously and thoughtfully Christian way. So to me, the challenge is to avoid "the easy way," whatever your tilt happens to be.

Much appreciate the call here to "both...and" rather than "either...or"

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Joel Shaffer's picture

Basically, he’s taking the back door approach. Try and address life with a Christian worldview, expose them to how Christians think, and they will be impressed and start looking for more.

Having heard Lecrae on several occasions teach workshops on apologetics, evangelism and culture, this is probably a very incomplete view of where he is coming from. He really doesn't care whether non-Christians are "impressed" so he can gain a hearing.   Both the blog you cite and your interpretation of it make him seem much more pragmatic than he really is.        

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Lecrea may not be the best example, but the whole "get them to like/respect us so we can preach to them" paradigm (and then somehow not getting around to the preaching part) has been around a while. I wonder if it's still gaining ground or if folks are starting to outgrow it (or at least move on to something else).

So there are multiple popular errors...

  • pursue cultural influence/activity first and maybe preach gospel later
  • pursue cultural influence/activity for its own sake and ignore the gospel entirely
  • pursue both cultural influence and gospel proclamation but overemphasize the former and neglect the latter
  • use popular culture as a preaching vehicle but lose the message in the medium

Quite a bit could be said about what "engaging the culture" even means. For many it seems to be a fancy term for nothing more than "be cool and do the in thing." For others, it's an effort to live their kingdom theology, so they're trying to transform culture not simply participate. Others yet have no transformative goal really, but aim to do their art in a Christian way as best they understand that... and they don't necessarily see direct stating of Christian claims, or selling to the Christian market, as part of that. Whether they're right about that is a whole diff. (but certainly related) debate.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

jpdsr51's picture

Everyone who lives a 'normal' human life engages the culture, though perhaps less so for seminary students and many pastors who can easily insulate themselves from the normal activities and concerns of everyday life. Everyday life for most people means engaging (sharing life together) people in neighborhoods, engaging them at work, engaging them in school, engaging them in play. The common concerns of everyday life for believer and non-believer are not much different. It is because we share life with real people (engage them) with similar struggles, challenges, and delights that we even have opportunity for a credible witness. The fear of being contaminated by the culture is as great a hindrance to the gospel (perhaps even greater) than the danger of being captured by it.

church - www.gracechurchphilly.com blog - www.thegospelfirst.com twitter - @johnpdavis

Joel Shaffer's picture

I find it quite interesting by the recent push backs from certain fundamentalists and the Johnny Mac stripe of conservative evangelicals against the study/engaging of culture and/or contextualization.  20-25 years ago, I took classes both at a GARBC approved college and seminary on Cultural Anthropology and Cross-Cultural communication.  I read books such as "Christianity confronts culture" which was full of case studies that addressed how missionaries engaged the culture that they were disicipling.   That was part of my missionary preparation.    Hardly anyone objected to learning about the worldviews of different cultures and engaging those worldviews in order to reach those from cultures that are quite different from us.  However, since America has become a post-Christian nation along with millions of immigrants coming to America, and when people such as Tim Keller (and I do have a few disagreements with him as well) have adapted some of the same ideas because the worldview thinking is so much different among certain groups of people, suddenly certain pastors react as if studying culture or contextualizing the message we preach is a waste of time or a slippery slope towards making culture trumping the authority of Scripture. They didn't think it was a waste of time for the missionaries that their churches sent throughout the world.  Why now?  

By the way, you may be underestimating Paul's approach to dealing with culture.  In I Cor. 9:19-23 Paul pays alot of attention to culture in his evangelism to both Jews and Greeks.  Yet at the same time, I am uncomfortable with how these verses becomes a justification for just about anything in culture with evangelism by certain evangelicals.  

 

Ben Hicks's picture

Concerning some of the points that have been made, I want to make a few points of clarification that I think will help sharpen the discussion.

First, about the specific artists that were mentioned. I do recognize the difference between evangelism and a Christian engaging in the arts for the glory of God without having to be preachy about it. But Lewis’s position, as least as presented by Dekker in the quotes he gave, was at the very least apologetic if not evangelistic. While Lewis may not have been wrong, I do think his idea of “latent Christianity” may have been carried further by some than perhaps even he would have been comfortable with. What Lewis intended as an apologetic I have seen in some cases become an entire philosophy of evangelism. The danger is prophetically warned about by Lewis himself, that our Christianity be nothing more than latent.

More importantly I want to clarify exactly what I meant by “engaging the culture.” After writing this post and receiving feedback here as well as elsewhere, I have realized that people interpret the phrase very differently, and if I rewrote the article I would be more careful to nuance exactly what exactly I meant.

By speaking negatively of “engaging the culture” I certainly didn’t mean understanding the specific cultural context in which we are working. Last year I had a block class on missions that dealt with understanding cultural and it was one of my favorite classes. I certainly didn’t mean isolating ourselves from other people and only popping out to preach at them and then returning quickly to our isolated corner of the earth. I firmly believe Christians should be “engaging” with unsaved people around them much like Christ did during His ministry. My primary concern is a section of evangelical/fundamental Christianity that puts an undue emphasis on befriending people before evangelizing them. The idea of cold turkey evangelism of any stripe is viewed as ridiculous if not unspiritual. Sadly I fear that in some cases some of these Christians never get around to evangelizing because they are too busy engaging.

Honestly, much of this came from my own personal growth in the area. I had begun to realize that I felt as if I couldn’t witness to a stranger I had just met because I hadn’t “connected” with him or her. While there must of course be tact and there are certain times when sharing the gospel isn’t the wisest, it can be way too easy to give ourselves a free pass for not sharing the gospel because we don’t know people. However, as I read my Bible, this was not the practice of Paul, the apostles, or Christ. I had found a cloak for my fear that made me feel spiritual, but it wasn’t Scriptural.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Thanks, Ben.

It's evident to me both from the posts here and from general experience that "engaging" is indeed, as the article suggests, a buzzword in the sense that it's popular but many use it without clearly defining what they mean by it. So it's not matter of a right or wrong definition but a matter of clarity about what people are saying when they advocate engaging.

So one sees it simply as sharing life w/people, another sees it as cross cultural studies.

And as I mentioned earlier I've encountered quite a few who seem to mean nothing more than "do what's cool."

What all this means is that when we talk about "engaging," we're going to say different things about the widely differing activities people put that label on.

  • Cross cultural studies, how to effectively communicate... I don't think anybody is against this
  • Just doing what's cool...   for most readers here, the problems there are obvious
  • Sharing life with people... there are still pockets of ministry and education that are kind of spiritually xenophobic, but even most of these are at least theoretically against excessive isolation.
  • Accommodating pop culture as means of reaching people ... good bit of controversy here because of a. the problem of balance w/evangelistic efforts, as Ben wrote about, and b. widely differing views of what's acceptable as a means to an end, what criteria to use, how the arts fit in with meaning, and much more.
  • Transforming the culture...  Quite a lot of controversy here as well for some of the same reasons as above but also because of the eschatological issues (advancing the kingdom?), the role of 2nd greatest commandment (seeking a better culture as love of neighbor), differences regarding how to define "better," and the whole question of the church's relationship to culture and "the world."
  • Living Christianly as creatures who are inherently entwined with a culture... lots of overlap w/the previous two, but more focus on how duty to evangelize harmonizes with duty to glorify God as art-producing image bearers (to what extent are art forms supposed to be gospel proclaiming vehicles?)

So the engagement debate is not really one debate because there is a whole of diversity in what people are talking about, while using the same term.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

jpdsr51's picture

 

  • Sharing life with people... there are still pockets of ministry and education that are kind of spiritually xenophobic, but even most of these are at least theoretically against excessive isolation. [/quote]

Yes, at least theoretically Smile

Whether we are doing evangelism within the context of long-term relationships or we are sharing the gospel with a stranger, we have to identify somehow with them in shared human experience. To some that may look like trying to 'be cool' but it may simply be that you both like beer and tattoos, and football, and motorcycles, and marriage, and vacations, etc. Often those who have a problem with what they perceive as 'cool Christians' or 'being cool' are often the most cumbersome and restricted in their evangelistic attempts, not because they aren't cool, but because they can't see any genuineness in 'coolness' and because they portray an inauthentic picture of the Christian life which does not relate to everyday life with its struggles and delights that humans share.

For the sake of the gospel, it would be good that some Christians would not feel so compelled to share the gospel unless they can do it a Colossians 4:5-6 kind of way: "5 Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. 6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person." This is the calling for the cool and un-cool. 

 

 

church - www.gracechurchphilly.com blog - www.thegospelfirst.com twitter - @johnpdavis

Joel Shaffer's picture

Ben, 

Thanks for your clarification.  As I looked back at my post, I might have lumped you in with the same mindset of some of the articles that I've been reading from another thread, http://sharperiron.org/filings/042814/29693.  My bad.   

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