Cultural Engagement?

I need some help, someone needs to give me a definition for what contemporary evangelicals call “cultural engagement”.

When evangelicals talk of cultural engagement, sometimes I wonder where the “engagement” part is…

Sometimes evangelicals make a dichotomy between some kind of “soft or loving engagement”, “intellectual engagement”, and “confrontational engagement.” They often do the same with evangelism, there is evangelical apologetics, sharing the gospel, and then there’s “confrontational evangelism.”

My question is:

Is using the term engagement really “engagement” at all… are we lying to ourselves when we use this term?

In doing a short survey of online dictionaries here are some of the definitions for engagement:

An encounter, conflict, or battle ( / A hostile encounter between military forces (Merriam-Webster’s dictionary) / A hostile meeting of opposing military forces in the course of a war (Free dictionary) / A fight or battle between armed forces (Oxford dictionary) / A tactical conflict, usually between opposing lower echelons maneuver forces. (Wiktionary) / In any situation of conflict, an actual instance of active hostilities. (Wiktionary) / Employment in fighting; the conflict of armies or fleets; battle; a general action; appropriately the conflict of whole armies or fleets, but applied to actions between small squadrons or single ships, rarely to a fight between detachments of land forces. (1828 Webster’s)

I’ve given this a lot of thought and I wonder if the real “cultural engagement” comes from the type of folk that many evangelicals are uncomfortable with:

Often evangelicals (not all) think of these folks as kooks and crackpots, people who make the name of Jesus look unpleasant, ridiculous, or even obnoxious.

I wonder who looks more like they are engaged as defined by the definitions above – evangelicals who claim to be “culturally engaged” (somehow very softly) or these “kooks and crackpots” who are actually out there speaking prophetically to the culture about sin and righteousness and judgment?

When it comes to “engagement” I think of the prophets, Elijah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah, I think of John the Baptist, Jesus Christ or the Apostle Paul all who preached “repentance” – these are the biblical examples of “cultural engagement”.

When I think of church history and men like Wyclif, Hus, Tyndale, Knox, Bunyan, Guthrie, Renwick, and many more down through Church history, I think of men who truly confronted and engaged their culture, men who were ridiculed and were seen as radicals and crackpots by average churchmen of their generation. These men truly engaged the culture of their day often at the cost of their possessions, their families, and even many times to the cost of their life.

I wonder who would these men of old feel more kinship with? Contemporary evangelicals who claim they are “engaging the culture” or those we think of today as “crackpots and kooks”?

Lastly take a look at this video, as you do think about the impact this little group is having on the abortion debate. The hard and harsh truth sometimes speaks more a thousand words.

I thank God for these men and women. I have a deep respect for them, organizations like Repent America, Missionaries to the Pre-Born, Abort73 and Americans for Truth

Sometimes I wonder if these men and women are the true cultural warriors “engaging the culture” of our time.

If there were more Christians like these – militant, willing to confront the culture in all its sin and its wickedness, men and women who were willing to carry the cross of scorn and ridicule even from their fellow churchmen. Maybe, just maybe we would make a bigger difference in this culture for the kingdom of God.


Those who forsake the law praise the wicked, But such as keep the law contend with them… Proverbs 28:4 KJV

And when he is come (the Holy Spirit), he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment… John 16:8 KJV


12 Responses

  1. […] 25, 2008 by David Over at Cross, Crown, and Covenant Larry asks some good and probing questions on cultural engagement and evangelism. I think the simple […]

  2. Dave, I agree everything you said with one qualification:

    You said:

    The problem with pulling the strings of culture without true evangelical (viz. Gospel) repentance is that one merely rearranging the idols on the shelf, not seeing Christ upon the throne of His Creation.

    The civil laws of a nation (which are religious/ethical “strings of culture”) have an affect on a nation, they affect affect the moral climate of a culture. Laws can make a host culture – hostile to the gospel – or passive (so the gospel can spread rapidly). As I quoted in a previous post titled:

    “God uses the Political to Convert People”

    As Ruben Alvarado has said in his book A Common Law:

    “the top down law order imposed by the theocratic king did not stand in the way of bottom-up participation… To view top down government as an inevitable impediment to bottom-up participation is to misconstrue the issue. These two forms of public organization are not mutually exclusive: in fact, rightly understood they complement each other. The one provided the necessary preliminary infrastructure for the establishment of the other.”

    God himself sometimes “rearranges the idols on the shelf” so the nation can be more prepared to receive Christ as Lord of Creation…

    Would you agree with my qualification?


    BTW you can find Alvarado’s Blog here, he has written some great stuff on “Common Law” which is how biblical law worked it’s way into cultures (as in the past):

  3. Hay Larry,

    I think there is room in God’s kingdom for such cultural engagement as you describe here. I’m sure it causes people to think. However, in Boston, where I live, those sorts of things do more damage than they do good. The problem I have with such “engagement” is that the person holding the sign is displaying a message and not the motive. They are displaying what they are against rather than what they are for. Mostly, those sorts of people (in Boston at least) are rejected and it is one more reason for people not to come to Jesus because they are hearing about hell and not heaven. Is it Truth? YES! But Jesus was full of GRACE and truth. I would even say He was full of grace THEN truth. It should always be in that order.

    To go back to the point about people being soft in their cultural engagement, I agree with you. I will always advocate for relational evangelism that actually takes the opportunity to share Christ boldly and unequivocally. It’s not enough to make friends with someone and then hope they see a God-fearing life and ask me about it one day. At some point, early on in the relationship, they need to know the Truth but they need to know first that I love them and will be their friend even if they don’t believe like me or think like me.

    I appreciate the invite to respond to your post. Feel free to return the favor on my blog. I appreciate your thoughts.

  4. Nathan,

    Thank you for your response…

    The matters you expressed are the reason for my post, they are similar to the responses I get from many evangelicals as I have wrestled with this issue.

    I’m not sure this view (the view you’ve expressed) is entirely correct (I do not entirely disagree with much of what you said) I think though you have struck at the heart of the matter when you say:

    “But Jesus was full of GRACE and truth. I would even say He was full of grace THEN truth. It should always be in that order”

    If we put it in these terms, as I read the Bible I view it the other way around, He was full of truth first then grace…

    This is not to say that Grace wasn’t the motive of why God sent his Son into the world of course it was! It is also not to say that God isn’t primarily a relational God, He is ! (Christ’s work brings us back into fellowship with the Godhead) At the heart of the Gospel is the message of reconciliation – however this message of reconciliation cannot be received, unless there is repentance, repentance first from old sin, old loyalties, and old ways of living. The call to repentance precedes the message of reconciliation in order to prepare the heart to receive it, this is why we have John the Baptist (the forerunner), preaching repentance as a way preparing the masses to receive the message of reconciliation ( Mat 3 1-12) Jesus also, as He begins his ministry begins it by “preaching” repentance (Mat 4:17)

    Now as for the “cultural context” issue, I have all too have often heard that there is a very big difference in the way the gospel was presented to the Jews as to the Gentiles. Honestly don’t think this is entirely true, I think there is a very small difference. (the difference being that the Jews already had the knowledge of the one true God)

    The way I see it – the preaching of the Gospel goes basically something like this:

    First there is the acknowledgement of the one true God (Jews already acknowledged it, Gentiles were told it), Second there is the recognition or acknowledgement of sin against a just God (even if that sin was done in ignorance) third there is repentance or a turning away – first from old sin, old loyalties, and old ways of living – then and only then is there reconciliation between man and God.

    This basically is the pattern we find in the book of Acts – see 2:37-38, 3:17-19, 5:30-32, 17:30-31…(sometimes they’re sandwiched together in the same message)

    My honest question is (even to myself), why is “relational evangelism” elevated by evangelicals as the primary or preferred type of evangelism and the “confrontational type “of evangelism minimized (by saying “there is room in the kingdom” are you minimalizing it?) and seen as you call it, sometimes doing ‘more damage than they do good” (I have asked myself do I use this as an excuse for my cowardice?).

    We have to be careful of what we call “doing damage” and what we call “doing good” we do not always see the big picture and need to be careful not to measure things through our own particular experience. In evangelicalism there is a basic supposition that confronting the culture head-on without “showing” them the love of God (as you call it the “message and not the motive“) is somehow “doing damage”. The problem with this supposition is that as we read through the book of Acts (which is our record of how the Gospel went out and “engaged” the world) you will not find the word of “love“ or “love of God“:

    What we do find is the word “repent” and the word “turn”, we also find about 100 references to words like riots, uproars, tumults, persecution, and violent mobs. We find reactions like “they were enraged and wanted to kill them” (5:33) “When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth.” (7:54) they who have “turned the world upside down” (17:6) Even when we find the word “grace” in the book of Acts it is mainly spoken of as aid, care or benevolence bestowed by the gracious sovereign Lord after repentance to those who belonged to Him.

    People do not need to see “our motive” before we preach the Gospel to them – they need to see God’s motive – and God’s motive is “contained” in the Gospel “message” itself when it is preached correctly (as I mention above). Paul wasn’t worried about the “motives” of people when it came to the gospel:

    The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. ( Phil 1:17-18 )

    Now of course Jesus was a friend of sinners tax collectors and we must be too, however many of these same people left him when he preached strong words (John 6:66)

    Jesus preached repentance “to salvation “ – so should we:

    And Jesus answered and said to them “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:2-5)

    The heart of the question I want to ask is – is it time in this culture to turn this evangelical “relational evangelism” paradigm proportionately on its head ? (not by saying it is totally wrong, it is not) Should there be a heavier emphasis on “confrontational evangelism” (real engagement) which actually looks more biblical in my opinion (based on my arguments above) given the parallels of that day to the kind of world we live in today?

    In my opinion “repent” needs to be a word more of us evangelicals become familiar with – especially so we can break it down for sinners (so they understand it).

    Anyhow, either way you look at it, persecution in America is coming, the Christian and the humanist worldviews cannot coexist for long, tolerance is a shell game that is played until the “right values” (secular humanist ones) are inculcated into a culture then tolerance is turned on its head.

    The exclusive nature of Christianity ( Jesus is the only way) cannot coexist with inclusive pluralism for long. Christianity’s insistence (even in the church) that marriage is between one man and one woman cannot coexist or be tolerated by a culture defines these views as hatred.

    These things very definitely will come to the door of the church (they already have in some places) and if we do not confront them head on now – we will have to confront them later – except at a much higher cost ( in terms of persecution). The longer we cower the more fierce battle will become… until we are eventually overcome by those who hate us.

    I ask myself what has happened to us as Christians? Where are the Whitfield’s and Wesley’s of our day? Has a church becomes effeminate? What happened to Church militant? Where are the men who are willing to suffer the scorn and ridicule to preach the Gospel? I look around America today and only place I see men like these are there in the streets, truly engaging the culture by calling it to repentance.

    These folks work hard – they preach the gospel to the lost, they hand out tracks, bibles, and Christian literature, they do plenty of sidewalk counseling and sidewalk ministering, they do this to all who are open to receive it.

    I ask myself will these folks be the “hero’s” of church history of the future?


    When I look at them, compare them to what I know of church history and the scriptures (the many suffering and martyr preachers) they have my greatest respect, they are the real culture warriors…

    Grace & Peace,


    And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. (John 3:19-20)

  5. Hey Larry,

    I think we are mostly agreeing. My point is primarily that we go to two extremes sometimes. There are the lazy Christians who rarely do anything to engage culture and they just hope their lives are interesting enough to invite questions from unbelievers. Then there are those who turn people off to Christianity by damning people to hell without even knowing them (I’ve been confronted on the streets of Boston by a person who yelled at me and said I was going to hell…and I’m a Christian!).

    I’m advocating for the kind of person who does neither of these two things. I try to live like Jesus lived among unbelievers by spending time with them in their homes and inviting them over to my home and loving them regardless of their beliefs or behaviors. I don’t get in their face every single time we get together (or they would stop listening to me), but I have made sure that every single one of my friends knows what I am praying for them that they will come to know Jesus because He is the only way to the Father. Some have come to know Jesus as a result, others are still friends and they often bring up spiritual conversations. Other times I feel that I can raise an issue or confront a behavior because I have that close relationship with them. On the other hand, there are times I know to keep my mouth shut. In other words, I know them and I care for them. They know my message is sincere. While a person holding a sign or yelling through a megaphone could be sincere, the person on the other side will never know it. I want to engage culture with my sincerity because I know that’s the harder road and the more rewarding. With a tract or a sign, I can be sincere, I can be insincere and no one would ever know. So, I never question a street preachers motives, just his methods. Sometimes it is effective, but it’s hard to measure how effective, non-effective, or counter-effective it can be since no one knows the hearts of the people who hear other than God. You always know where you stand when you are sharing Christ with someone you care about.

    Now, I must qualify and say that there are times where the word that needs to be spoken to a friend will probably end the relationship, but because that relationship of trust has been built, and the word spoken is out of love, there is always the hope that they will realize the error of their ways and that the Spirit will draw them to Himself. This “relational evangelism” simply means that you are loving people just as we are commanded to do. That kind of love becomes evident to the one receiving the love and the seed falls on fertile soil.

    So, I advocate for a complete overhaul of the way we engage culture. We can’t sit passively by and let people die without knowing Jesus. We also cannot alienate people by focusing on one or two issues and neglecting the thousands of other injustices in the world that demand the attention of Christians (as if abortion and homosexuality were the only sins that a person might commit). Let’s start preaching the gospel boldly in the context of love.

  6. Nathan,

    We basically agree except with one qualification, you say:

    Sometimes it is effective, but it’s hard to measure how effective, non-effective, or counter-effective it can be since no one knows the hearts of the people who hear other than God.

    If church history is any “measure” of the effectiveness of open air preaching – then it has been very effective indeed:

    Jesus was an open air preacher (there is no way one could argue he spent quality time with everyone in the masses of people who came to him).

    The Apostle Paul was an open air preacher

    The Waldensians (forerunners to the reformation) were characterized by street preaching…

    Jonh Wycliff sent out his preaching Lollards (or Babblers) throughout England…

    Richard Cameron (Scottish Covenanter and field preacher) was saved by open-air preacher John Welch…

    Who can measure the impact of the great awakening preacher George Whitefield…

    or the impact of John Wesley who was converted by Moravian open Air preacher Peter Boehler

    and the Methodist circuit riders…

    How do you measure the impact of Charles Spurgeon or of D L Moody?

    A. W. Tozer and Billy Sunday were saved by hearing street preachers!

    This is just to name a few

    “Preaching” has been the main “method” we see the Church employing throughout the book of Acts:

    Open air preaching has had a huge impact!

    Would you agree?

    The way I see it – we need an army of old fashioned open-air preachers (ones who can handle the word of God correctly of course)


    After these things the Lord appointed seventy others also,and sent them two by two before His face into every city and place where He Himself was about to go. Then He said to them, “The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few; therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest. Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs among wolves. ( Luke 10:1-3 )

  7. A picture is worth a thousand words…. and more!!! God bless Ohio for standing up for LIFE.

    I wish we in Montgomery would present LIFE in such a way as well. I shall spread the word.

  8. Amen Katie!

    If the whole conservative christian Church in America were this bold we could change the debate and end this evil overnight…


    PS Thanks for stopping by!

  9. Awesome, convicting, post.

    “If the whole conservative christian Church in America were this bold we could change the debate and end this evil overnight…”

    I believe you’re correct!

    Thanks for linking to my blog. I shall return the favor.


  10. Lar,

    The church I used to belong to here in San Diego (which unfortunately had to close its doors a few years ago) had a ministry that did just that. Many of my friends that were involved in that ministry still participate every Saturday in front of the baby killing facility in down town San Diego.

    After years of doing this sort of peaceful holding of the signs and sidewalk counseling, the abortion ‘clinic’ in La Mesa finally shut down its doors. Praise God.

    So if anyone wants to ‘assert’ that this type of thing does more harm than good, just ask them how can you measure the ‘good’ of saving just one baby’s life?

    There are those that today will argue the idea that we should “engage the culture.” They ask “how can a culture be redeemed? It’s pathetic that we even have to defend the belief that we are to take the Gospel to the nations and ‘engage the culture,’ er uh, I mean disciple them. Just a reminder and shameless plug to those that are new to us, I wrote a post about the state of things here in California when 3 judges tried to usurp the God-given family authority to homeschool here: Enough is Enough, The Church needs to REPENT! I think it is relevant in that we, the church, have watered down our doctrine, that we are willing to argue against engagement like this. I’m reading Calvin on the civil magistrate right now. He says that we need to respect the tyrants put above us, because they’re still from God. But, they’re from God to curse us, His people, when we go astray. Pretty scary stuff.


  11. Rhett & Kaz,

    Thank you for your encouraging words…

    I work at a evangelical seminary here in Chicagoland and the big buzz word on campus for the last few years has been “cultural engagement”. One cant help but notice it is a very weak kind of engagement though, it is a very non offensive, non confrontational, and non combative kind of engagement.

    I have been thinking for some time about why my view of engagement is so different from many of theirs. It has been difficult to put my finger on it, but I believe many evangelicals (including emergent types) have picked up Kuyper’s theological approach to engaging “every area of life” for the gospel without Kuyper’s strong view of the antithesis (the sharp division between believers and unbelievers).

    I believe the problem is many of these folks place a disproportionate or imbalanced emphasis on Kuyper’s view of “common grace” with almost no emphasis on the antithesis.

    I believe that without an emphasis on the antithesis this morphed Kuyperian view neutralizes the militant nature of the Gospel (repent!) and weakens it to the point that engagement is no longer real engagement. It makes for a much more cowardly christian who thinks that because he is having a dialog with unbelievers that somehow he is engaging for the kingdom.

    What do you guys think? Do you think I am “on something” or “onto something”…


  12. Honestly, I’m really not sure where this idea of engaging every area of life comes from. I think that if it did come from Kuyper, as you describe, then it would probably look different. I’m not well versed with Kuyper at all to tell you the truth, so I’m not much help there.

    Something you bring up that I’ll just touch on is “common grace.” I’ve always accepted it since that is what I’ve always been taught. But a new friend of mine at our fellowship shared a book with me that was arguing against the doctrine of “common grace.” I wish I could remember the name of it and the author. Anyway, the idea was that what is grace to the elect becomes damning to the non-elect. So even though rain falls for the just and the unjust, it ‘just’ (excuse the pun) makes the unjust’s judgement on the final day that much more severe. It referred to the psalms saying that God is putting them on slippery slopes.

    I found it interesting, but I’m not quite ready to buy into it myself. I think that the very thing that makes it more damning to the unjust is the fact that it is God’s grace, or graciousness, or kindness, or whatever you want to call it, and the unjust rejected it.

    Anyway, there must be a balance within the church. Many members. But we must not reject our brethren that are called to go to the streets and prophetically confront the ninehvites with the message of “repent!” Maybe they’re the mouth, and others are the hands or feet or belly button. 🙂



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