“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.
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/