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Should Pastors Engage or Escape Culture?

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Jesus claimed authority over all things (Matthew 28:18-20). How will we respond? By ignoring the aspects of culture we find distasteful, or by engaging culture as a platform from which to proclaim Jesus’s victory?

Once, after a nighttime scuba dive in Mexico, my son and I were ambling back to our hotel from the dock and passed a couples-only resort preparing for a huge dance party. The music was cranked up, inviting people to the celebration.

After we had passed by, my son asked, “Did you hear that song?”

“No, I didn’t,” I replied. “I was still thinking about our dive.”

He replied, “I’m glad you didn’t—because it had the F–word every other word.”

It struck me as funny that my teenage son thought my tender adult ears needed protection from that kind of influence. But his comment—and the conversation that followed—caused me to rethink how I approach culture as a Christian.

Does Ignoring Culture Equal Spiritual Maturity?

That evening in Mexico, I didn’t hear the music because I tend to tune out negative influences. My son, however, didn’t tune it out. As a teenager, he’s hyper-aware of his cultural surroundings. To him, bad stuff doesn’t go away just because you don’t want to think about it.

How did I come to believe that spiritual maturity involves separating myself from things that are vulgar/profane? For me, it was what I have started calling an unquestioned answer. I had never really thought it through. But if I had been paying attention to how the apostle Paul dealt with culture, I might have learned something new about how to bring the gospel to a hurting world.

Paul’s Example in Athens

Once my son shook me out of my stupor about the vulgar song, I began to ask him questions: What do you think about music like that? How does it affect you when people use those words? How do you keep your mind focused on what is good and true when other people use language like that?

It turned into a great discussion about faith and culture. And it made me wonder: What does it look like to use culture as a platform from which to proclaim the gospel?

In Acts 17, we learn that Paul visited the city of Athens and shared about Jesus in the synagogue and in the marketplace (vv. 16–17). The marketplace of that day essentially served as a garden of idols. Some of it has been preserved and can be viewed in Greece to this day. The statues Paul would have seen expressed worship of all kinds, from bodily perfection to sexual perversity.

Paul Understood the Surrounding Culture

Ancient Greeks were enslaved to their own passions. One look at the marketplace would have made that obvious. Rather than avoid it, the marketplace is exactly where Paul went to explain how the gospel sets people free.

While there, Paul was invited to address a group of religious and philosophical leaders. He began his speech by saying, “Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, for as I was walking along, I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about” (vv. 21–23, NLT).

Paul knew that culture, even a decadent one, was not to be trivialized, ignored, or mocked. Rather, it was to be thoughtfully employed as a means by which he could proclaim the gospel.

Will You Engage Culture?

Paul’s approach to culture directly confronts my own idea. Spiritual maturity doesn’t come from avoiding tough realities, but from seeing them with the mind of Christ.

Obviously, it takes a lot of discernment to be immersed in culture without being deceived by its allure. But the difference in mindset between Paul’s approach and my own is significant. Ignoring culture evolves into an escape mind-set; having the mind of Christ emerges into an engaged mind-set.

The escape mindset never really makes a difference. It never even tries. The engage mindset, on the other hand, has enabled believers throughout the centuries to have a profound impact on science, business, education, charity, health care, and human rights.

Today, Christians opt for escape in many areas of life. It’s an impulse I’m learning to challenge in myself and others. In my book Unquestioned Answers, I address ten clichés that Christians often use to justify escaping culture rather than engaging it. For example, saying “This world has nothing for me” is a slogan that turns the attention of believers toward getting out rather than pressing in.

Jesus claimed authority over all things (Matthew 28:18-20). How will we respond? By ignoring the aspects of culture we find distasteful, or by engaging culture as a platform from which to proclaim Jesus’s victory?

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