How to Study Culture

You can’t engage what you don’t understand.

That might seem obvious, but if we’re honest, many Christians don’t really understand the world around them. It’s easy to disappear into a Christian subculture with our own music, radio stations, books, and websites, to the point that we’re not really existing in the larger culture.

But we can’t leverage our culture’s stories to explain the gospel without knowing both the gospel and the stories. We’ll circle back to knowing the gospel shortly, but for now, let’s talk about knowing culture’s stories.

Get to Know Culture’s Stories

How do you get to know culture’s stories? You learn what’s out there and seek to understand it.

Does that mean you should watch all the movies and shows everyone’s talking about at work, or spend your money on all the same things? No.

You don’t have to watch Game of Thrones to know about it. You don’t have to listen to music that’s degrading to women to hear what they’re saying. Instead, you can learn about these things through cultural commentators whose job it is to know what’s going on in the world.

Become a student of the culture around you, especially those aspects of culture that may be of least interest you but of most interest to those around you.

Studying culture will look different for everyone. To give you an idea of what this is like in my life, here are some of the ways I learn about culture:

Online articles

I read and subscribe to lots of free online publications, both secular and Christian, like The Atlantic (a progressive, secular outlet), The Gospel Coalition (a conservative, Christian outlet), The New York Times (a liberal, secular outlet), Christianity Today (a moderate, Christian outlet), and ERLC (the Ethics & Religious Liberties Commission of the SBC; a conservative, Christian outlet). If I want to know what conservatives are thinking and talking about, I’ll check FOX News. If I want to know what liberals are thinking, I’ll check CNN.

Each of these provides a unique cultural view and help me understand how people who belong to those cultures see the world. But regardless of which outlets you choose to read, try and balance your intake to hear from multiple sides of culture.

Podcasts

This is probably my favorite form of media right now. Podcasts are basically radio-like programs that you download to your phone. There are all kinds of shows, but one of my favorites is The World and Everything In It from World Radio. It’s like NPR from a Christian worldview. It’s definitely conservative, but it helps you approach the day’s new with eyes of faith. Al Mohler’s The Briefing is another great daily overview of the headlines from a Christian perspective. If you want to know what the more liberal, culture makes of the news, there are daily news digests from The New York Times (The Daily), NPR (Up First), and others. Film and TV podcasts like the Slashfilmcast are great for listening to reviews and overviews of some of the most culture-shaping artforms.

Social media

Most major news outlets and reporters are active on social media. Your mileage may vary when it comes to the ease of use or enjoyment of these platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, but if leveraged the right way, they can be helpful sources of cultural study. For instance, I’ve used Twitter for several years as both a way to share information and to keep an eye on what’s going on in the broader American culture. Doing this well requires careful curation of who you follow. 

Books

Obviously, books can be very helpful sources of cultural study. But what may be less known is that book lists and book review outlets can help you get a quick understanding of what books are shaping the cultural conversation. This can be as easy as looking up the New York Times bestseller list or Amazon’s best sellers and reading the descriptions of several of the top sellers, or more involved, like reading the New York Times book reviews or New York Review of Books, the Gospel Coalition’s book reviews, or Kirkus Reviews

I know what you’re thinking: that sounds like a lot of work. And in some ways, it is.

But think about it like this. If you were to go overseas as a missionary in a country you had never visited that spoke a language you didn’t know, you would do lots of homework to learn how to communicate the gospel effectively to the people there.

So why don’t we do the same thing here? We are missionaries sent to a particular place in a particular country with plenty of people who don’t know the gospel. As Christ’s ambassadors, one of our jobs is to understand the culture we live in so we can effectively share the gospel with the people around us.

To that end, the most important way to engage culture and learn how to speak into it is to talk to people in it.

People

We can read all the books and watch all the movies we want, but nothing prepares us to speak into it like speaking into it.

Talk to your neighbors. Talk to your coworkers. Talk to your friends and family. Spend time understanding them so you can reach them for Christ.

Be hospitable. Invite your neighbors over for dinner. Take coworkers out to lunch. Meet people for coffee. Do something to reach out to and love on your neighbors. Hospitality lets people know you care about them, and it creates opportunities for conversations about faith, which ties into asking good questions.

When you’re talking to people, ask good questions that get them to go below the surface.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m around people I don’t know well, or even people I do, it’s easy to stay on the surface. It’s safer there. I don’t have to tell you what I believe or what I think. I don’t have to be vulnerable.

Do the heavy lifting

The thing about us is that we want to go deep, we just don’t want to make the first move.

We don’t want to do the heavy lifting in the conversation, but we want someone to ask us about something that really matters.

Do the heavy lifting. Ask good questions. When someone tells you they had a good weekend, ask them what they did. When they tell you what they did, ask them why they find those things fun.

When someone tells you they had a crazy day at work, ask them what they mean. When they tell you what they mean, ask them how the difficult moments made them feel.

Say things like “Tell me more about that,” or “What do you mean by that?” or “How did that make you feel?”

Proverbs 20:5 says, “Counsel in a person’s heart is deep water; but a person of understanding draws it out.” Draw out the counsel in a person’s heart, bit by bit. Most people have plenty to say if you take the time to listen and ask good questions.

Do Your Cultural Homework

God has you in your family, your neighborhood, your workplace, and your community because he wants you to speak the gospel to the people in those particular cultures.

But you can’t do that well if you don’t know the stories those people are living and breathing. 

So do some cultural homework. Read some stuff, listen to some things, but most importantly, talk to some people — for God’s glory and neighbor’s good.