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Places and Spaces

We Need to Reset the Rules of Cultural Engagement

The old, tried-and-true strategies don’t reflect the new world we live in. It’s time for an update.
We Need to Reset the Rules of Cultural Engagement

Editor’s Note: This article is the start of a new monthly series on CT Pastors, called “Places and Spaces,” by New Testament Scholar and thought leader Darrell Bock that addresses the rapidly changing contexts—the places and spaces—in which the church, especially in the West, finds itself in the 21st century. The series is inspired by his most recent book Cultural Intelligence: Living for God in a Diverse, Pluralistic World.

If your life is like mine, then you have been in conversations where something you take for granted because of your faith is not a given at all for the person you are talking to. Walk into almost any space or place and we can see it: race, sexuality, public health, freedom of expression, gender, even aspects of Christian teaching. In many cases, that difference is something that ten years ago would not have been an issue. Now that shared common ground is gone and we are being asked to take a few steps back to get to a place we used to just assume existed. We all know our culture has changed. We feel it and see it. Social media shows it.

My friends often ask me “Why are people so angry?” and they are talking about almost everybody, including even fellow believers. What are thoughtful believers to do? How should we then engage?

One of the great challenges for the church today, not to mention our country at large, is the loss of a culturally shared backdrop. This change has been going on for quite some time, but it has escalated more recently. This challenge has become even more obvious and intense with the unprecedented combination of events in the last few months. The foment is palpable. In the last half century, the Judeo-Christian net that surrounded much of our Western culture has disappeared.

Nothing has made this more transparent than recent Supreme Court decisions and the constant rumblings on social media on almost any topic you can pick. Even the wearing of masks to protect one another has been politicized. The battle between liberty and life has broken up what used to be said about the joint pursuit of life and liberty, not even to mention happiness. How did we get here? More importantly, given this stark new reality, how does the church need to adjust to functioning in a far more pluralistic environment than many churches in the West have been accustomed to?

We lack a theology of engagement in the church, and we desperately need it. This monthly series introduces a discussion about how the church should function in a not-so-brave, yet hostile, new world. We will look back at how the earliest church functioned in an era when it had neither social nor political power but simply relied on the gospel. Such gospel living (not just talking) opened up a way of life that led many outside the church to consider an alternative existence, one that belongs to one who walks with God.

Redefining the Battle

It is a misnomer to speak of cultural engagement in the singular. What we face today are cultures, subcultures if you will, that rub up against each other much like plate tectonics, and sometimes the pressure that rubbing creates is immense. In short, things have changed. So how have they changed, at least in the West?

In days gone by, even many of those who did not go to church in our country shared some cultural values that were informed by core Judeo-Christian principles. That is no longer the case. Now, one can read headlines like “Why ‘Judeo-Christian values’ are a dog-whistle myth peddled by the far right.” Debates argue that “citizens who belong to a particular (majority) culture remain the ‘cultural owners’ of the core values underpinning a state,” and whether that should be allowed to continue.

Many may lament this shift, many others see it as a very good thing. Others say all that has happened is the church has become more like the rest of the world, for better or for worse. In the process, we have returned to the reality Jesus taught the disciples about, that the world would always be there to push back on faith (Acts 4:5-31; Luke 9:23). There actually should be no surprises here, cross-bearing was to come with the territory of faith (just ask Christians in other parts of our world). Many contend “the good old days” were never as good as we thought. Those debates about the past, or going back to it, will not help us with our present either. Things have changed that much.

This shift in cultural values does mean that believers often find themselves in confrontation with the core beliefs of others, both outside and inside the faith. We are on opposite sides of truly significant issues. The challenge is how do we follow the great commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves when our neighbor thinks so differently than we do? How do we love our “enemies,” or even now in many cases our own brothers and sisters in Christ? Loving those who oppose you certainly is a distinctive challenge given to us by Jesus. Maybe a place to start is not to see those on the “other side” as enemies at all.

So how can we not see people as opposing forces that we need to defeat? Choices dealing with things like when life begins, sexuality, or the uniqueness of Christ meet with different, even hostile, views from many of our neighbors. This confrontation of ideas has led to the idea that we are in a ‘cultural war’ and military metaphors abound. Let there be no doubt, there is a battle for what it means to experience well-being and quality of life. However, military metaphors put us in a battle mode and that usually means a fight. But how does a fight help us to draw people into this distinctive way of life so foreign to those we pray might come to know God?

I contend that we have missed a central point of the biblical metaphor of the battle and in doing so have erroneously defined our mission in ways that have damaged the church as well as those neighbors, especially those neighbors outside of our faith. Here are some core questions for healthy cultural engagement: How should I see the contentious space? What exactly is the battle? How does Scripture tell us to engage it? Some popular Christian images depict ideas of conquest, of taking over, of transforming culture or defeating the enemy. Is that really the battle and the goal that the bible defines? To get a better handle on this at the outset, let’s look briefly at the core biblical text on this battle from Eph. 6:10-18.

Three Principles of Engagement

For now, I wish to focus on how to see people outside of our faith (later in this series, I will take up “in house” differences). First, Eph 6:12 makes clear that our enemy is not people. Our battle is not against blood and flesh (the actual word order in Greek). Rather, recalling the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20), people are not our opponent but are rather our goal. To be sure, these principalities and powers often work through people, and we are called to be wary of them and resist their evil (Jude 1:2-23; Rom. 1:18-32). But, it is clear that judgment against such people is reserved for God alone (James 4:12; 2 Cor. 5:10; Acts 17:31).

Jesus calls us to reach people outside of the church, people who often think quite differently than us. That outside audience actually is a given of the mission. We are called to seek those outside of our usual circles who are different from us. To view people as the enemy is to misdirect our energy and risk undermining our core calling to make disciples. Battle metaphors aimed at the wrong target undermine our ability to care about those we are called to invite.

Second, while we do not battle people, we do fight against spiritual forces. There are real dire enemies out there we best not underestimate. They are called rulers and authorities (v. 12), cosmocrats of evil in the heavens. These dark forces are unseen and deceive. Many people, especially those of a secular bent, do not even realize they exist. This is where we find the deepest challenge and the greatest irony of engagement. The real enemy is missing in action for most people, even though those enemies are still quite active. The fact that they are unseen is actually part of the deception. They work incognito.

Third, there is successful protection against these forces. That protection is not found in things the world sees as protective, such as power, ideology, or politics. Our armor is spiritual because the battle is spiritual. Ephesians calls it “the full armor of God” (v.13). Look at the list: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, feet shod with the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit equaling the Word of God and prayer in the Spirit. These things enable us to stand our ground and live in ways that reflect sacred presence. These armor elements involve not only what we believe but how we live it out.

This description of spiritual armor tells us that what matters most is how we live out and draw on our faith, not just how we talk about it or contend for it. Part of the reason we do not seek to take over ground is that we know the world will not be transformed unless Jesus and the Spirit perform that transformative process. This involves a life of being reshaped that will not be complete until we are with him and/or he returns. That cannot start unless and until people come to see and know God’s presence. This is why inviting people into the gospel is so important, even necessary. We invite them into a new place and a new spiritual, indwelt space. That is where enablement to live a full life resides. The power the Scripture knows and embraces is that of the transforming work of God’s Spirit through Christ (Romans 1:16 with an eye to Romans 6–8). Every other solution falls short and the church has been as guilty of offering such false alternatives—such “fake news”—as anyone in our ongoing cultural battles.

Effective Engagement

What does this mean for effective engagement with culture? It means seeing people as humans made in God’s image to be embraced and persuaded and with the potential to be drawn toward God. It means the person sitting across from me with whom I disagree is not someone to defeat or humiliate. At the same time, I am to recognize an unseen battle, a conflict the person I am engaged with is probably unaware is even present. Our fight is not as part of an invading, conquering army but more like a rescue mission to those who don’t even know they are in danger and need a new home and refuge. That is how the deception of spiritual forces works. It can deceive us too, causing us to act in ways that look more like the world than like our Lord. If, in our own efforts at rescue, we fail to appreciate the spiritual forces at work, we will do battle with merely human means, seeking merely human answers, making humans our opponents, not the goal—and we will lose.

Seeing someone this way instead of as an enemy, will change how we engage with them. It will alter our tone, even when we might have to challenge them.

When we engage as the world engages—with distance, withdrawal, barrages of insults, no empathy, or demeaning charges—we become just another special interest group guarding our territory or insisting on gaining new ground only on our terms. On the contrary, Jesus calls us to make disciples of all people and to invite them into a new, different kind of space. We are called to love those who hate us, even as we challenge them and ourselves with truth. The truth we extend is shown to be a truth that exemplifies the service and humility of the cross. What matters is not only what we believe, but how our belief interacts with the world and positively impacts relationships. Tone matters. Humility, grace, and love reflect the Most High One who also is unseen (Luke 6:35-36). The result is a spiritually rooted engagement with the world for the sake of the kingdom of God.

This series hopes to flesh out how this can be done and make important observations about culture and difficult conversations in the process. What I want to communicate in this first article though is that how we see the people who disagree with us makes all the difference in the world for how we engage them. There are three basic approaches: We can 1) fight them as an enemy, 2) rule them out as already excluded and beyond reach, or 3) we can reach out and move toward people with the love of God while praying to God to work in their lives in the hope that they might find their place in God’s family. We can pray they will see in us a different way to love that draws them to the same God who drew us, even as that love may challenge them. If it were you in need, which of those three approaches would you prefer? Which approach did Jesus take, even as the world sent him to the cross?

Darrell Bock is Senior Research Professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, Executive Director of Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center at the Seminary and a host of the Seminary’s Table Podcast. This series is inspired by his latest book Cultural Intelligence: Living for God in a Diverse, Pluralistic World.

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