I recently discovered what seems to be a subtle shift in the thinking of at least some contemporary evangelical leaders. For at least a couple of decades now, the prevailing ministry philosophy of especially younger evangelical leaders with their seeker-sensitive, purpose-driven mentality has been to “engage the culture.” This is one way they have tried to end the long-standing culture wars. Their thinking has been that we cannot reach the world with the Gospel message by separating ourselves from the world. You cannot have impact with the culture without having contact with it. Influence is impossible without some level of involvement. According to the old line, “they won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” One development to emerge from the religious culture was the concept of “the missional church”—believers addressing themselves to the needs of a hurting world. It was something of a regression to the Social Gospel of the 1920s, and in it, the Gospel itself has largely been forgotten.
There are a number of problems with this philosophy, one of the first of which is this: whose culture? In our current multicultural environment, we are surrounded by diverse, and even competing and hostile, cultures. For many of us, long-standing cultural norms have been and are being challenged and rejected. Far too often, however, younger Christians have been quick to absorb the culture in order to engage it, with the result that they have become like the culture rather than standing against the culture. Once inside the long-forbidden cultural boundaries, they have quickly acclimated themselves to the world’s way of thinking and acting, all the while convinced that they are evangelizing (or otherwise positively influencing) their largely hostile opponents. And so evangelical young adults today have swallowed the social media culture, the welfare culture, the immoral entertainment culture, the materialistic culture, and the sexually promiscuous culture—all with no apparent reservations that these might be sinful cultures!
But now, according to some articles I read, there is a re-thinking process beginning to take place. It’s dawning on some evangelical leaders that the process of embedding ourselves in the culture has gone too far. Engaging the culture just doesn’t work. In rejecting traditional values, Christians have lost their distinctive identity and have become virtually indistinguishable from the world. In fact, it’s not OK to play video games all day, to frequent bars, or to live with your boyfriend without the benefit of marriage.
Surely the most egregious oversight in the philosophy of cultural engagement, however, has been the clear teaching of God’s Word. Paul writes to the Romans: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:2). Transformed in your thinking rather than conformed in your living. The Apostle John states it clearly: “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever” (1 Jn 2:15-17). Paul is blunt: “Do not be bound together with unbelievers; . . . Therefore come out from their midst and be separate,” says the Lord, And do not touch what is unclean” (2 Corinthians 6:14, 17). Engage the culture? No, reject it . . . stand against it. You will do more good that way than you will trying to compromise with it for the sake of winning it to Christ.
Rather than engaging the culture, therefore, try loving God and then loving your neighbor. That’s the biblical priority, according to the Lord Jesus. Don’t blend in, says one writer—stick out! In so doing, you will protect yourself and at the same time, please the Lord.