6 Rules of Cultural Engagement Joe Thorn By Joe Thorn February 20, 2015
Acts 29 A diverse, global family of church-planting churches

What do people mean when they say “cultural engagement?” That phrase is often spurned as if it means thoughtless syncretism between the church and culture. In my reading it rarely means that. It is certainly not what I mean. I am a fan of that three-fold approach to engaging culture: reject what is evil, receive what is good, and redeem what is broken/lost. I think this is a healthy way of thinking about how we should respond to our culture, because our culture(s) is not one thing. It is made up of hundreds of things, bad and good, that demand our attention. I recently spent some time going over this three-fold approach with the folks at Redeemer, but wanted to emphasize that agreeing that we will need to respond by rejecting, receiving, and redeeming actually requires a lot of us. Before I get to that, let me summarize my take on the three responses. Rejecting what is evil means that we object to all forms of injustice, immorality and idolatry. But rejecting things like genocide, abortion, and materialism is not enough. Part of our rejecting things in our culture means pointing to the way things ought to be, and even how the gospel points to such things. Think, the restoration of all things via the established kingdom of God at the return of Jesus Christ. Pointing out what is wrong is not enough. We must also point to God’s plan for righteousness to reign.

Pointing out what is wrong is not enough. We must also point to God’s plan for righteousness to reign.

Receiving what is good seems to be more problematic for many Christians. People often think that we can only find good in something when it is all good. The problem of course is that nothing is all good this side of the resurrection, but many things still reflect the law written on the hearts of sinful man. The imago dei is still visible, and people often create or do things that reflect what is true, beautiful, noble, excellent. Receiving what is good means that there are times when the Christian, or the church, can walk beside the world and affirm the goodness of a communal value or cultural artifact. When our community decides it will take environmental care, the education of our children, or the health of the sick seriously we can say “amen.” But even then we have to show them that such goodness is not socially constructed, but reflects the truth and the plan of God.

Redeeming what is broken/lost is the direct application of the gospel to the culture in which we live. It answers the questions, “What does the gospel say to our broken marriages and homes; our selfishness and materialism, our prejudice and racism? What does the gospel say to the emptiness of personal religion and the bland spirituality held by the masses?” When we begin to answer this question, not in theory, but directly as it relates to our communities, we are seeing God in Christ redeem what is broken and lost. Technically, we do not “redeem” anything, but God does in and through Christ. We see this happen in part now through the ministry of reconciliation, and later in full when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead and create a new heaven and earth.

I like this model a lot, and agreeing that it is best puts most of us in a position to do better than we have in the past in relating to our culture. Yet, it requires much more of us. In fact, if we believe that cultural engagement should essentially look like what we see above, then it requires at least 6 things of us.

6 Rules of Cultural Engagement

1. Be present.

It sounds easy enough, but being present in the world these days is made difficult because of the Christian sub-culture the church has created around itself. Being present means being a part of the community God has sent you to, not just the community he wants you to help create. Do you know the people, the local issues and struggles, the values, practices and interests of your neighbors? There will be no cultural engagement unless you are there, hanging out, interacting with the world outside of the church. Need a place to start? Introduce yourself to your neighbors and invite them over for dinner, read the local paper, participate in local events, let your voice be heard when appropriate, be a regular at local establishments.

2. Practice discernment.

You must be thoughtful in your engaging. Is [fill in the blank] something to reject outright (nothing good in it), something to receive as it points to truth or beauty, or is this an opportunity to point to the redemption we, and all things, have in Jesus? It is not always time to be the culture warrior, nor does Jesus call us to be spiritual pacifists. Sometimes we must fight, sometimes we share things in common, but we are always looking to heal.

3. Develop your theology.

You cannot be a culture engager if you are not a theologian. I am not suggesting that everyone needs to be a resurrected Turretin, Owen or Edwards, nor am I suggesting that God cannot overcome our theological inadequacies. But to speak to the culture of sin, the gospel and the character of God requires that we understand these things. Where to start? Read good books that focus on theology and its application to life and community. Dialog with others about this very task who share a growing passion for both the gathered church and the sent church.

4. Find courage.

Comfort and courage will only come from God who has promised that the we are blessed when persecuted

Engaging the culture in this way demands great personal conviction. Like Jesus and the apostles, preaching the gospel in word and deed will both lead to you being favored as a helper, and hated as a meddler. It just depends on the issue. Everyone who labors in such work will encounter fear. Comfort and courage will only come from God who has promised that the we are blessed when persecuted, and the gates of hell will not prevail against his church.

5. Speak clearly.

To properly engage your culture, whether rejecting what is evil, or receiving what is good, you must speak the language of the culture. For most this should be easier than imagined. You probably understand the language of your community, but you may not speak it – particularly when it comes to explaining the gospel to people. It is not enough to say the murder of the innocent is an abomination, or that all men are dead in sin and need to be regenerated and justified. We must explain ourselves – even better, the gospel – in words they can understand. Many of us need to learn to rely less on talking points and canned presentations that are connecting less and less to the post-Christian culture, and begin developing an earnest, dialogical method of engaging with our words. There’s no easy how-to for this beyond simply doing it, failing, and trying again.

6. Love.

This is perhaps the most important rule of engaging culture, because most of the time you will not only be engaging ideas, but people; people made in God’s image, people who feel, people Christ calls us to love and serve. It is not appropriate to claim we love our neighbors without a real demonstration of that love. Whether we are rejecting, receiving or redeeming love for God and others must be what moves us to speak and act.

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