Gospel-Driven Cultural Engagement

Every society has a “culture” or set of shared beliefs, values, and practices which provides a common approach to understanding and dealing with the larger questions of life. “Where do we come from? What do our lives mean? What is most important in life?” The way those questions are answered will give shape to a people’s culture. Tim Keller observes that culture shapes:
· the way we treat the material world,
· the way we relate the individuals to the group and family,
· the way groups and classes relate to one another,
· the way we handle sex, money, and power,
· the way we make decisions and set priorities, and the way we regard death, time, art, government, and physical space.

It seems that there are an endless parade of people and groups seeking to influence culture. Artists, politicians, environmentalists, preachers, and scientists are all trying to conform the culture to their values. When we consider that these cultural influencers are often times seeking contradictory ends, the confusion and chaos that results should not be surprising.

The church has struggled for generations to understand how they should be influencing culture. At various times among various groups of Christians the approaches have included such things as achieving political power, gaining material wealth, monasticism, conservatism, liberalism, involvement in the arts, serving the poor, mass and personal evangelism, slick marketing, mega-churches, home churches, etc. The reason why some of these means have been at cross purposes is because Christians have not been able to agree about how, exactly, Christ intends to impact culture.

It ought to be acknowledged that there has never been a truly “Christian culture.” This-worldly Christian utopianism is just as misguided as communist utopianism. However, Christians ought to be keenly interested in seeing the culture reflect more of God’s love, justice, holiness, grace, and life-giving power. The Bible’s plot line gives us the meta-narrative we need in understanding and seeking Christ-centered cultural transformation:
1) Creation – God created a perfect and harmonious world.
2) Ruin – Through man’s rebellion against God the world has fallen into a state of brokenness. As a result, nothing is as it should be. Injustice, immorality, and death are all results of this brokenness.
3) Redemption – God has purposed to redeem His world and His people through the sacrificial death and victorious resurrection of His beloved Son.
4) New Creation – Eventually God will restore His world and His people to the state of perfection for which they were created.

God’s redemptive purposes are larger than the salvation of individual sinners. The end toward which God is moving is New Creation. In His perfect time God will redeem all that has been lost due to the fall. God will create a new world (heaven) where His glory is man’s highest treasure. It will be a world where peace, justice, and mercy will have the final say over strife, injustice, and hate. The means by which this victory was sealed was the death and resurrection of Jesus. Since God sacrificed his beloved Son for this purpose then Christians who live in the days before the consummation of the new creation should seek to impact the culture with the justice, love, and mercy of God.

How does this happen? How should this happen in our own community?

1. Christians must not isolate themselves. Christians have to go where the people are. This may mean moving to more densely populated areas of the city. It may mean moving to less “churched” areas of the city. Christ impacts culture through Christians. We are Christ’s ambassadors but how will we represent Him if we are not engaged in a meaningful way with those who do not know Him?

Let us ask ourselves four questions:
a) Where do I live? Christians probably need to live in close proximity with other people. This may mean less security and less privacy but it will almost certainly mean more impact. We must see our homes as arenas for gospel ministry.
b) Where do I work? See your vocation as a means for advancing the gospel.
c) Where do I contribute? Are you working for the good of the community? Are you engaged in service, the arts, local ministries, etc?
d) Where do I recreate and relax? Begin to see your health club, golf club, coffee shop, swimming pool, front yard, etc as a place to engage people with the gospel.

2. Christians must be a counter-culture rather than a sub-culture. Christians have become skilled at constructing their own ghettos. We build our own book stores, make our own potpourri pots, produce our own “art,” make our own movies, and separate into our own groups. This is a sub-culture. It is a way of registering our complaints about all the things we oppose. It is a good way to escape from culture but will fail to impact the culture. And while it is important to stand against what is wrong, Christians must be known for more than simply what we oppose.

To be a counter-culture means that we offer to the world an entirely new way to live. Jesus told his disciples that they were a city set upon a hill (Matt. 5:14-17) whose lives would show forth the goodness and glory of God. Tim Keller writes, “We Christians are called to be an alternate city within every earthly city, an alternate human culture within every human culture, to show how sex, money, and power can be used in non-destructive ways; to show how classes and races who cannot get along outside of Christ can get along in Him; and to show how it is possible to produce art that brings hope rather than despair or titillation.”

3. Christians must be committed to the good of their community. When the church is healthiest she is actively working for the good of the surrounding community. Christians do not demand power and influence. They follow the way of their Master who shunned political power in favor of servant-hood.

The historian Rodney Stark has helped to explain why Christianity spread so widely in the urban areas during its first few centuries:
“To cities filled with homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as real hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachment. To cities filled with widows and orphans, Christianity offered a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity…I am not saying the misery of the ancient world caused the advent of Christianity…people had been enduring for centuries without the aid of Christian theology or social structures. I am arguing that once Christianity did appear, its superior capacity for meeting human problems soon became evident and played a major role in its ultimate triumph…for what Christianity offered was not simply a new urban movement, but a new culture.”

4. Christians must see their work as a sacred vocation. One of the great achievements of the Protestant Reformers and the 17th century Puritans was the recovery of the idea that all work is sacred. In other words, all work, whether preaching or washing dishes is sacred if done for the glory of God. The false dichotomy separating “secular” from “sacred” work, which still persists, effectively keeps many Christians from seeing their vocation as an arena in which they can engage the culture with the Gospel.

Christians must approach their work with a commitment to integrity and honesty. They must be willing to work hard as a means to bless their employer/employees and to honor their Creator. Christians need to know how to think "Christianly” about the world around them. This will lead to a better grasp of God’s common grace displayed in the daily and “ordinary” events of life including their work.