6 ways pastors can equip churches to engage cultural issues

May 11, 2016

“We don’t preach politics here.”

This word, from our pastors, is what we want to hear on Sunday. We don’t want our weekly gatherings to be a political party rally. We don’t want our small groups to sound like a panel on Meet the Press. We don’t want every conversation in the church foyer to center on delegate counts, swing districts and multi-colored maps of the U.S.

When we come to church, we want to worship the King of kings, we want to feast on food from the Word of God, and we want join in prayer with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

But, I wonder if we have failed to equip ourselves to engage the world because of our desire to keep church apolitical in order to avoid the kind of patriotic syncretism of a previous generation.

Piety without purpose

Thankfully, there is a discipleship revolution in evangelicalism. It’s what our leaders—pastors, denominational voices, scholars—are emphasizing in books, conferences and curriculum. But still, it seems models of spiritual formation only involve the essential acts of piety—Bible reading, prayer, evangelism, personal integrity and human relationship—with little or no teaching on how to engage cultural issues. Where are the resources to help the follower of Christ understand how to steward his earthly citizenship well?

This might explain why the definition of “evangelical” is undergoing more stress than perhaps any time in the history of the movement. On the one hand, the shift in marriage norms have left many evangelicals flat-footed, either agreeing with but unable to articulate a biblical view of marriage, or capitulating to the culture with hackneyed exegesis of Scripture. On the other hand, the rise of secular nationalism and Darwinian populism has captured the support of some evangelicals flocking to leaders who make hollow promises to restore American greatness.

There are myriad reasons for this confusion. But, perhaps the biggest reason many evangelicals seem unable to do cultural engagement well is a resistance on the part of pastors and church leaders to fully equip their people to live on mission for Christ in this world. Have we failed to give our people the theological tools to think deeply about pressing public issues?

Pastors are called as shepherds, obeying Jesus’ commandment to “teach them all I’ve commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). God’s people can’t rightly love their neighbors, can’t seek human flourishing and can’t pursue justice if they don’t have a biblical framework with which to understand their world. Thabiti Anyabwile says it well: “Preaching ‘something political’ is necessary if we are to live under Christ’s lordship in every area of life. Not doing so means Fox, CNN, MSNBC and other secular news outlets disciple us instead. I fear that’s been the case far too long and to disastrous effect for the church and the country.”

By not “doing politics” many are actually doing politics, offering subtle affirmation, by their silence, to the culture’s reigning orthodoxies. In other words, you can’t escape the culture wars, even if you tried.

Many pastors might read this and chafe at the idea of even approaching issues that might divide. They recoil at the tactics of a previous generation that seemed too closely aligned with a political party. But there is a way to help the church engage cultural issues like marriage, race, immigration, poverty and abortion from a gospel-centered perspective without offering up God and country nationalism.

If we believe Christ is Lord over all, we need to not only teach people to engage the spiritual disciplines like Bible-reading, prayer and evangelism, we need to teach them how to engage the world outside their prayer closets.

When pastors fail to equip their people to think biblically about issues, they cede authority to the high priests of culture: the talk show hosts, cable news hosts and online opinion-makers. People will go somewhere to have their consciences formed. Why isn’t the church their first choice?

By refusing to cover difficult cultural topics, as they come up in the preaching, through teaching forums, small group curriculum and by resourcing through discipleship, church leaders communicate a subtle dualism, that the gospel relates only to Sunday worship and spiritual disciplines and has no effect on Monday’s voting, citizenship and opinion-making.

Our discipleship models, curriculums and systems need to include both orthodoxy and orthopraxy, piety and practice, personal integrity and public engagement. We don’t need pastors to become party apparatchiks and church lobbies to be campaign offices. What we do need is to recover on Sunday, and in other formats, the opportunity for believers to be equipped to steward their citizenship well and engage their world with the gospel. Where else, beside the blood-bought community of faith, would we want God’s people to go to understand how the gospel applies to their world?

After all, the gospel of the kingdom is not some tidy piety, reserved for Hallmark cards and Christian calendars. It is an inherently political statement. When Jesus declared himself to be King, he was saying to his people and to the world that the man in Rome was not the ultimate sovereign of the world, that the powers that be rule at the discretion of God and that his new people are signposts to the kingdom to come.

What does this look like?

So the obvious questions for many pastors is this: What does this look like in the context of a local church? How can a pastor equip his people to address cultural issues with a biblical perspective? Every pastor knows his church best, but here are a few thoughts:

  1. Lay gospel foundations. Your best work is in consistently preaching and teaching the Scriptures from a Christ-centered perspective. Teach faithfully through books of the Bible and give your people a steady diet of preaching over a long period of time.
  2. Don’t skip hard issues. When cultural issues arise from the text (and they will), don’t skip over them because they may offend the sensibilities of your people. Declare what God has said, and let the Spirit work in the hearts of your people.
  3. Make specific, real-world application. Always be thinking of how the truth in the passage will not only confirm what your people already profess to believe, but ways in which the gospel might convict and probe and change thinking that has been formed by cultural trends. I have a more in-depth article here on how to do this well in preaching.
  4. Find creative ways to inform in forums other than Sunday morning. When I pastored, I did a Sunday evening series of talks on key cultural issues. I’ve seen other pastors do this as well. Perhaps you might bring in an expert and engage in some question-and-answer time.
  5. Promote good resources from organizations that have a biblical worldview. Always be suggesting good books, small group resources and other gospel-centered resources that can help more closely align thinking with the Bible. Be careful here, though, to be a good curator and ensure the content is actually gospel-centered. Do this both in one-on-one conversations and other public opportunities.
  6. Stay equipped as a leader. You can’t be an expert on every cultural issue. But you can, by intentional reading and study, be knowledgeable on certain pressing issues. Use trusted resources, attend relevant conferences (like the ERLC National Conference), listen to podcasts and read books to study up. The job of a pastor is to shepherd and a shepherd must be skilled at caring for and feeding his flock.

How churches shepherd their people through cultural conflicts will differ, depending on context and church culture. What is important, however, is that leaders not abandon this important part of their calling. We must love our people enough to intentionally equip them to live on mission for Christ in this world.

Daniel Darling

Daniel Darling is the Director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a columnist for World Magazine and a contributor to USA Today. Dan is a bestselling author of several books including, The Dignity Revolution, A Way With Words, and The Characters of … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24