Engaging the Culture

One tension Christians throughout the ages have wrestled with is how we are to relate to the culture around us. There are groups of well-meaning Christians that arrive at far different conclusions when it comes to this subject. At one extreme, there are people who attempt to live lives that are completely separate and distinct from the world around them. Their posture towards culture is generally defensive and guarded. On the other end of the spectrum, there are believers who look no different than the world around them because they want to be known for “engaging the world.” The tendency in this camp is to blindly consume all that culture has to offer. The challenge for every Christian is to learn how to thoughtfully and prayerfully engage the world without becoming a product of the world.

Raphael's painting of Paul at Mars Hill
Raphael’s painting of Paul at Mars Hill

Acts 17 contains one of the best and most famous examples of how we can approach this subject as Christians living in an increasingly pluralistic society.[1] While alone in Athens, the Apostle Paul becomes a student of the culture he finds himself in and engages the people of Athens in a way they could understand. He engages people in this context by using pieces of their culture to explain the story of the Gospel. In verse 23, he uses a false idol to explain the Gospel. In verse 28, he quotes famous Epicurean poets, the rock stars of their day, to again point to Christ. Paul took things the people of Athens already believed and reframed them in a way to help them understand the truth found in Scripture.

In the same way, I believe we are called to be students of the culture God has placed us in so that we can point people to the Good News of Jesus Christ. The technical word for this is “contextualization.” Alan Roxburgh says, “Contextualization means ‘weaving together,’ and when applied to theology, it is the process of using conversations to interweave the gospel into every aspect of local life.”[2] The interweaving of the gospel into “every aspect of local life” does not mean we are called to awkwardly force the gospel into every conversation; rather, it means the gospel is already present in every aspect of life.

This approach to evangelism is predicated and built upon a fundamental belief, and that is God is already at work in the world around us. We simply need to have eyes to see where God is working and get better at learning how to reveal this work to others. To say it another way, our job is not to “bring truth” to the culture we live in. Truth is already present in the world long before we arrive on the scene. Our job is to reveal the truth that is already present. The sooner more of us can grasp this subtle yet important distinction the better.

[1] See Acts 17:16-34
[2] Alan Roxburgh, Introducing the Missional Church, Pg. 93

2 thoughts on “Engaging the Culture”

  1. I truly believe that the balanced approach to this subject, is to see ourselves as God’s change agents. The apostles of the New Testament were not men who were willing to compromise standards of holy living in order to fit into society. However they were also not legal list who did everything they could to be standoffish from the culture in order to show their godliness. The apostle Paul made an interesting statement when he said i’ve become all things to all people, in order that I might win some. When Paul was preaching at Athens, he seized his opportunity to engage the culture. He told them I saw an altar in your city erected to the unknown God, and it is Him that I would like to present to you. He then went on to preach the gospel, and see lives changed. If Paul were like most Christians today that message would have never been preached, instead he would have said something like this. How dumb can you get and still breathe? You people don’t even know who you are worshiping, so let me tell you about the real God. Do you see the difference between this and what Paul did? Instead of browbeating people he built a bridge to reach them. Other Christians that I know would have stuck their heads in the sand, and kept on walking down the road, because they would be afraid to offend people with the Gospel. Neither approach is as effective as what God used the apostle Paul to do here. As Christians we are around people everyday who are; hurting, confused, broken and looking for real answers in life. So let the church rise up, and give them the real answer to all the problems they face, and his name is Jesus Christ. Let us give them this answer, in the power of the Holy Spirit, with the love of God, and we will see what a difference God can use us to make.

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