“Cultural engagement”—as in engaging the culture—is an evangelical catchphrase that demands some attention. Just what does it mean to “engage the culture?” And should we?
There are two reasons why some Christians don’t like this terminology.
Reason #1: The Term Is Meaningless
First, there isn’t one culture in the United States to engage. What’s more, our national ethos is always changing. So when we imagine “culture” as an amorphous, vague atmosphere “out there,” we find it nearly impossible to “engage” such a thing effectively.
Is there a better way? Andy says we need to focus on loving our neighbors—“real people in a real place” as we seek to live faithfully “within our particular cultures” (note the plural!) and trust that God will use our obedience for his redemptive purposes.
Yes (and No) to Crouch’s Caveat
I agree that it’s problematic to use “culture” too broadly. For example, my next book (which easily fits the category of “cultural engagement”) does not use either word: culture or engagement. Instead, I offer several “snapshots” of life this particular moment in North American society.
Still, we may need to push back a little at Andy’s pushback. We can’t really love our neighbors (“real people in real places”) if we don’t care about the cultural influences and artifacts that affect “real people” or distinguish one “real place” from another. We can’t love our neighbor without having some idea of our neighborhood.
One way we learn to love our neighbors effectively is to seek to understand them—what makes them tick, what hopes they harbor, what they think about the world, and what they want the world to be. I’m sure Andy would agree.
So yes, “culture” is problematic as a catchall term that fails to consider the multiplicity of cultures in North America. But the neighborhood still matters if you want to reach your neighbor. The neighborhood provides a commonality, a connection point, something you can assume as you build a relationship.
Call it “understanding your neighborhood” or “serving your community” rather than “engaging your culture” if you prefer. But at the end of the day, you are engaging culture, even if the emphasis is (rightly) more local than national.
Reason #2: The Trajectory Is Dangerous
Other Christians oppose “cultural engagement” because they see it as a slippery slope toward losing Christian distinctiveness. “Engaging the culture” is code for making the gospel relevant or practical or something more acceptable to a lost world, and this tendency leads us astray.
These Christians have a point. You can see mission drift take place in churches that focus heavily on politics—both on the Right and the Left.
At first, the church gets behind a good cause, a way of loving neighbors and serving the neighborhood. But over time, the cause becomes the Cause and slowly crowds out the distinctiveness of Christianity. When the Cause replaces the cross, the church morphs into just another activist organization, with a religious banner. We wind up with culture warriors for conservatism on the right, and errand runners for liberalism on the left.
(Russell Moore’s book Onward has the subtitle “engaging the culture without losing the gospel,” which implies that “losing the gospel” frequently follows “engaging the culture,” if not done carefully. So, even though Moore uses the term “engaging the culture,” he recognizes the danger of churches doing so at the expense of the gospel.)
How to Avoid the Dangerous Trajectory
This objection demands a lengthier response. So let me press pause for now and then I’ll come back to this objection in a later post on how we can avoid these errors while engaging the world around us. Stay tuned.
Read the next article in this series: 3 Ways to Make Sure Culture Engagement Doesn’t Lead to Mission Drift.