How should we engage our culture for Christ?
We spend a lot of energy concerned about the condition of our culture, especially about aspects and practices that are contrary to biblical principles and Christian values. But I think we often find ourselves unsure of what to do about these things. We worry, for example, about the prospects of same-sex marriage and unrestricted abortion, but what exactly does one do about these things?
It seems to me that there are at least two broad approaches that are completely appropriate for the concerned Christian. First, one could pursue legal/political change. Here we would aim to elect like-minded officials who represent our views and would (when they don’t lose their nerve) vote according to Christian values. Many of us would rejoice were abortion to be outlawed once and for all, as this is perhaps the greatest injustice of our generation. We can aim to affect legal change, and this is a worthy end that can have great impact on the culture.
I think, at some level or other, all Christians should indeed be actively involved in this legal/political process. Some of us have a call on our lives to be engaged at the highest of levels of our government, and we should support and pray for those with these aspirations. The rest of us should be as involved as we can, where being an informed and activist voter seems to me to be the basic level of commitment.
The shortcoming of the legal/political approach for affecting our culture, however, is that, without a change from within, legal change does not typically have lasting impact. Often times, the law will sooner or later be a thing of the past, and all of that political effort comes to nothing (a good example of this is the laws prohibiting alcohol sales in the 1920s). Jesus calls us to be the salt of the earth (Matt. 5:13). This is, of course, rich in meaning, but it seems that Jesus is calling us to bring “Kingdom-flavor” to the world. Salt is both a preservative and flavoring agent, and I think this gives us a nice picture of what to do about a culture from within.
The place to start is in our homes. By all accounts, we live in a post-Christian culture. We can no longer depend on the community at large to help instill Christian values in our children. The moment they walk out of our homes, they confront a radically secularized world. One of the profound problems we currently face as a church is that the culture and worldview of most Christians is also post-Christian. Sound like an oxymoron? Sadly, it is not. Our homes do not look substantially different from the world. The culture of our homes mirrors the culture at large. What’s the solution? I say we need to, as a church, homeschool. Now, I don’t necessarily mean that all Christians should pull our children out of public and private schools and teach them reading, writing, and arithmetic at home (though some of us should do just this). What I mean is that our homes need to be the sharp contrast from the pressures and dangers that are outside of the home. No matter if our children are in public school or not, we need to provide them a home education where they learn a robust Christian worldview. Moreover, the home needs to be filled with love, fun, and acceptance, which are all, on my view, robustly Christian values.
Secondly, our churches themselves need to bring Kingdom-flavor to the culture. Our churches unfortunately mirror the culture as well. We need to think very carefully how we can be the sharp contrast to the culture inside our churches. It is a problem when our church growth model is, in practice, indistinguishable from Starbucks’ model of growth. Starbucks and MTV put out a pleasurable product, and if all our churches do is mirror those products, then our churches will likely grow. However, it won’t be Kingdom growth.
I want to mention one last area that I take to be crucial for bringing Kingdom-flavor to our culture. We have to be engaged in the marketplace of ideas, both individually and academically. Let’s first talk about academics. Currently the church is largely absent from the academy. There are notable exceptions but, by and large, evangelical scholars have little to no representation in the movers and the shakers of the various academic disciplines (except for philosophy). We have focused our efforts on things like having Christian rock bands and movies that provide an alternative from their secular counterparts. The problem is that these elements largely reflect and popularize the ideas embedded in a culture rather than fashion them. Arguing against the ideas at this level is almost always fruitless (e.g., most popular music has a hedonistic message, and it is almost impossible to show that this is a misguided applied ethic). In Western culture, ideas are fashioned by the academics. Once the ideas have their day in the academy, those ideas left standing are very difficult to defeat because they become absorbed uncritically into the worldview of our culture. This point was made by J. Gresham Machen a century ago.
What is to-day matter of academic speculation begins to-morrow to move armies and pull down empires. In that second stage, it has gone too far to be combated; the time to stop it was when it was still a matter of impassionate debate.
So, we desperately need Kingdom-flavor in the academy.
Second, we individually need to engage with the marketplace of ideas in whatever ways is appropriate to our context. Not everyone can get a doctorate for engaging the ideas of a particular discipline. However, there is much that we can do to become conversant in the ideas that dominate our culture, but this forces us to be engaged, at some level, in intellectual pursuits. This is one reason why our college here at Southwestern Seminary is so vitally important. We look at every major worldview that has showed up in the history of the Western world, and Scripture is brought to bear on the ways in which these views are set up against the knowledge of God. A student comes out well grounded in a biblical worldview along with the critical thinking skills to evaluate any view that comes along.
A cultural worldview is a lot like having an accent. You don’t think about your accent when everyone around has the same accent. In fact, most people do not even think they have an accent until they bump into people who speak differently from them. Likewise, most people don’t even know that they have a worldview. It really takes bumping into other worldviews to be able to evaluate and think carefully about one’s own view of the world. And so, in order to engage our culture with Kingdom-flavor, we must both pursue legal/political change from without and be a contrast to the culture, being able to evaluate cultural aspects that are out of step with Kingdom values.