July 18, 2013

What do evangelicals mean by “cultural engagement?”

CulturalEngagement I Googled “cultural engagement” and this was the first image that popped up. I have no idea what it means. In fact, I’m not sure what evangelical means by “cultural engagement.” They use that term a lot but I’m not really sure what they mean by it. What does “engage” mean and what is “culture,” etc. What does it mean to “engage” culture? What will be done to the culture and how do we know if Christians are engaging it or not?

Please add your perspective below!!


20 response to “What do evangelicals mean by “cultural engagement?””

  1. I think what most “evangelicals” think they mean is similar to what a Kuyperian would say only without the renewal of the societal structures. A lot would say cultural engagement means listening to “secular” music, watching “secular” movies/TV, reading “secular” books. However, they are still stuck in 2 kingdom thinking without the renewal of the structures (music, movies/TV, books, etc.). Some would say their engagement is to reach the “culture” for Christ but leave the “secular” societal structures in tact.

  2. That’s a great question. when I think of Cultural engagement, I think of forms like “Plugged in”, which is understanding the content of the culture in it’s negative/postive context, but also of things like “gospel according to Peanuts”, where the author attempts to theologize/engage with a story in order to explore theological ideas.

  3. I think that when evangelicals talk about “engaging culture,” they generally mean participating in cultural artifacts. All that means is that they start calling movies “films” and drink craft beer. It also means that they go to a church where the pastor quotes Sufjan Stevens lyrics and illustrates from Terrence Malick movies. In other words, I think the dominant form of evangelical cultural engagement is really the Hipster Christianity that has been (deservedly) panned. In this model, “engage” means “consume” and “culture” means “cultural artifacts.”

    Jamie Smith had an interesting article the other day that captures the dynamic well. Here’s a quote, “We become encased and enclosed in our own affirmations of the “goodness of creation,” which, instead of being the theater of God’s glory, ends up being the echo chamber of our own interests.” I think that sums it up pretty well.

  4. I thought the term just meant the opposite of withdrawal into our own little cultural enclave and of not being very aware of what’s going on in the rest of the world. So cultural engagement would look like listening to music, watching movies, reading books that my neighbors and colleagues are listening to, watching and reading and interacting with them about those “cultural artifacts.” I don’t think it’s a measurable activity, nor should it be. Going a step further in “cultural engagement” would be creating my own “cultural artifacts”–a blog post, a story, a song, a quilt–in response and interaction with the cultural stuff that has “engaged” me. Am I misunderstanding the whole concept? Why would cultural engagement have to be a hipster, artificial thing–if I’m not a hipster, artificial kind of person?

  5. Hi, Sherry,
    I didn’t mean that “cultural engagement” was only an artificial, hipster thing. I actually think that cultural engagement, properly understood, is a good thing. I do think, though, that the evangelicals who talk the most about cultural engagement tend towards hipster Christianity. And I don’t think that model is particularly helpful, but it is pretty widespread.

  6. Arnolg Kling has a new Kindle Single talking about three axes of thinking through which people understand the world. For conservatives the axis is about social order or chaos. I think its a good followup to Sowel.
    Culture is so slippery I’m surprised conservatives fall into using it. My wife says”culture is the sin you are used to.” Perhaps too harsh. I’ve asked conservstives about this and never gotten a satisfactory answer.
    I think some might mean “whatever it was that Francis Schaeffer was taking about.” But they can’t put it in their own words indicating the utter failure of apologetics over the last two decades.

  7. I have no idea what they mean by that term but if I was to define it, I would define it as the Apostle Paul said in 1 Cor 9:19-23, “Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!” (The Message Bible).

    The King James says, “For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; to them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.”

    This is how I would define cultural engagement. To go where Jesus would go and do what Jesus would do, not lowering my standards to reach (engage) people, but bring them to a higher level of thinking (understanding) in the Kingdom of God. The word we use is called “repent.” But a more modern way to say it is “change what you believe and think about God, sin, the Kingdom, Christ, life, the world, etc.” It’s being IN the world but DEFINITELY not of it; uncompromising at all. Loving the people and still speaking the truth while challenge them to a higher calling in Christ Jesus as they count the cost between their wretched life to suffer while reaching forth for Christ’s offer of the abundant life here and now and forever in eternity!

  8. Joe, congrats on having “the top google hit” so what does “cultural engagement” mean? It’d be better to explain in thread here instead of the link.

  9. Dr. Bradley, sorry for just posting a link, but I didn’t want to copy and paste a bunch of text. I find that just as objectionable.

    In short, “engaging culture” is simply responding to the culture in its various forms and to its various artifacts. This can be done poorly, or well. I argue, with others, that doing it well requires the church/Christian to “reject what is evil, receive what is good, and redeem what is broken/lost.” I unpack that and then offer some guidance. (See the link above)

  10. As i understand the phrase, to “engage” is shorthand for “finding ways to start meaningful conversations.” In the present case, then, it would mean starting such conversations with nonbelievers about what our values, beliefs and structures need to become in order for our society to be both just and humane, uplifting and affirming. In that sense, engaging is both a legitimate end in itself, as well as a means to another end of introducing the gospel as a [the?] essential component/vehicle for achieving those aims. In other words, “engaging” is a way to introduce the redemptive power of the gospel, both in an individual’s life for their spiritual transformation, and in the culture as a conceptual frame-of-reference for every cultural activity. And to Nathanael’s point, I offer this definition of culture: It is “the artificial, secondary environment which man imposes on the natural world.” Reg McClelland offered this definition and attributed it to H. Richard Niebuhr. So, your wife is correct in a very real sense, since what we impose is broken and fallen from the outset. It is the sin we are used to. However, the gospel – the proclamation that Jesus is the Son Of God and the world’s Saviour – is the antidote to our fallen condition, and can be applied to that fallen “artificial, secondary environment which we impose on nature” in ways that can result in cultural as well as personal transformation. And yes, I’m Kuyperian.

  11. I suspect it comes from the fundamentalist/evangelical split in the 1950’s where the evangelicals criticized the fundies for being to isolated in their own institutions and argued for more involvement in the world around them. As far as the diagram, I haven’t the foggiest idea what that’s saying.

  12. I would just echo what Todd Gwennap said, particularly the James Smith quote. People who do legitimately engage culture would hardly call it such. When spoken aloud, it usually means consumption of culture or perhaps a desire to emulate culture makers. At a deeper level, I have this thought: Faith in Christ is a gloriously simple, but perhaps boring way of life (at times). It is in fact so simple, that sometimes we are overtaken with the burning sensation that there is something that we can or must do, do, do. This restlessness can take on a number of forms: circumcision, asceticism, the crusades, temperance, the moral majority, engage the culture, etc as opposed to 1 Thessalonians 4:11

  13. I think it depends on who says it. To many, cultural engagement means absolutely nothing. Like any evangelical buzzword (i.e, discipleship, missional, intentional, incarnation,diverse) the action behind the word can range from trendy lip service, to awkward mimicry, to impactful gospel centered, spirit-led efforts. On the lip service end, one might adapt bits and pieces form modern “secular” culture (almost always a penny late and a dollar short behind the relevance of the actual trends) and attempt incorporate them into a religious experience with the hopes of attracting the “secular” world.

    In my opinion, cultural engagement shouldn’t merely be an attempt to “look cool”. It should be a means of truly understanding the cultural context in which we live in order to reach souls for Christ. Cultural engagement is more than incorporating a few quasi-relevant pop culture trends into a chic (according to evangelical standard at least) 90 minute service on Sunday. Engaging is more than copying cultural phenomenons. If God had intended for us to simply copy cultural trends, he wouldn’t have granted us original thoughts and creativity.

    We can mimic “hipster” culture by drinking exotic beers, wearing flannels and listening to bands nobody has ever heard of. We could “mimic” pop culture by listening to crappy music and watching reality shows featuring malnourished women that are one facelift away from becoming frozen-faced klingons no longer capable of displaying facial expression. We could “mimic” urban culture by copying elements we see in music videos. However, this would be ignorant, false, unoriginal, and in many cases offensive since after all we have engaged cultural stereotypes, not culture, an important distinction it would behoove us to make. Cultural engagement isn’t mimicry, it doesn’t involve pandering to stereotypes. It is participatory; it’s active listening. It’s an educational experience, the antithesis of ignorance, assumption, and unflattering imitation.

    What if we no longer view cultural engagement as a means for the church to reach the “secular” world? Perhaps, we could abandon the compartmentalization of our our lives entirely and view our world in a more connected fashion. What if we put our occupation, our social life, ministry endeavors, community activities, and creative ventures together at the foot of cross. What if we pursued each of these activities with excellence and used every aspect of our lives for the glory of God. What if cultural engagement was simply an education that allowed us to further these efforts.

    One implication of this education could be to study the cultural context in which we live as a means of being better suited to communicate the gospel to our neighbors. When Paul spoke about being “all things to all people”, (that was certainly was a tall order) I think he may have been alluding to cultural engagement. If we compartmentalize our lives into “secular” lives and “church” lives, we are two faced hypocrites. Moreover, if we completely shield ourselves from the outside world, how can we be “all things to all people”? We will instead find ourselves ignorant to the outside world and ill equipped to convey the gospel in a manner that will best reach those God has called us to minister to. It is true that God is sovereign, and he can bless our culturally ignorant yet theologically sounds efforts. However, why should we be ignorant when we can be excellent?

    Engagement requires us to be a student of the community in which we live. It requires us to participate, to listen, and to gain our education from real people, not from media driven images and stereotypes. I won’t ever be “all things to all people”, but I do try to study the cultural context of those God sends me with some degree of rigor. In the past, I’ve used American Sign Language and Spanish to further the gospel, and that required me to be a student of language and culture and an active participant in the deaf community. At this point in my life, I’m discipling teenagers, so I find myself studying elements of culture that I wasn’t particularly familiar with or interested in. I study Drake, Nicki Minaj, Love and Hip-Hop Atlanta, and whatever my teenagers are into because I need to understand what is influencing them and what is speaking to them. My goal is to begin to understand their world, so that I can participate in their pop culture discussions from an educated perspective (although I’m still clueless and out of touch more often than not ). From this vantage point, I can begin to use the themes that surface through cultural elements to point them to the gospel. However, it really is much more simple than that. The bottom line is, how can I love well those that I don’t know? To know and love them well is to take an active and genuine interest in understanding their world.

    For me, cultural engagement is being a student of the cultural context in which God calls me. As a Phd candidate, I perform scientific research and study relevant literature in order to be an expert with the hopes of eventually making a unique contribution to science. I feel as if there are many parallels to that endeavor and cultural engagement. Indeed, I am a student of the cultural context in which God has placed me. Perhaps I should approach cultural engagement with a similar academic mindset. Perhaps cultural engagement is a concerted effort to achieve head knowledge and heart knowledge of the community in which I live and serve in order to further the kingdom.

    Of course we have to have boundaries with these efforts. We must seek the Lord for wisdom and and be aware of how things affect us. If you’re an alcoholic, you probably don’t need to do ministry at the bar every night. You probably don’t need to engage the beer and wine culture. If you can’t listen to popular music without being compelled to upload twerk videos on youtube as you did in your former life, maybe you need to lay off the Miley Cyrus (maybe you should lay off the Miley Cyrus just because).

    Unlike Paul, I don’t see myself being “all things to all people”, but I strive to be a faithful scholar of the context to which God has called me. I’m not sure what evangelicals mean by “cultural engagement”, but this is how I interpret it. It may not be the right approach, and it may not make a huge impact by evangelical metrics, but lately I’ve been challenged to be faithful in the little things, to be a few things to a few people–to walk with those God has sent me faithfully over the long-haul through the ebbs and flows, the highs and lows, and those moments (very, very frequent moments) when I feel I’ve made no impact at all. It is in those times that God gently reminds me that he is in control and that he is at work and that spreading the gospel isn’t about me feeling a sense of pride over achieving what I deem to be a success. I’ve been challenged to strive (I miss the mark literally every day) to live an integrated life to the glory of God (work, church, community, social,scientific, creative, etc) with no boundaries between the sacred and secular. I’ve been challenged to strive to love my neighbors, pursue excellence, and walk with the those God has graciously placed in my path, while working to understand the cultural context through which His divine path intersects.

  14. I am a 20 year old student @ tkc. I believe this term to mean the following. To be able to sit down, wherever (at a bar), strike up a conversation, and create a meaningful connection with someone. I intend to be crass/blunt when I say that people should be able to, at the end of the day, say “screw theology” and ask “what is the end goal of discussing this?”. Do NOT misunderstand me, theology and doctrine are extremely important. However, understanding theology is not the end goal. I want to “engage the culture” by creating deep relationships in foreign places while (hopefully) representing the Gospel (Galatians 5:22-23) through my attitude and actions not purely to “engage culture,” but to love and invest in that stranger you have decided to strike up a conversation with.
    This is a total stab in the dark.
    Feel free to tear me up Dr. B.
    Thanks for the thought-provoking question.

  15. I have problems with the term “engage” – it suggests that what we do isn’t culture, but we have to interact with it in some way that and that it is external to us. We have a cultural mandate (as Klaas Schilder suggested) so what we do is culture. And that can be done in a God direction or otherwise.

  16. I really like the conversation Andy Crouch got going in his book “Culture Making.” He takes up your question and has some helpful insights. More recently, James Davison Hunter’s book talk “To Change the World” (in my opinion) takes Crouch’s insights a bit deeper. Hunter talks a lot about our involvement with institutions and what it means to be faithfully present. I think Crouch has another book coming in the Fall on Power that will add to the conversation.

  17. It seems to me that some of the evangelical obsession with “cultural engagement” is a reaction to the tendency (of some evangelicals) to socially isolate themselves and their children for fear that they will be “corrupted.” And I think some of it is just an excuse to be snobby (JDH).