Engaging the culture

At a recent meeting of the General Board of our denomination we were discussing how our church should respond to a number of current issues that are being discussed in our society and community. Near the top of the list was the question of gay marriage, the range of current gender issues, as well as abortion and assisted suicide or euthanasia.

imgresSome people wonder if we need to comment at all on these issues. Carl Trueman believes that it can all be a massive waste of time.

“One of the key failures of the currently trendy Christian cultural engagement movement is that it takes the questions which the culture is asking too seriously. We often assume that it is the answers which the world gives which are its means of avoiding the truth. In actual fact, there is no reason to assume that the very questions it asks are not also part of the cover-up. ‘Answer my question about women’s rights or saving the whale’ might simply be another way of saying, ‘I don’t want you to tell me that my neglect of my wife and children is an offence to God.’

Christianity is doomed to be a sect because not only do we refuse to give the answers to life’s questions in terms the world finds comfortable; we also refuse to allow the world to set the terms of the questions. The sooner we grasp that, the better it will be for all of us. Our ministers might then spend more time on theology (perhaps even do a bit of reading ‘within the tradition’ before finding it helpful to ‘read outside the tradition’), more time being different to the leaders in the surrounding culture, and much less time worrying about how the world sees us. Trust me on this: it sees us as a cranky sect. Now keep calm and carry on.”

But before we begin to formulate our position, it might be worthwhile for Irish Presbyterians to think again about the underlying theological questions about the relationship between the church and contemporary culture.

refsr_1_11These questions are discussed by Tim Keller in his recent book, Center Church. He reckons that our concerns can be reduced to two fundamental questions: Firstly, there is the question about our attitude toward cultural change. Should we be pessimistic or optimistic about the possibility for cultural change? The second question addresses our understanding of the nature of culture itself, and asks about its potential for redemption: Is the current culture redeemable and good, or fundamentally fallen?

Keller says that our answers to these two questions will reveal our alignments with biblical emphases as well as our imbalances.

One helpful attempt at answering these questions comes from Don Carson in his book, Christ and Culture Revisited. By considering the great biblical story line or “metanarrative” of the Bible, we can gain the necessary framework for understanding what our response should be to current issues. Biblical theology should “control our thinking simultaneously and at all the time”, says Carson.

booksThe doctrine of creation tells us that the material world is important. This world is a work of art and love by our Creator, and that all who work in “God’s garden” are doing “the Lord’s work”, be they bankers or artists or writers or nurses or clergymen. All human work and cultural activity can represent and advance God’s good intentions for his world.

But the fall into sin has infected and affected every part of life. Francis Schaeffer pointed out all the wounds that were inflicted on our world by Adam’s sin and the resulting curse: spiritual wounds were created as man was separated from God; psychological wounds as humans are separated from themselves; sociological divisions were created between people; and the ecological wound opened up of humans being separated from nature and creation. Schaeffer said that, on the basis of the work of Christ, we should be looking for “substantial healing” of all these wounds.

Traditionally reformed Christians have used the concept of common grace to account for the fact that good things happen in our world through people who are not professing Christians. In Genesis 8 and 9 God promises to bless and sustain creation through a means different from his special or saving grace. Common grace is, according to John Murray, “every favour of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God”.

Understanding that our fallen world is cursed and broken, and yet is sustained by common grace, is crucial to understanding how we relate to our culture. As salt in the world, Christians can expect to have a restraining influence on the world’s evil and corruption, but we have limited expectations. Because of creation and common grace, we can engage purposefully in every aspect of our common life, but because of sin and the fall we have limited expectations about the changes we may see happening.

The advent of Christ inaugurated his kingdom and the beginning of the programme to reverse the effects of the fall into sin. Just as sin has infected and affected every aspect of life, so Christ’s salvation must renew and restore every aspect of life. The wounds opened up by sin must be healed and we should, according to Schaeffer, look for substantial healing of these wounds.

While the work of Christ resolved the spiritual issue of our relationship with God and enables us to be justified and adopted into God’s family, the psychological, social, and ecological effects of sin are still with us. “Already” the kingdom is here, but “not yet” is it here in all its fullness.

What are the practical implications of this understanding? Keller concludes that the church must be missional, and he develops what he believes are the six key marks of a missional church.

The fact is that for centuries in the Western world, the Christian church had a privileged position, but this is no longer true. Christianity has moved to the margins. In a former day, the church could afford to train people solely in prayer, Bible study and evangelism, all the skills they needed to sustain their private spiritual lives. Not much more was needed because they were not facing radically non-Christian values in their public lives.

But the challenge the church now faces is to train and equip its members and send them out into the world to minister. People need to “think Christianly” about everything and to act with Christian distinctiveness wherever they are engaged.

That’s why I think the primary goal of engaging with the current questions and issues must be for the benefit of Christian people in our churches who need to grasp the biblical view of marriage and the sanctity of human life. Only then will they be able to challenge society’s idols and be equipped to speak and live the gospel clearly and skillfully.

6 Replies to “Engaging the culture”

  1. Thanks Stafford, great post. Following on then, I wonder to what extent our traditional Church diary facilitates the quest of which you speak? A Christian woman I know well spent many years working in the City and volunteered in her local youth group in an evangelical congregation in SW London. She has since returned to NI and noticed the big difference between evangelicals in London and here at home: the amount of time parents spend instructing their children.

    Perhaps our PCI Churches are so busy meeting in the Church building (doing many good things) rather than the better objective of building counter cultural disciples in our own homes? Perhaps our ministers are spending too much time feeding (some of) the flock with our 2 sermon + midweek structure and not enough time with new families / reading the Bible with non Christians?

  2. Forgot to add, although I have been greatly helped by the two books you quote, I have to say there is some truth in what Carl Trueman has to say. Perhaps if I read Carson’s final chapter correctly, there are times when we are silent and there are times when we engage. It depends on the context that God provides. I think our current context is moving so advancedly against orthodox Christianity that we are entering a late autumn / early winter period of persecution to use Keller’s analogy. Even in NI…..

  3. I think on a previous blog I made the observation that all too often the church allows the secular world to set our agenda. We react to the latest survey or engage on an issue that others believe is crucial, without seeing where such topics impact our priorities.

    But then again, how many churches have established and communicated their priorities and focus the church’s resources and efforts to them.

    Quick question – what is PCI’s top three objectives? once we have the answer to this question the next question is simply, every time the church speaks how does our response fulfil the needs of these objectives?

  4. Absolutely agree about engaging primarily with church members. PCI wouldn’t want to end up in the position of say, the Roman Catholic Church, whose leadership has a clear stance on ethical issues and yet surveys of its membership show that many hold opposite views. I can see this happening in PCI too because the voice of the world is so all pervading. Christian people need to be equipped to make a clear connection between Christian ethical views and the gospel narrative that should shape our lives so that they can live it out by the work of the Holy Spirit. Reading on the history of the church recently highlighted to me that when Christians live out their ethics that is when others sit up and take notice. One such story is about how missionaries in Greenland used to bury the discarded dead of a local tribe and made that tribe realise that the missionaries cared more about their dead than they did. Then they were ready to listen to the gospel. As it stands, the general perception in Western society is that we care less about people and more about ethics. This is largely a false perception but one that can only really be corrected through Christians witnessing to a better way.

  5. PCI should consider which culture it wants to engage. A spiritual and moral chasm has opened between Northern Ireland and England. Recent trends have worrying implications for religious freedom.
    There is a slight cultural divide between Northern Catholics and Protestants, and we would be foolish to overlook that. However, we have more in common than we often admit. Furthermore, the Irish Constitution expresses ideals that most evangelical Christians would have a great deal of sympathy with.

    “The State acknowledges the right to life of the
    unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to
    life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to
    respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to
    defend and vindicate that right.”

    “The education of public opinion being,
    however, a matter of such grave import to
    the common good, the State shall
    endeavour to ensure that organs of public
    opinion, such as the radio, the press, the
    cinema, while preserving their rightful
    liberty of expression, including criticism
    of Government policy, shall not be used to
    undermine public order or morality or the
    authority of the State.”

    “The State recognises the Family as the natural
    primary and fundamental unit group of Society,and as a moral institution possessing inalienable
    and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior
    to all positive law.”

    “The State pledges itself to guard with special
    care the institution of Marriage, on which the
    Family is founded, and to protect it against attack.”

    If Northern nationalists were to promote the Irish Constitution, rather than a narrow view of Irish culture, would Northern Presbyterians be prepared to listen? Our Kingdom is not of this world, at the end of the day. Could we do more good in a different political culture? Is the question worth asking?


  6. Good question Graham! Though I think the majority of Presbyterians are too entrenched to consider it. I do question the extent to which Irish political / cultural life in the south may remain open to a more ‘Christian’ reading of how national life is ordered / constituted. A glance at the Dublin press reveals a secularism almost out pacing London.

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