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Calling for Contextualization: Part 4, Untangling Cultural Engagement

Here are all of the parts of this series if you would like to hop around:

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

We've been discussing the issue of contextualization here at the blog (Parts one, two and three of the newest series "Calling for Contextualization") and the conversation has been good. As you probably know, this is not a topic all will agree on, but it is an important one to talk through, and I am hoping that through this series we can at least clear away some of the misconceptions that are often attached to this conversation.

Part of what makes this issue of contextualization difficult is that some leaders aren't even comfortable with the idea of "engaging culture." Some well-known pastors argue that the church must not only maintain its own distinct culture (a good thing), but be completely separate from the culture around it (an impossible and even unhelpful thing).

Let me begin with two high-profile examples from two men that I admire. In both cases, I think we would probably have much in common, but they have each recently taken "engaging the culture" to task -- and they have done so in a way that I think confuses more than clarifies the issue.

John MacArthur is one of those pastors, and he recently was quoted as saying,

The church, if it is to be anything, it is to be absolutely distinct from culture, absolutely distinct from the world, absolutely distinct from unbelievers. ... Paul demands a total break. ... You can't marry the church to the culture. Don't fornicate with the world.

MacArthur Tells Christians: Don't fornicate with the World, Christian Post, March 5, 2010

I understand the concern-- and even agree with most of it. However, while I believe the church is called by God to be a counter-culture in the world, we must also understand that we cannot be "absolutely distinct" from culture. Nor should we be. There are areas where we will be absolutely distinct from the culture, and other areas where we will look quite the same. And fidelity to our mission will make this so.

At Together for the Gospel 2010 Thabiti Anyabwile preached a message from Colossians that some "amened," but others questioned. In his sermon Thabiti rightly explains that engaging culture, "whatever that means," is frought with complexities and pitfalls. (We have explored some of those complexities in this series.)

Thabiti also says that "if we set out to engage culture we will likely see... the gospel being adjusted in that process if we are not careful." And, I agree, as long as we include, "if we are not careful." That has been part of the point in this series.

Thabiti is concerned that some Christians are more consumed with culture than with the gospel. And he's right on the money when he says we should have as our primary concern Paul's pastoral concern to see everyone mature in Jesus. That should trump any interest in simply engaging culture. But I would also say that we cannot make disciples, or present people mature in Jesus, without engaging culture and contextualizing well.

Part of the concern here is that these brothers sometimes give the impression that everything in the culture outside of the church is wrong and must be rejected. For example, during his T4G sermon Thabiti said, "the language... 'engage the culture,' the language itself, signifies that mission drift is already underway." This is an unhelpful and untrue statement.

I don't actually believe that John or Thabiti believe that everything in culture must be rejected. In Thabiti's T4G message and elsewhere on his blog, he has made it clear that he has a view of how we should relate to culture--and he explains it in depth in his message (as John has one more than one occasion). And, I think that we would agree on much of that if we could hash out the terms--here I am only focusing on my concern about how some of the language can be (and is) applied. Sometimes our rhetoric encourages some to adopt a posture to culture that works against the mission of the church. And, it seems to me that a well-thought approach to cultural engagement would be exceedingly helpful in our theologically minded communities.

We need to be careful to say that not everything in culture is "bad." While all of it is corrupted by the fall, common grace and the imago Dei remain and we therefore see a mixture of good and evil in every culture, even truly pagan cultures.

So, it is not that brothers like John MacArthur and Thabiti are wrong in everything they have to say about culture, but that they are using the terms, "culture" and "engaging culture" wrongly. Or, at least differently than just about everyone else. As I explained in the first post in this series, "culture" means something in the Christian community. (It is quite a postmodern thing to create our own meaning rather than to use it in the commonly acceptable way.)

Now, keep in mind that a sentence or two does not a theology make-- but the comments about engagement, culture, and "being absolutely distinct" lack a nuance that is essential in this discussion -- and such nuance would have been very helpful in the audiences where the messages were first given.

It is impossible to be entirely distinct from the culture in which one lives. Everyone connects with and interacts with the non-Christian culture that surrounds them. When we talk about "engaging culture," we simply mean that one needs to interact with the people, ideas, beliefs, customs, values, et al. intentionally, carefully, and biblically. Here, I think we can all agree. But this means that we cannot make disciples and work out our "pastoral concern" apart from engaging culture.

I recently saw that Burk Parsons tweeted along this line of thought when he said, "Every believer engages culture. It's not a question of if we do it but how and to what degree we engage it effectively." He's right.

I know there are some who carelessly engage culture without a biblical approach to carrying out the Great Commission, but that is not what most who have a voice in this conversation are arguing for or practicing. For example, if you google "cultural engagement," the top hit is a post by Joe Thorn. There he shares the perspective that because of the mission of the church and the realities of good and evil in the culture we must reject some aspects of culture, receive other aspects, while doing gospel work to see God in Christ redeem the lost and broken people and components of culture. This is a more balanced approach to being in the world but not of it. And this perspective recognizes the dangers that leaders like Thabiti and MacArthur warn us about. Joe offers "six rules of cultural engagement" that can help to keep us safe. To engage the culture effectively Joe says we must:

1. Be present.

... Being present means being a part of the community God has sent you to, not just the community he wants you to help create. Do you know the people, the local issues and struggles, the values, practices and interests of your neighbors? ...

2. Practice discernment.

... It is not always time to be the culture warrior, nor does Jesus call us to be spiritual pacifists. Sometimes we must fight, sometimes we share things in common, but we are always looking to heal.

3. Develop your theology.

You cannot be a culture engager if you are not a theologian. ...to speak to the culture of sin, the gospel and the character of God requires that we understand these things.

4. Find courage.

Engaging the culture in this way demands great personal conviction. Like Jesus and the apostles, preaching the gospel in word and deed will both lead to you being favored as a helper, and hated as a meddler. ...

5. Speak clearly.

To properly engage your culture, whether rejecting what is evil, or receiving what is good, you must speak the language of the culture. ...

6. Love.

... most of the time you will not only be engaging ideas, but people; people made in God's image... It is not appropriate to claim we love our neighbors without a real demonstration of that love.

The call to contextualize is not a call to gospel compromise and syncretism, or living thoughtlessly and recklessly. The call to contextualize and engage the culture is simply an implication of being called to preach the gospel and make disciples.

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