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Why “Engaging the Culture” Doesn’t Work and Actually Harms our True Mission

This is right, and very similar to the argument James Davison Hunter makes in his book, To Change the World. The whole idea of “engaging the culture” in order to “transform the culture” will never work, because in order to change the culture, Christians would have to be accepted by the culture. And in order for that to happen, we have to be “cool.” And in order for that to happen, we have to compromise, which is exactly what has happened. As Andy Crouch rightly observed: “The rise of interest in cultural transformation has been accompanied by a rise in cultural transformation of a different sort—the transformation of the church into the culture’s image.”

Dean Abbott describes what happened when Evangelicals made it their goal to “engage the culture”:

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.

Many evangelicals sensed something was going on. They responded as though the problem were a matter of style rather than content. They created churches calculated to prove evangelicals could be as hip as anyone else. The result was churches that had rocking worship bands, superb lighting, a million cool programs and no cultural impact.

The only lasting success to come from this trend was to make the hip pastor in a goatee and skinny jeans a universal object of derision. When the elites see him, they aren’t impressed. Rather than seeing someone so cool they want to emulate him, they see desperation. They see a low-status guy craving their approval, and they are rightly repulsed.

The fact is that the church’s mission is simple: Make disciples.

Source: “Engaging the Culture” Doesn’t Work Because Christian Beliefs Are a Mark of Low Status

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

4 Responses to Why “Engaging the Culture” Doesn’t Work and Actually Harms our True Mission

  1. Dear Sir, I am afraid your whole premise is wrong. In the past, Christians were not accepted by the culture – far from it – yet they made a huge difference to the cultures in which they were. So much so that Europe became known as “Christendom” – far from perfect, admittedly, but a huge improvement on the Muslim and Black cultures of other parts of the world. The results persist to this day. Compare Europe with Africa or the Arab nations if you want to see the difference. What about the huge impact the Wesleyan Revival had on the British Isles? It saved them from a revolution like the French Revolution just across the Channel. Study History, and you will find that wherever Christianity has gone, the CULTURE has improved – even though only a minority of the people ever become genuine Christians! The problem with the modern Church is that the Christians are so self-seeking and self-indulgent, and so focussed on the “rapture” when Christ is going to rescue them from all their troubles, that they have allowed the culture in which they live and of which they are a part, literally to “go to hell in a hand-basket”! I think our Lord is going to have some very serious things to say to us when we stand before Him on judgement day. For more information see the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25). I think you should stop discouraging people who are trying to make a difference and apply their Christian faith in practical ways, and start praying for ways in which this can be done more effectively. Obviously we are not trying to do this in our own strength. But at the same time, the Lord Himself has given us the equipment and the calling, and we need to obey Him – just as the servants in the parable were expected to USE the talents the master had given them to increase HIS wealth – so we are expected to use every means at our disposal (both as individuals and as the Church) to increase the Kingdom of God on earth. After all, we pray all the time, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth AS IT IS IN HEAVEN”!
    God bless.

  2. Alison,

    I believe that you may misunderstand the entirety of the premise. There is no question that where Christianity thrives, the surrounding culture is effected for the better. However, look at what is thriving. If Christians are making disciples, then those disciples are growing in obedience to God’s Word. Obedience to God’s Word is producing people who are markedly different from the world (not striving for similarity and “relevance”). 1 Peter 2:9 calls believers a “chosen race, a royal priest hood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (ESV). Verse 10 completes the thought, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” We are not a people outside of what God has done for us. God sanctified us out of the world so that we will be different from that which surrounds us. You reference Christendom, which dictated Christian morals to any under its rule. Sure there may be some positive outcomes (earlier on rather than later!), but this marriage of church and state is simply an attempt to recreate the theocracy found in the OT between God and Israel. Where in Scripture is the church mandated to act as such?

    If we continue attempting to “redeem” the culture, we are taking man’s way of life and trying to shoehorn God into a worldview, behavior, and mode of communication that He has not sanctioned. That is the crux of the matter. How are we looking different than the world? How is our mirroring of the world making us effective when we are called to that separation? I 100% agree that we should utilize the gifts God has given us. But that doesn’t mean that we steep them within a culture that is of man-made convention. Be a difference, be a light, but mirror Christ and not the world. That is how His light will shine the brightest.

    I pray that you read no personal attack into my statements and questions. I simply desire to shed light on what I see as misunderstanding.

  3. Alison,
    I believe I see some common ground here. In Scott’s article I understand him to be talking about the dangers of the Church trying to conform to this world to be accepted (Rom 12:2). He is talking about the Church no longer trying to be set apart. In the examples you give the Church was able to gain some moderate acceptance while remaining set apart.

    Romans 12:2 (KJV)
    2 And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.

    Mark 8:36 (KJV)
    36 For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

    Thanks and God bless!

  4. Thanks, Ben and Bo, for your interaction. And thanks also to you, Allison, for the push back.

    My thoughts here are similar to Ben’s. It is certainly true that Christianity had an impact on the development of the West between the 4th century and the Enlightenment, and I would even agree that much of that impact was good. However, it came as a result of exactly what I’m warning again, and unbiblical and unwise union of church and state in order to “transform” culture, to the degree that as a result, the church became more like the world than the world became like the church.

    Yes, some good did come, but I would suggest that the harms upon the church as a result of Christendom are far worse.

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