In previous posts, I’ve dealt with a few objections to the idea of “engaging the culture.” I made the case that we should understand cultural engagement as an aspect of our fulfilling the Great Commission.
Today, I’d like to lean in a little more on that idea and offer three ways that cultural engagement should intersect with our task as God’s people.
1. To fulfill the Great Commission, we need to understand people and cultures.
Christ commanded us to take the gospel to all peoples. In Revelation, we see people from every tribe, tongue, and nation surround God’s throne. In this context, cultural engagement paves the way for worldwide worship.
For the gospel to penetrate a culture, we must deliver the good news so that people can comprehend its message and experience its power. Just as a missionary studies another language and learns something of the people he or she is called to reach, so also we must seek to understand the people around us in order to find the most effective ways of delivering the gospel.
Every Christian is called to this task.
So why do we expect missionaries to other countries to learn about history, to understand religious worldviews, or to tap into another people’s hopes and dreams, but assume we don’t need that kind of cultural engagement here in North America? Perhaps we are unaware of our captivity to the old mindset of colonization or imperialism, so that we see other cultures as “foreign,” and our own as “normal.” Whatever the reason, this mindset is unacceptable.
If we are to be effective missionaries in this place, we need to know where we are.
If we are to be effective missionaries in this time, we need to know when we are.
What are the commonalities we find among people who share with us this particular time and place? That’s where cultural engagement starts.
2. To fulfill the Great Commission, we need to present the gospel as a “better story” than the false hopes of the world.
As we come to understand the people around us, we learn to ask certain questions of a cultural artifact. Then, as we learn to identify the prevailing worldviews in a society, we look for ways to present the gospel of Jesus in ways that are more likely to resonate.
By illuminating the contrast between the true story of our world and the false hopes and dreams on display in our society’s beliefs and practices, we can equip believers to live as faithful witnesses in a secular age.
To live as faithful witnesses, we need to see the world through a biblical lens—to affirm what is good and right, to reject what is false and wrong, and to show how the gospel tells a better story and answers the deepest longings of people in our time. (That’s the gist of my next book. More details to come!)
3. The Great Commission results in the creation of a new culture—the church.
Too often, we think of cultural engagement as one person doing whatever possible to affect the community—whether it’s through service, through political involvement, through activity for the common good, or through analyzing and understanding the world.
But when cultural engagement intersects with the Great Commission, we see a different picture. It is less about the lone individual “engaging culture” in the abstract, and more about the creation of a new culture that impinges upon other cultures.
The church is more than a delivery mechanism for the gospel message; it’s the display of a gospel ethos. The gospel doesn’t just “engage” culture. It creates a culture by birthing the church.
It’s common for evangelicals to decry the impulse of last century’s fundamentalist Christians who built “subcultures” or “enclaves” or “ghettos” in society. I understand the evangelical critique of fundamentalism and recognize the danger of using the subculture mentality as a way of shirking our missionary duty.
But let’s not overcorrect and miss the reality that the gospel creates a culture of its own. Cultural engagement must be connected to the church because it is only in the community of God’s people where the newly created culture of grace is on full display. We need the church to be an oasis in a graceless world, a place where we live in awe of the holiness of God, a countercultural society whose initiation rite is confessing King Jesus to be in charge.
Over time, as the church not only engages the culture but also becomes a culture of its own, we benefit from the boomerang effect from churches in other parts of the world. We grow in our understanding and appreciation of the gospel as we come into contact with churches that are beautifully diverse, but all united with the fragrance of the gospel of Christ.
Cultural engagement is not a distraction from the Great Commission, but a way of pressing further into it. We submit to the authority of King Jesus, rely on his promised presence, and then go into the world with the good news for all people, everywhere. Cultural engagement, properly understood, aids us in that task.