Picture culture as a river. The waters of the river can either be vibrant and life giving or polluted and dangerous to the ecosystem around it. As the waters of the river go, so go its surroundings. As Christians, we are faced with a dilemma. What is our role in culture?
When I was growing up, I had a Christian T-shirt. Come to think of it, I also had a few Christian CD’s, a handful of Christian surf movies, one Christian skateboard, and I think I even had a lone Christian computer game. These “sacred” options were mediums of entertainment and enjoyment for me. I liked them because I felt some type of validation that I could still be “cool” and a Christian. I was seeing and hearing people that believed the same things as me, doing the same things as me, and that felt good.
Are “Christian” T-shirts wrong?
No. In fact, there are a lot of good Gospel conversations that can come from wearing something that proclaims what you believe. However, underneath this so-called subculture that I grew up in, there was a mindset that was forming. A philosophy that I didn’t realize was shaping the way I viewed my involvement in the culture around me.
You see, the more I secluded myself from culture by segregating what was sacred from what was secular, the more I lost my effectiveness as a missionary. I began to combat, criticize, and cower from culture, believing that it would make me a more holy person.
But, in the process, I was becoming less like Jesus.
The Son of God, to everyone’s surprise, had a different approach to engaging the culture in which he lived. Accused of being a drunk, glutton, and “friend of sinners,” Jesus lived in such a way that disgusted the religious elite of his day. These self-righteous members of the community thought they were above the “common people” and decided it was best to keep away from those “less holy” than themselves. This was not at all Jesus’ idea of mission.
Now, for clarity sake, I am not suggesting that Christians should lower their ethical and moral standards to fit it. In fact, that is the farthest thing from what I am saying. I am merely suggesting we take a seat in the school of Jesus and his mission, and think about our roll on this planet. We are here to be on mission with Christ. Our prayer and hope is that we might see his kingdom come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven, and this may require a different approach.
It might, in fact, require us to contemplate, conversate, and even create culture ourselves, not simply condemn it or cower from it. This type of approach doesn’t embody the humble, reasonable, accessible picture we see in the Son of man who lifted the head of the prostitute and preached on the hillsides to the poor.
The life of Jesus illustrates a beautiful marriage of holiness and lowliness, humility and purity, transcendence and presence. Jesus exemplified being both God and man. This connection of heaven and earth is the same mission to which we are called 2,000 years later.
Which brings me to the question: How should the Gospel shape our engagement in culture?
As Christians, we are called to a citizenship of heaven. This does not mean that we are trapped here waiting for our eutopia to come. Instead, it means that, as faithful followers of Jesus, we have a mission in the here and now. So, here are four suggested ways to engage culture as a follower of Jesus:
1. Create Culture
Missionary artists are challenged with bringing the Kingdom to light through creativity and beauty instead of cheap counterfeits. This means displaying innovative art, playing original songs, and showing captivating films in the same halls and venues as those of different beliefs, side by side with the unchurched. As well, non-artists are called to create healthy, kingdom culture in their homes, workplaces, and communities.
2. Contemplate Culture
Mission-minded parents are called to walk through life with our kids, providing a place for them to ask hard questions and explore faith. This means getting our hands dirty and having awkward conversations instead of sheltering them from the broken things in this world that Jesus came to redeem.
3. Converse with Culture
Missionary neighbors are led to become competent and strategic at uncovering the Gospel in topics in which our unchurched friends have never seen Jesus at work before. This means sitting down to eat at sinners’ tables and listening deeply to the interests of those we are trying to reach. It means meeting people right where they are.
4. Care for Culture
Believers of all ages, backgrounds, and giftedness are empowered to care for this river called culture. As we tend to the waters, the banks of the river come to life and we begin to see the redemptive work of God unfold before our eyes. This means wading into the filthy parts of the river that will one day be a crystal clear torrent flowing right through the city of God, instead of just sitting on the banks.
What about the shirt though? I mean, a shirt that says “Jesus” instead of “Reese’s” isn’t cowering from culture, right? A band that sounds just like Nirvana, with slightly less grunge, and positive, encouraging lyrics isn’t condemning culture, right? Perhaps, but aren’t they counterfeiting it? And for what purpose exactly? To provide an alternative that is “sanctified” and “safe”? To make us feel like, if just for a moment, all the brokenness we experience is gone and heaven is here? Maybe copying culture is just another means of creating our own utopia where we don’t have to engage in the darker places of our world and the murky waters of our culture.
Friends, we must be wise about who or what will influence our formative minds and hearts. We need to guard our hearts well and seek to help others navigate these waters, too. But, you can’t navigate a river by standing on the bank.
We need to wade into the waters with our children, our neighbors, and our friends and family who are new believers, and embark on this mission of engaging culture with a Gospel perspective.