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What does it mean for a Christian to “engage culture”

May 16, 2017

Culture is a buzzword today. Within the Christian community, there is a surge of people talking about the need to engage the culture. Many questions must be asked and answered like: what is culture? If we don’t like the culture, why can’t we just ignore it? If we must engage the culture, how do we do so in ways that honor Jesus?

For a significant period of American history the institutions and systems that drive and sustain culture (education, arts, entertainment, government, technology) not only included but aligned their efforts with the Christian Church.

Then things changed, the culture shifted. With the advent of World War I people began to lose faith and for 100 years there has been a growing cultural chasm. Statistically, about a quarter of the population considers themselves unaffiliated with any particular religion, making it the single largest “religious group” in the country today. While Christianity (encompassing Mainline Protestant, Catholic and Evangelical groups) is still the most popular religion in this country, current research reveals that only 17% of practicing Christians are actually operating out of a Christian worldview consistent with the Bible. That means 25% of the population is actively driving culture in a secular direction while 17% of those who identify as Christian are interested in driving culture toward God’s redemptive vision revealed in the Bible.

The rise of the unaffiliated “nones” is having a profound impact on our society. Notably, millennials and younger are more likely to identify as a “none” than previous generations, so we expect their numbers and influence to grow. As our society sheds a “shared Christian morality,” many of us find ourselves living or believing differently than the predominant norms and standards. This has spurred a much-needed conversation about living a public faith. This type of life is not exclusive to what we do in our homes or churches on Sundays but includes work, school, sports, entertainment and everywhere in between.

So first, when we talk about culture, what are we actually talking about?

Culture is simply the social behaviors and norms found at any given time in any given society. Cambridge’s dictionary defines culture as a way of life as shown in our ordinary behavior and habits, attitudes toward each other, and moral and religious beliefs. Put this way, culture is not something we are against. It is something we as humans make.

Consider how everything has its own culture. From corporate culture to popular culture, urban culture to church culture, fast food culture to health food culture- it defines what you are about, what ideas you embrace.  Because we know that ideas have consequences, the ideas we embrace produce the culture we make. So, we are culture makers. Everywhere we go, and everything we do contributes to culture in one way or another.  We are walking culture makers.

We are walking culture makers. What kind of culture are you making? Click To Tweet

This leads us to ask important questions, like what kind of culture are we making (or should we be making)? What is the culture we are praying into being when we pray in the Lord’s prayer, “Thy Kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven”? What are the ideas and attributes of a culture that reflect the redemptive arc of God’s will for human flourishing? What contributes to that Christ-culture and what diminishes it? Are we effectively making that culture in our daily thoughts, words, and deeds; in our own families, churches and communities? And how are we, as the ambassadors of the Kingdom of God in the midst of the kingdoms of this world, to influence the wider culture as living demonstrations of the Gospel, full of grace and truth?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Christian thinkers and authors have divergent views about exactly how we do that. But what is exciting, is that we are having the conversation. While the perspectives, goals, and emphases are diverse, the thread that connects these authors and thinkers is the belief that we need to be living a fully integrated life of faith, in both private and public, regardless of whether the prevailing culture affirms it or not.

I’ve actually written a book about the topic as well, Speak Truth: How to bring God into every conversation, is due out in September by Regnery. My book is one contribution to a robust on-going conversation about how Christians engage the culture right now.

To help you think through this, we’ve rounded up some interviews on this topic with authors who have thought through these questions:

Trevin Wax, author of This is our Time

Trevin encourages Christians that this is actually a great time to lean into the cultural conversations. He diagnoses the prevailing methods of Christian cultural engagement into two camps: lie-detector Christians and complimentary Christians. For the one group, they find everything broken in the culture to criticize. The other group seeks to find all the good in the culture to lift up. Instead, we need to be able to spot the falsehoods in the myths people believe today and confront them in a compassionate way, showing how “the gospel answers the deeper longings of our hearts, without legitimizing them by attaching Christian language.”

Miroslav Volf, author of Public Faith in Action, How to Think Carefully, Engage Wisely, and Vote with Integrity.

As his book title states, Miroslav argues our faith is not only private and for ourselves. “It mandates that we live it out in caring for our common public life.” Because of this, “we need to actively think through how we deliberate about what we ought to do in order to align our responses” to the situations that are facing us today with Jesus Christ. Situations might not bear a one-to-one resemblance to what Jesus gave instruction on in His day, but by using the whole counsel of God’s word and not just our favorite verses, we will be in better alignment with the source of all wisdom.

Rod Dreher, author of  The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.

Dreher approaches the question of cultural engagement somewhat differently. In contrast to some other authors mentioned here, he argues we live in a post-Christian nation and we are not going back. There is no longer a Moral Majority. He particularly points out we cannot hold on to our own people— those younger generations are increasingly rejecting the faith or living out something that is actually moral therapeutic deism. Because of this reality, we must learn how to suffer as Christians, live as a community set apart, and focus on re-developing a true community of faith by investing in the next generation.

Makoto Fujimura, Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for our Common Life

Makoto approaches this conversation uniquely among this group of authors— not as a commentator, but an artist. And so, he urges Christians to rethink how they view culture: “Culture is not a territory to be won or lost but a resource we are called to steward with care. Culture is a garden to be cultivated.” As such, our work is to create goodness and beauty around us as we seek to reflect God’s character to a broken world.

Bruce Ashford, author of Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians and co-author of One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics

In our time with Bruce, we specifically looked at how Christians engage in the political process, which is a part of our cultural life together in this country. In our public engagement in politics, Christian wisdom defies traditional social and political categories such as Democratic and Republican. This means we will end up criticizing both parties, not just the one we voted against in November. This means expanding our view of typical political issues of interest: “instead of applying Jesus’ command of neighbor love exclusively to the unborn, we can demonstrate our love for other persons,” immigrants, refugees, and those who are financially destitute. This also means we must watch how we engage in politics. “As people of grace, when we demean, disrespect, and demonize those with different views, making it seem that they have never done anything good in their entire lives,” we are hurting our witness.

Lauren Green, author Lighthouse Faith: God As A Living Reality In A World Immersed In Fog

Lauren Green is a FOX News correspondent and knows what it is like to live on a literal stage. This daily high-profile life has compelled her to live differently. Christians need to live with God as our living reality, not as a concept or accessory that we mold to fit our lives. She encourages us to enter into the “fog” of a confused world as the light of Jesus Christ. We are called to live in community, but “we are not called to preach to the choir. We are not called to live in the safe zone.” We are called to live the gospel in our community, in our secular work environments. We are the only Bible they are reading.

Russell Moore, author of Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel

As president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Council for the Southern Baptist Convention, Dr. Moore encourages Christians to re-think what it means to bear the Christian witness in public life. America was never really a “Christian nation,” but our public sins just look differently than they might have 50, 60, or 100 years ago. Instead of harkening back to some golden age of American life, we can seek to live out and engage in the issues of today through the lens of the gospel.

Matt Walsh, author of The Unholy Trinity: Blocking the Left’s Assault on Life, Marriage, and Gender

Matt Walsh is a blogger for The Blaze, where he writes about truth, culture, and politics. In his book and other writings, he approaches engagement through the lens of a “culture war” that has been lost. Liberals have successfully redefined life, marriage, and gender. Conservative values have been rejected and now we live in a fully relativistic world where anything goes. The conservative or Christian has been lulled into apathy and must be woken up to “reclaim the culture for truth.”


In a culture of darkness, how am I light pointing others to the True Light, Jesus Christ? Click To Tweet

Here are a list of questions to help you begin evaluating your culture-making and culture-influencing in ways that are distinctively Christian:

In a culture of sensuality, how am I being an ambassador for a culture of modesty?

In a culture of anxiety and fear, how am I cultivating a culture of peace?

In a culture of porn, how am I bearing witness to a culture of purity?

In a culture of negativity and finger-pointing, how is my home a culture of encouragement? How am I contributing to a culture of reconciliation and grace in my local church? How am I a prophet of the positive on social media?

In a culture of information overload, how am I cultivating a culture of utter dependence on the Word of God?

In a culture of multi-tasking, busyness, and accomplishment, how am I demonstrating the Kingdom ethics of being still, listening, honest conversation and genuine hospitality?

In a culture of noise and opinion, how am I the embodiment of a gentle and quiet spirit, giving thanks in all circumstances?

In a culture of self, how am I an agent of community?

In a culture of political, economic and racial division, how am I a minister of reconciliation, proclaiming the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace?

In a culture of darkness, how am I light? And not just a light that seeks to be seen but seeks to point others to the True Light, Jesus Christ?


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