n one of my messages last week at the Ocean City Bible Conference, I remarked that evangelicals should spend less energy desperately seeking new ways to be hip and trendy, and invest far more of our time and resources in the work of proclaiming and defending the gospel.
After all, when we call ourselves EVANGELicals, we are purporting to hold the gospel message in high esteem. It is therefore ironic (and utterly inappropriate) that the mainstream of the contemporary evangelical movement is so blithely willing to adjust or tone down the gospel message in order to try to get in step with the values, trends, and dominant worldviews of our culture.
Whereas our spiritual ancestors studied Scripture with a deep concern for clarity, accuracy, and doctrinal soundness, today's evangelicals like to study popular culture with a similar intensity of zeal, but their obsession is mainly with the fads of the moment. They are hungry for the world's approval and esteem—yet they invariably manage to show up late to every party, usually dressed in last year's fashions.
Moreover, the quest to fit into secular culture has made the core of the evangelical movement more like the classic modernists of Harry Emerson Fosdick's ilk than truly evangelical in the sense the Reformers and their spiritual heirs have historically employed that term.
I think Thabiti Anyabwile or one of the other speakers at Ocean City must have said something in a similar vein (though undoubtedly with more class and diplomacy than I), because during the Q&A near the conference's end, someone submitted a question that was worded something like this:
Thabiti answered the question well and succinctly in the Q&A, and you ought to see if an mp3 of that session is available. (UPDATE: It's there. Download the Coffeehouse Q&A. The relevant portion begins at 7:47.) But I want to give an expanded answer in writing here, because people frequently misunderstand the point I'm trying to make when I criticize evangelicals for fad-chasing and worldview-tinkering. Since it's a criticism I make a lot (it has been the main theme of this blog for the past 5+ years) it's worth repeating and clarifying until every last reader gets it:
- No one but the strictest Amish sects opposes "engaging the culture."
- But "engaging the culture" means vastly different things to different people. To Chuck Colson, it seems to involve political activism. To some in the Young, Restless, and Reformed community, it evidently entails body modification and blue language. To someone who thinks of himself as "cultured," it might mean something considerably more highbrow. It's an expression that is almost as ill-defined as it is overused.
- And culture is a big idea, encompassing much, much more than superficial badges like tattoos, slang, high-end coffee, and contemporary music styles.
- For the record, no one is more in favor of earnestly "engaging the culture" in a true and biblical way than I am, assuming we let the Word of God define the kind of "engagement" that is appropriate.
- Sometimes we need to engage the world's culture by foregoing our own freedom and becoming servants who observe whatever cultural taboos are deemed sacrosanct (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
- Sometimes we need to engage the world's culture by refusing its tastes and values, as Daniel did in Daniel 1:8-21.
- Sometimes we need to engage the world's culture by mocking it, as Elijah did in 1 Kings 18:27.
- Sometimes we need to engage the world's culture by attacking it, in a manner analogous to the zeal with which David attacked Goliath and the Philistines in 1 Kings 17:26-54.
. . . and so on. The point is that there's not any one-size-fits-all approach to "cultural engagement" that is appropriate for every earthly culture or every situation. However, it is best to remember that all earthly cultures are fallen and at their core are hostile to God. Certainly adopting the language and fashions of a culture's most uncultured subcultures is no sound biblical strategy for church ministry and spiritual growth.
Above all, we need to remember that we're not supposed to make ourselves at home in this world. The world hates Christ and most likely will also detest those who love Him (John 15:18-20; 1 John 3:13). Winning the world's esteem has never been a valid goal for faithful Christians. In fact, when "cultural engagement" becomes a quest for street cred, academic respectability, or any other form of worldly approval, it is no longer the kind of cultural engagement Scripture calls us to.