Jump directly to the Content
April 16, 2010Leadership

How Should We Engage Culture?

I've received several emails asking me to comment on engaging culture. I will work on a blog post on the topic, but let me share some quotes in the meantime that might foster some discussion. Engaging culture, contextualization, and relevance are common issues in missiological discussion. They tend to be assumed as we are engage in God's global mission. As I see it, it is both necessary and dangerous to engage culture. I believe (and have often said) that the church must be a biblically faithful, culturally relevant, counterculture community for the kingdom of God.

But, keep in mind that people mean different things when talk about "engaging culture"-- and one should not assume that they agree (or disagree) without defining terms. Wikipedia has a helpful description at the beginning of the "culture" article: "Culture... is a term that has different meanings."

Missiologists (and missionaries) assume we should engage culture but debate how to do so discerningly. Here are a few responses on the subject.

Lesslie Newbigin wrote:

Everyone with the experience of cross-cultural mission knows that there are always two opposite dangers, the Scylla and Charybdis, between which one must steer. On the one side there is the danger that one finds no point of contact for the message as the missionary preaches it, to the people of the local culture the message appears irrelevant and meaningless. On the other side is the danger that the point of contact determines entirely the way that the message is received, and the result is syncretism. Every missionary path has to find the way between these two dangers: irrelevance and syncretism. And if one is more afraid of one danger than the other, one will certainly fall into the opposite. (Lesslie Newbigin, A Word in Season (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 67.)

Dean Gilliand spoke similarly:

Contextualization [is] a delicate enterprise if ever there was one . . . the evangelist and mission strategist stand on a razor's edge, aware that to fall off on either side has terrible consequences . . . Fall to the right and you end in obscurantism, so attached to your conventional ways of practicing and teaching the faith that you veil its truth and power from those who are trying to see it through very different eyes. Slip to the left and you tumble into syncretism, so vulnerable to the impact of paganism in its multiplicity of forms that you compromise the uniqueness of Christ and concoct 'another gospel which is not a gospel.' (Dean S. Gilliland, ed., The Word Among Us (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1989), vii.)

Tom Steffen and David Hesselgrave provide some questions to consider as we engage culture:

  • What is the worldview of the target audience?
  • What is the culture's decision-making pattern?
  • What does it cost a person in this culture to become a Christian?
  • What redemptive analogy is best for this culture?
  • How does this culture view Christianity?
  • What does this culture understand about the basic components of the gospel story?
  • Is this culture based on shame or guilt?
  • How will this culture understand Christian rituals?
  • What is the best delivery system for exposing the people of this culture to the gospel?

(Tom A. Steffen and David J. Hesselgrave, Reconnecting God's Story to Ministry: Cross Cultural Storytelling at Home and Abroad (Center for Organization & Ministry, 1997).)

We live in a culture. We will always engage it (and hopefully we will cross cultures to engage others). The question is how we do so biblically, with clear gospel proclamation, aware that we are enmeshed in our own culture?

Some people need to be pushed to engage the culture more faithfully, while others need to be pushed to preach Christ more faithfully. I recently gave my thoughts in a brief interview with Preaching Magazine:

...when I'm with different groups of people I bring a different message. There are churches, and they love the Lord, and they're preaching the Gospel, and they understand the Gospel; but what they've not done is engage culture. Some of those are in my own denomination. So, when I'm speaking to my own denomination, often I'm telling them to engage the culture in context.

Then I go to other settings, and I'm speaking where they get the cultural engagement. They're excited and passionate about it, but I don't hear them talking about the gospel. I talk about a rediscovery of the gospel. So, if you come with me when I'm preaching at a denominational meeting compared to when I'm preaching at a young gathering of urban, hip whatever, I have a very different message because I think they need a very different nudging. I straddle these worlds in a weird way. I'll talk to probably 10 different denominations in the next year. and I'll just be different depending on where I am. When I'm with the contemporary church crowd, I'll tell them, "Don't forget the gospel, and stay true to the Scriptures," but when I'm with the traditional church crowd, I'll tell them, "Don't forget the culture and engage the context."

What do you think about engaging culture? Is it necessary? Are there legitimate dangers?

By the way, the middle third of my new co-edited missiology textbook is a discussion on this issue. The late Paul Hiebert writes his last contribution on the issue of contextualization and then six of the world's leading missiologists respond

The Exchange is a part of CT's Blog Forum. Support the work of CT. Subscribe and get one year free.
The views of the blogger do not necessarily reflect those of Christianity Today.

More from The Exchange

Christianity Today

How Should We Engage Culture?