As the church is faithful to the mission given to her by Jesus Christ she will, out of necessity, “engage culture.” Of course, engaging culture is not our mission, but “making disciples of all nations” is what our Lord has called us to do. Yet, this sacred work cannot be done in a vacuum, outside of the cultural milieu in which people live.
Paul’s experience in Athens (Acts 17:16-34) is helpful as it demonstrates how he approached people and ministry in a particular culture.
The Apostle found himself in Athens, not through the careful planning and execution of a detailed ministry strategy, but in the providence of God as he encountered opposition to his ministry. And, while he was there, Paul was not idle. He was led by God to push forward with the gospel into a unique time and place. Here we see three things that characterized Paul’s ministry as he engaged culture.
1. Paul was provoked by the lostness and idolatry of the people.
He was struck by the deep and pervasive idolatry of the people in Athens. These were men and women who were created to know and reflect the glory of God, but they had rejected the Creator and instead chose to worship created and imaginary gods. Paul engaged the culture not because he loved culture, but because he loved God, people made in God’s image, and because it is a necessary aspect of carrying out the mission of the church.
2. Paul focused on the grand narrative of God that culminates in the work of Jesus.
His response to people and culture in Athens was to do what he always did in every city—proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord. He first went to the Synagogue where the Scripture was available to be read and expounded upon. He didn’t develop a totally new approach to engage the people God had surprisingly sent him to. Rather, he continued to fulfill his calling to preach Christ crucified. As the Athenians heard this message they became curious or incredulous.
3. Paul was able to show the Athenians how their culture and lives were both connected to and yet disconnected from the truth of God.
He could do this because he understood their religion and worldview enough to point out the need for redemption from within their own belief system, as he brought the Good News to them from outside of it.
Cultural engagement is not the thoughtless consumption or uncritical reception of things in culture, but a pressing into the lives of people who live in a particular cultural context with an understanding of their world and how the gospel ultimately answers their brokenness and alienation from God. Cultural engagement is not the goal of ministry, but a necessary component of faithful gospel proclamation. It means we work to know the beliefs, values and idols of the people, determining where, what, and how they worship. It means we work to clearly articulate the supremacy of Jesus over these things. It means we remain focused on the mission Christ gave the church.