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What does it mean for the church to think theologically about our cultural engagement?

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June 28, 2021

Over the last several years, as our society has steadily worsened into deep confusion, I have often found myself disoriented culturally. But a single goal has continually driven me onward: I want to help the church think theologically about the way we engage with culture. 

So, what does it mean to think theologically? What does it mean to engage with culture? Why should we engage, and how do we do that? And, finally, how do these changes occur, or by what means? 

Thinking theologically

Our nation’s heritage is rooted, at the very least, in a theistic conception of the world. The United States was birthed, in part, out of theological convictions. And because theological language is written on our founding documents, sung in our national hymns, and rehearsed in our national creeds, we have been formed to think in a certain way over time. By and large, this is to be preferred. Theism is not wrong. But, for Christians, we must remember that theism and Christianity are not synonymous terms. Theism is not enough. 

In some ways, we can’t escape the prospect of thinking theologically. The reality is we either do it well or poorly. And so long as our theology is formed primarily by generic theism, for instance, or by following the theological drift of society toward the relativism that marks our day, we are doing it poorly. So, how are we to become better at thinking theologically?

For some, theology may be an intimidating word. But theology, at its most basic, simply means thoughts and words about God. We all have them, from the most insolent atheist to the politest universalist. We are all theologians, and we all form theological thoughts from a variety of sources. But, for the Christian, we understand that we cannot develop right thoughts about God apart from God’s words about himself in Scripture. Thus, the first step to rightly thinking theologically is soaking ourselves in the narrative of Scripture over and over again. Our conception of reality must be informed by God’s revelation of himself and the world he has made. 

If we’re not careful, we can synonymize the generic theism in our founding dialect with the Christian message. To think theologically, then, means to think not merely theistically, but Christianly. It means to have our minds so saturated with the Word of God that, as Herman Bavinck argued, we “think God’s thoughts after Him.” 

Engaging the culture

J.T. English, in his excellent book, Deep Discipleship, contends that theology is the most practical thing in the world. Right thinking, though critical, is not the end goal. Like the Apostle James implies in the New Testament, our theology should compel us toward action — toward greater engagement with the culture around us.

But to do so effectively, we need to answer a few questions. First of all, what is “the culture?” What does it mean to engage the culture? Why should we engage the culture? And how do we do it? The methods of cultural engagement for the Christian are lengthy, so my intent is not to enumerate the various ways in which this happens among Christians. Instead,  I want to define loosely what culture and cultural engagement are, and then argue for why and how we should engage.

What is “the culture?” There are a lot of good definitions for culture in circulation. Andy Crouch, in his book Culture Making, says simply that “culture is what we make of the world.” This and other definitions all include the objects and artifacts, systems and structures, and customs and norms that make up the whole of any given culture. 

But also included in each definition is the “we” that Crouch alludes to above, the people that exist within the culture. When I mention culture and cultural engagement, I am thinking most fundamentally about the people who make up the culture. 

What is cultural engagement? Traditionally, there are three ways that Christians tend to view the idea of cultural engagement. Bruce Riley Ashford, in his book Every Square Inch, outlines these views and labels them as “Christianity against Culture,” “Christianity of Culture,” and “Christianity in and for Culture.” Whereas “Christianity against Culture” essentially runs away from the culture and “Christianity of Culture” becomes indistinguishable from it, “Christianity in and for Culture” seeks to take the gospel message right into the belly of its cultural surroundings and transform the culture. This is the view I’m advocating for.

At its most basic, Christian cultural engagement is the willingness to embrace the ethic of the gospel of the kingdom and winsomely parade it around the public square for all to see. We aren’t to “hide it under a bushel,” cut off from view of the surrounding culture. Nor are we to present it as some sort of malleable artifact that bends and shapes, such that it eventually mirrors the surrounding culture. The gospel and the community it forms need not be cordoned off from culture; it will not be rendered unclean by interacting with its neighbor and his interests. Likewise, the gospel and the community it forms are in no way threatened by the culture. 

For the church, then, cultural engagement is nothing less than confidence in the gospel of Jesus. It is the assurance that when we take the gospel, in word and deed, into our neighborhoods and the cultural centers and social platforms of our day, it is not the gospel that changes, but those who encounter it. Cultural engagement is what happens when the church makes the way of Jesus plain before those walking along the wide path to destruction. If culture is primarily about people, then Christian cultural engagement is primarily about introducing those people to “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

Why should we engage? One of the exercises that my pastor walks church members through on an annual basis is to educate us on what he calls “false stories,” encouraging us to take inventory of what errant narratives we may inadvertently be buying into. Narratives like Consumerism and Hedonism and Romanticism all have their own version of “the good life” and, if we’re not careful, persuade us to believe falsehoods that distract us from the narrow path to Jesus. Why should we engage with the culture? Because it is one giant marketplace of predominantly false stories, all of which lead men and women away from the only place where life is found: in Christ alone. 

If we neglect to engage with the culture around us, we will have ceded critical territory to the enemy. And our culture, rather than being transformed by the gospel of Jesus, will swiften its wayward drift while being fully convinced that its folly is the way to “the good life.” How will the people who follow the narratives that our culture preaches ever encounter the gospel unless we enter their domain and show them the way? 

How should we engage? In terms of method, Christian cultural engagement can look like a million different things, as I’ve mentioned. From preparing meals for a sick neighbor to engaging in online dialogue to taking part in disaster relief, these — and a long list of other things — are all viable ways for us to speak and embody the gospel to a culture that does not know Christ. But there are two considerations that I’d like to especially emphasize in this argument: posture and proximity.

When we talk about cultural engagement, we may often assume that it is some grand endeavor to win the nation to the gospel. And, by all means, let’s work for that! But before the nation can be won, and in order for the nation to be won, our neighbors must first be won. You will not win the nation to Christ with a well-timed, pithy tweet. You may, however, win your neighbor to Christ when you invite her into your home and share a meal with her. In other words, no matter how wide your reach, Christian cultural engagement must begin locally, in the home, in the neighborhood, and in the community where you live.  

Equally important is the posture with which we engage. Russell Moore, in his book Onward, coined the term “convictional kindness,” a sort of kindness, he says, that “is not weak or passive” but “an act of warfare.” In a culture that is increasingly angry and outraged about nearly everything, kindness may just be the inroad to cultural transformation, one word, one act, and one person at a time. So, how should we engage? Kindly. Patiently. Locally.

Words as a means to transformation

The gospel is a declaration of good news that requires words, whether spoken or written. It cannot be less than that. Though the gospel may be embodied, enacted, practiced, or whatever active verb we may attach to it, it requires articulation. And, lest we forget, we too are members of the culture we’re engaging and are in continual need of formation until we’re finally conformed fully into the image of Jesus. Thus, cultural engagement is as instrumental to the Christian’s formation as it is to those we are inviting into life with Jesus. And central to the entire process is the use of words.

As Christians, we know that God’s Word is “living and active,” and that transformation is dependent on the Spirit of God and the Word of God doing its work. Our Bible is not just God-breathed, after all. It is God-breathing. In other words, when we encounter the Word of God, we encounter God speaking now. And since we know that God’s speaking is God’s doing, when we bring his Word to bear on the culture and its inhabitants, we can be confident that transformation will follow. 

So, Christian, engage with your surrounding culture confidently. Do it with deeds, yes. But don’t neglect to use words; compassionate words spoken over a meal, pleading words penned in a letter, winsome words tweeted or posted online. Let your theology compel you not only to “think God’s thoughts after Him,” but to speak God’s words after him. And just watch as your family and your neighbors and your community are transformed by the piercing, life-giving Word of God. 

Jordan Wootten

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master of Arts in Theological Studies. Jordan is married to Juliana, and they have three children. Read More by this Author