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

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. In Every Square Inch, the author 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 and a writer/editor at RightNow Media. He's a board member at The LoveX2 Project, an organization seeking to make the world a better place for moms and babies. Jordan is a graduate 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