The Real Reason “Engaging the Culture” Doesn’t Work

I really enjoyed reading Dean Abbott’s article “Engaging the Culture” Doesn’t Work Because Christian Beliefs Are a Mark of Low Status over at Patheos. He makes some great observations concerning this misguided movement. My regular readers know that I am not a fan of those who call for us to engage the culture (ETC) because what often happens is that the church ends up looking more like the culture rather than the culture looking like the church.

My argument against this is simple enough: we are not called to engage the culture, we are called to make disciples who are then to be conformed to the image of Christ. While we are called to make disciples, we must also realize that to bear fruit in this regard we must rely on God’s work and not on our own ingenuity. (More on this below).

This is why engaging the culture doesn’t work: engaging the culture is man-centered and based on what we do, not on what God does. It is the belief that if we just put enough Christian artists (pick any profession) in the world, then the curators of the museum will see all this Christian art (what makes it Christian?), and will be converted. This is conversion based on our influence, not on the gospel. Even Abbot misses this point in his article, though he rightly states that the movement has failed:

It [ETC] has also been, largely, a failure. The evidence is plain. In spite of the resources poured into these efforts, American culture has increasingly embraced the cultural and sexual Left. Any impact of evangelical efforts to reverse this trend has been vanishingly small. How can millions upon millions of evangelicals have so little effect on the culture around them?

He does ask the right question here, but then goes on to offer the reason for the failure and misses the mark.

The answer is that evangelicals have failed to reckon with the fact that Christian belief is a mark of low status, and has been so for a long time. This has been the case at least since the Scopes trial and the unflattering media portrayals of traditional Christian believers that accompanied it.

What he states is simply what Christ affirmed over 2,000 years ago, that if the world hates us, it’s because it first hated Him. Those in culture don’t consider us low in status because of the Scopes trial. That is too easy. People make simplistic arguments all the time in trying to identify and fix the problem, even among evangelicals. For instance, many are still making the claim that all our problems started when we removed prayer from schools, and that by returning prayer to the schools, then we would turn culture around. Abbot is merely pointing to the Scopes trial as the problem in the same simplistic fashion. It wasn’t the Scopes trial that caused the problem, but the rejection of Christ as He presented Himself in the word of God.

Abbot helps us in explaining this movement to “engage the culture.”

The idea behind the “engaging the culture” movement was that, rather than withdrawing from the surrounding culture as their fundamentalist cousins did, evangelicals should go forth to meet it. The expected outcome of this going forth was a revival of Christian faith.

It sort of makes sense. If enough evangelicals, the idea was, could be trained to engage the surrounding culture, especially in the culture-making arenas of politics, education and the media, eventually these well-placed agents of change could turn things around.

What this plan never took into account is the dynamics of social status. Evangelicals sought to engage the culture by being relevant, by creating works of art , by offering good arguments for their positions. None of these addressed the real problem: that Christian belief simply isn’t cool, and that very few people want to lower their social status by identifying publicly with it.

Close. The real problem is that those in the culture hate God. They don’t seek God. They want nothing to do with God. Paul addresses this in Romans 3:9-11, …they are all under sin… “There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seek after God…”

Paul describes the condition of the human heart and concludes in verse 18 by writing  “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”  The lack of fear results from the hardness of their hearts. The culture has gone its own way, and been given over by God. Again, Paul in Romans 1:18 and following shows that their rejection of the light that they had, their suppressing of the truth that they were given, results in God giving them over to their sinful and depraved notions. With each level of rejection of the truth they have been given, God Himself gave them over to more and more of a debased mind. In pouring out His wrath on the wicked, He has hardened their hearts. Notice that it is God who has done this. We cannot think that our own plans will work in reversing this trend. We need to look to God and the means He has given us and not the wisdom of the world to reverse this trend. More on this below.

The ETC crowd fails to understand that it is God who has caused the elite to look down upon Christianity. He has given the elite over to their own pride. Of course they look down their noses. Christ calls us to humble ourselves before Him, and the proud of heart look at His cross and see only weakness. Their flesh tells them that they can do it themselves, a message that, sadly, resonates in the ETC crowd as well.

The ETC crowd is so ensconced in their false view of freedom of the will, which is the idolatry of the self, that they fail to see that if they believe in Christ at all, it is by God’s rich grace in their lives, not their crafty ability to discern that following Christ is the best course of action. It’s God alone who gets the glory when we come to know Him. If we believe the gospel at all, it is by His pure grace alone, and He will not share His glory with us. God gets all the glory. The ETC crowd don’t want the glory to go to God alone, although they will say that they do. They want their share of the glory, to be the ones who engaged (and changed) the culture. God will have nothing to do with it. In fact, I believe He gives many Christians who think they can change the culture, over to culture itself, evidenced by the fact that the culture is dictating their actions, not the word of God.

All the “engage the culture” movement ever really did was stroke the egos of those involved in it. It told their members that because they were Christians in politics, or in education, or art, that they were important in building the Kingdom of God. It placed a great deal of importance on the individual to make a difference. Again, sounds wonderful and plays into the cultural elevation of the individual instead of the All-Sufficient Triune God. It used the rules of culture and the idolatry of the individual in an attempt to reach other individuals for Christ.

But Christ will have none of that. Just as He declared to us that the world hates us because it hated Him first, He also declared, through His apostles, the means by which we are to address the culture. Paul, who we quoted earlier in declaring to us the problem of culture, also declared the means by which we are to address the culture.

How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written:

“How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace,
Who bring glad tidings of good things” (Romans 10:14, 15)!

Even when Paul entered into the Areopagus, he preached. He declared the good news of Christ to the pagans in their own setting. He didn’t join the local tent-makers guild, since he was a tent-maker, and think that by making tents for Christ, he was advancing the Kingdom of Christ. He preached. This is the means that Christ has chosen to advance the Kingdom of God. Jesus preached the good news, setting an example for us (Matthew 9:35).

Now Abbott doesn’t give the spiritual reasons for the rejection of Christianity by the elite. I suspect that this is because the biblical reasons are not new, which is part of the problem the ETC’s have. They are looking to something new in order to advance the gospel. But even the quest for novelty is nothing new. Again, Paul addressed this in his letter to the Corinthians. For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:22-23). What the ETC’s are doing is simply trying to appeal to the wisdom of the age, to sophistication, to education, to an elite status they think they will be able to acquire and maintain. 

The ETC’s should repent of this foolishness. If they really want to see the lost saved, then they have to come back to the very thing that the elites find foolish: the cross of Christ. You cannot advance the Kingdom of God without the cross of Christ. It’s essential. Sadly, I believe many in the ETC movement are trying to advance God’s Kingdom apart from the cross. But this is foolishness.

Given that the elites see Christianity as beneath them, or foolish as Paul declares, should we not just accept the status that our LORD has given us? Should we not agree that we are to be fools for Christ and go about doing what He has called us to do, instead of using the wisdom of the world to save the gospel-rejecting world? In other words, since God has hardened the hearts of the elites, causing them to look down their collective noses upon us, should we not respond as the Apostle did?

If Paul’s words are true, For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God, then should we not accept this and embrace the means of grace that God has given to us, and go out and preach that foolish message? After all, it is the power of God. I would think those of us who have been bought with a price would gladly suffer the reproach of the cultural elites, just as our Savior did. ETCs end up watering down the gospel in thinking that they advance the kingdom by man-made schemes and plans, apart from what God has commanded His church to do. And what has God commanded us to do? Preach Christ crucified. As Paul clearly exhorts, For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).



One thought on “The Real Reason “Engaging the Culture” Doesn’t Work

  1. I agree with you that the more the church tries to engage the culture, the more it tends to look like the culture. It’s not more Christian celebrities we need. It’s grass-roots preaching of God’s Word. Tell it like it is.


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