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How Churches Should Engage Culture

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You are a Christian and you want to engage the culture. How do you do that?

Lesson one is, start with faithfulness amidst the everyday. Forget for a moment the high-profile stories that Christians use to inspire each other. William Wilberforce helped end the slave trade! Dietrich Bonhoeffer stood up to the Nazis! Johann Sebastian Bach wrote “To the glory of God” on all his music!

All that’s wonderful, but, look, you engage culture when you sit in traffic. When your boss asks you to work late. When you calculate a Christmas-gift budget. When your three-year-old pees through her pants sitting on a neighbor’s couch. Those are the cultural circumstances of our lives and where we “engage.” Praise God for the Wilberforces and the Bonhoeffers. But start by being faithful in the small things and the everyday things.

Lesson two: be, then do. Don’t talk to me about family values if your marriage is falling apart. Or racial reconciliation if your church is unreconciled. Or tax policy if you’re not being generous with your fellow believers. Or true beauty if you’re addicted to pornography.

A church’s work of cultural engagement begins with living as a model humanity. Before Christians ever talk about transforming the nation, they need to be a transformed nation. This is one of the main themes of the Bible. God created Adam and Eve to image him. They didn’t. Israel didn’t. Christ did. Now the church, being united to Christ, exists to demonstrate the righteous, just, and loving life God intends for all humanity.

So there you are in traffic, or staying late, or planning your budget, or sitting in your neighbor’s house. What does imaging God in those places look like?

You can’t keep the second lesson without a third: being a God-imager or transformed humanity requires a church. We cannot demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit (peace, patience, gentleness, etc.) all by ourselves on an island. Engaging the culture is teamwork, not an individual sport. The world will know we are his disciples, says Jesus, by our love for one another (John 13:34-35).

So your boss asks you to stay late. Maybe it’s because your pastor’s sermons have trained you to be a hard worker. You now work “as for the Lord” (Col. 3:23), and your boss trusts the quality of your work. Hopefully, however, your pastor’s sermons have also taught you that you’re not justified by your work, so that you’re able to say “no” to your boss when other stewardships require, like a family’s needs. The point is, who you are on Monday to Friday from 9 to 5 depends on the equipping you receive on Sunday, at least if you belong to a Bible-preaching, gospel-centered church.

So the Christmas season makes its department-store-sized demands on your budget. Does your heart fly first to a bigger flat screen television? Or to loving your fellow church members? It depends on the lifestyle and budget priorities your heart has cultivated all year. Are they consumption-directed or church-directed?

So your kid dirties the neighbor’s couch. Is that because you and a fellow church member are doing a Bible study with your neighbor? Is it possible that your neighbor has already enjoyed so much love and sacrifice from you that she can laugh it off?

So you’re stuck in traffic. I confess I have no church-related lesson here. Traffic is a horrible place, and you’re on your own.

Lesson three requires a fourth: take care of your citizenship by checking passports. You’re a citizen of Christ’s kingdom, and you work as an ambassador for that kingdom. That means you want to see the King’s law proclaimed, kept, and rightly represented among your fellow citizens. So do the right people have passports? Churches attend to this business by regularly gathering together and administering the ordinances. Among other things, the ordinances identify us as citizens of Christ’s kingdom (Matt. 16:8; 18:18-20; Matt. 28:19; 1 Cor. 10:17).

Maybe you didn’t realize how much your cultural engagement is tied to baptism and the Lord’s Supper, church membership and discipline. The reputation of Christ on earth depends upon those who identify by his name through church membership and these rites. Churches who are careless about baptism and the Supper, membership and discipline, are like embassies that hand out passports to anyone walking by their building. Pretty soon, that church’s culture will become indistinguishable from the world outside. They will have nothing holy to offer their neighbors, and their witness will vanish.

To whittle this fourth lesson down to its sharpest point, a church that doesn’t practice church discipline will kill its evangelism and engagement generally.

A fifth lesson: seek the good of your neighbors for the sake of love and justice. These biblical ambitions should motivate our politics, our economics, our art, our sport, our business, and everything we do in the world.

Yet sixth and finally, realize that churches cannot “transform” or “redeem” anything, even if talk of “transforming the culture” or “redeeming the city” is popular among Christians today. We can no sooner transform or redeem as we can lift the curse of death from creation. We can only point to the one who does. Jesus may declare every square inch of creation as his, but so does the curse, at least for now.

Practically, then, we should temper our expectations for engagement, even as we work for the purposes of love and justice. Utopianism is folly. Ecclesiastes remains in effect.

To engage the culture is to be a Christian and a church member, living in but not of the world. It involves finding points of commonality with our non-Christian neighbors, particularly where common grace shines like the sun. It also involves cultivating a holy and distinct culture among ourselves. We are to be a chosen race, a holy nation, a royal priesthood, a people belonging to God (1 Peter 2:9). Such engagement is both humane and heaven-directing.

Jonathan Leeman is the Editorial Director of 9Marks, and an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D. C. You can find him on Twitter at @JonathanDLeeman.
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