Where Persecution in America Comes From

“Where does persecution in America come from? Because I can’t figure it out.” The man, a lifelong missionary only recently driven home by health concerns, glared at the class, his eyes piercing students’ hearts.

He had just lamented the increasingly weak witness of the American church after recounting stories of persecuted believers — the ones being tortured, dragged from their homes, or thrown in prison — who can’t imagine giving up their witness.

The only answers he got were blank stares. I certainly didn’t have an answer.

Why is our witness so weak when we have easy access to reach our neighbors with the gospel? What stops us from walking across the street or going into the unreached parts of our towns and cities? If our brothers and sisters are risking their necks to do it around the world, why aren’t we doing it here?

These questions haunt me.

But I may have figured out the answer (or at least part of it) to where American persecution comes from.

Where Persecution in America Comes From

Where does persecution in America come from? Nowhere.

Let me explain by looking at the effects on believers of living with and without persecution.

Persecution causes would-be believers to count the cost before following Jesus. The knowledge that you’ll likely lose your home, family, and job because you were baptized into the Christian faith makes you think more than twice about pledging allegiance to the cross.

But when there don’t appear to be any real costs to following Jesus, as is the case in America, what’s the big deal in saying you believe? This is changing in America, to some extent, but the odds of a professing believer losing their job or family because of their belief are very slim compared to other parts of the world. Without counting the cost, the odds of being choked out by the cares and riches of the world (Matthew 13:22) are much, much greater. This is one big reason why American Christianity is filled with so-called Christians who no longer practice the faith.

Persecution results in suffering that can catalyze sanctification. This is why the church is called to rejoice in its suffering, because “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5). Christians are called to count it a joy when they meet trials of various kinds, because the testing of our faith produces steadfastness. And when steadfastness reaches its full effect, we will be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4).

But without persecution, the drive for sanctification has to come from inside believers. Sanctification requires self-control, or self-discipline. Without self-control, there will be little sanctification. There has never been a freer society than modern America. Yet for all our freedom, I doubt anyone would say Americans are among the most self-controlled people to have lived. In fact, we might say the opposite.

Persecution forces Christians to focus on what’s important and to band together to thrive. You’re not too concerned about your brother or sister’s views of the end times when you know you’ll be dragged off to prison if the wrong person stops by your house church. This leads to a great deal of unity, which was chief among Christ’s concerns for his church (see John 17).

Without persecution, the church is at peace. Every solider knows that in-fighting happens during times of peace, not times of war. Divisions can grow like wildfire when there is no common interest or sustaining cause. Christians in the U.S. are as divided as any group of believers has ever been.

America looks more like a country without persecution. We can incorrectly identify the pressures on American believers as persecution if we assume society is always persecuting Christians. But persecution is not the real problem in America. Assimilation is.

When Persecution Gives Way to Assimilation

Babylon, the great and terrible symbol of corrupt society in Scripture, didn’t burn Christians and throw them to the lions like Rome. Babylonians noticed that persecution of religious or ethnic minorities led to unrest and political instability, so they decided to try something new. Babylonian kings told those they conquered that they were welcome to keep their gods and customs — so long as they conformed to the Babylonian way of life. As long as they kept their culture and religion to themselves, they would be fine.

When persecution gives way to assimilation, the witness of the church dulls. It doesn’t have to, but it almost always does. Cultural assimilation, the particular brand of assimilation most effective at rendering the church impotent, allows worldly beliefs to seep into the heart, mind, and soul of the believer, slowly taking over until they don’t even know they’ve been overtaken.

J.D. Greear often says, “Distraction has sent more people to hell than doubt and disbelief ever have.” Assimilation is cooridnated cultural distraction. It is the coordinated, ongoing effort to so blend the beliefs of its subjects that they can no longer taste the individual ingredients.

How to Survive Assimilation

The Bible tells of four men who successfully resisted assimilation into the great Babylonian empire: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. The latter three you’ll recognize by their Babylonian names, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Their pagan names were the first step in Babylon’s attempted assimilation of these men and their fellow Jews.

But time and time again, Daniel and his companions withstood the mounting pressure to be absorbed into the fray. How did they do it? I’ve written previously about three postures Daniel assumed to faithfully engage his culture so I won’t recount those here. Instead, it’s crucial to point out what quality these four Hebrews had in common that bolstered their spirits against assimilation: self-control.

Read through the first six chapters of Daniel and you’ll see the four men resist the Babylonian diet that would be unclean according to Jewish law (ch. 1); Daniel remain steadfast under threat of death (ch. 2); Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego resisting to bow down and worship a false God (ch. 3); and Daniel sticking to his regular practice of praying three times a day with his windows open towards Jerusalem (ch. 6).

How were they able to hold strong against all these pressures, most of which were life-threatening? Self-control, or perhaps more appropriately, self-discipline. They were disciplined not to lose their Jewishness despite their exile. They did not cede that which made them strong in the faith. Without formative practices like adhering to the food laws and practicing regular prayer, they would not have kept the faith.

When we lack the discipline to exercise our faith in the world and aren’t willing to endure suffering, we will never be all that God has in store for us. Persecution provides the means for sanctification and the impetus for mission. If there is no (real) persecution, you need disciplined, determined believers who understand that complacency isn’t an option.

Training for Godliness

Paul understood that complacency in the face of assimilation was a death sentence for a believer and for the gospel. That’s why he told young Timothy, who was facing cultural pressure to conform to Ephesian ways,

Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. —1 Timothy 4:7-8

It takes self-discipline to train one’s self. Without self-discipline, an athlete won’t achieve their desired prize. Without self-discipline, a believer won’t achieve their desired crown.

What does it mean to “train yourself for godliness”? It means to institute the use of spiritual disciplines in your life. For thousands of years, the church has identified and employed the use of certain practices which, when pursued with pure motives, are ideal for forming heart, mind, and soul into the image of Christ. These “spiritual” disciplines include fasting, reading Scripture, prayer, silence, solitude, and celebration, among other practices.

In his comments on fasting that can be applied to each of the disciplines or the disciplines taken together, C.S. Lewis wrote,

Fasting asserts the will against the appetite — the reward being self-mastery and the danger pride. … But the redemptive effect of suffering lies chiefly in its tendency to reduce the rebel will. Ascetic practices [or spiritual disciplines], which in themselves strengthen the will, are only useful in so far as they enable the will to put its own house (the passions) in order, as a preparation for offering the whole man to God.

The disciplines are necessary if a believer is going to assert his will against his desires, thereby reducing the power of his desires over time. This he is to do in preparation for offering himself up to God as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1).

The persecution in America comes from nowhere. Rather, persecution has given way to assimilation, a more formidable foe. The only way believers in America will be able to withstand assimilation is by dedicating themselves to the ancient spiritual disciplines that saw Daniel and his friends through the pressure to assimilate.

Will we in the American church train ourselves for godliness?

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.

How to Determine Which Parts of Culture are OK to Engage

I mentioned in my last post that I would cover what to do when you’re trying to determine if a Christian can participate in a particular aspect of culture.

If a particular form of cultural engagement causes you to disobey one of God’s commands, you shouldn’t participate in it. Simple. Sometimes it’s obvious what we shouldn’t participate in.

Pornography is an easy example. It’s an industry built on sin, and it’s impossible to participate in it without sinning. So there’s simply no way our Christian conscience should let us participate in it.

But it’s not always so black and white, is it? What about watching popular shows like Game of Thrones or viewing classic works of art that depict nude figures? Can a Christian participate in these kinds of culture?

Let’s build a biblical framework for thinking through how to determine if a particular aspect of culture is something you can engage in.

No Worthless Things

The first text that comes to mind here is Psalm 101:3, which says, “I will not let anything worthless guide me,” or more literally, “I will not put a worthless thing in front of my eyes.”

When it comes to evaluating a particular aspect of culture, such as a movie, show, book, or product, we should ask ourselves, Is this worthless? Does it contribute anything of value? Is it redeeming in any way?

If the object in question falls under that “worthless” category, then we shouldn’t engage it. No further analysis needed.

But Paul takes this one step further. He says that even if something is acceptable to engage in, that doesn’t mean it’s best.

Just Because You Can, it Doesn’t Mean You Should

In 1 Corinthians 6:12, Paul writes, “‘Everything is permissible for me,’ but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible for me,’ but I will not be mastered by anything.”

If you look at this verse, you’ll notice that there within Paul’s quotation are two phrases set in quotation marks, which means that Paul is quoting someone or something else. It’s the phrase, “Everything is permissible for me.” Commentators believe Paul is referring to a popular Corinthian slogan.

Regarding this verse, the notes in my ESV Study Bible say,

The Corinthians have adopted from the culture around them the idea that the body is permitted to have everything that it craves.

Notice two things. First, Paul gives us a “yes, but” scenario. He says, yes, everything may be permissible for me because I am free in Christ, but that doesn’t mean everything is beneficial, or helpful, for me. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.

The second thing to note about this verse is why Paul says we shouldn’t do some things. I like how my ESV Study Bible puts this:

Paul knows that human desires are tainted with sin, which uses these desires to master the person for its own evil purposes.

We all desire to participate in the worldly parts of culture. But our desires are not pure. They are tainted with sin. And sin will pounce on our ungodly desires and master us if we’re not careful.

So yes, we can participate in many aspects of our culture. But just because we can, it doesn’t mean we should. 

More on Cultural Engagement

If you want to read more about cultural engagement, I’ve written about why Christians should engage culture, and postures we can take for cultural engagement.

As I said in one of those posts, when Jesus engaged the culture, he rubbed off on them, not the other way around. He ate with sinners but he didn’t sin with sinners. That’s what effective cultural engagement looks like. To be in the world but not of it; working in the world without being stained by it.

And the only way to pull that off is to first engage with Christ. The Spirit of Christ has to have taken up residence in our heart, soul, mind, and strength before we can engage the culture for him. Then and only then will we be prepared to engage the culture.

3 Biblical Postures for Cultural Engagement

Christians should be engaging the culture. As I wrote recently, we Christians (just like anyone) can’t avoid culture any more than a fish can avoid water.

But we don’t engage culture just because we can’t avoid it. We engage culture because it’s part of our calling. The whole counsel of Scripture calls us to engage the world around us so we can speak the gospel into it.

But how do you do that? And how do you do it without compromising your faith or the integrity of the gospel?

The book of Daniel shows us three postures for engaging culture.

Why the Book of Daniel?

I’m pulling these lessons from Daniel for good reason. For some quick background, Daniel was a prophet of God that lived during Israel’s exile to Babylon. Because of Israel’s continual disobedience, God sent the Babylonian army to destroy Jerusalem and send the people into exile.

Babylon was known for its cruelty and gruesomeness when conquering other nations, but interestingly, they didn’t just try and kill everyone in these nations and wipe out their cultures. Babylonians noticed that persecuting religious or ethnic minorities led to unrest and political instability, so they decided to try something new.

Babylonian kings told those they conquered that they were welcome to keep their gods and customs, as long as they conformed to the Babylonian way of life. As long as they kept their culture and religion to themselves, they would be fine. This is called cultural assimilation, and it’s the same pressure we face in America.

Babylon would assimilate other cultures into theirs until those that had been assimilated couldn’t tell one culture from the other. They did this by capturing the best and brightest a culture had to offer and indoctrinating them in the Babylonian culture. Which brings us to Daniel:

The [Babylonian] king ordered Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the Israelites from the royal family and from the nobility—young men without any physical defect, good-looking, suitable for instruction in all wisdom, knowledgeable, perceptive, and capable of serving in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the Chaldean language and literature.  —Daniel 1:3-4

The king’s goal for Daniel and his friends was to assimilate them into their culture so that the Babylonian culture would then permeate the Jewish culture, rendering it ineffective and non-threatening.

Because God’s favor is on him, Daniel quickly rose to the top of the class and became one of the king’s most trusted advisors. So here’s Daniel, who was raised as a young boy to fear the one true God, serving in the bureaucracy of a pagan nation that had just murdered many of the people he grew up with and desecrated his city. How in the world could he serve God faithfully in that setting?

We’re going to learn three lessons from Daniel’s story about how to faithfully engage culture. The first is non-participation.

Posture 1: Non-Participation

Remember, Daniel and his friends had just been taken into the king’s custody and were being told to eat and drink the king’s diet. Let’s pick up with the story, starting at verse 8:

Daniel determined that he would not defile himself with the king’s food or with the wine he drank. So he asked permission from the chief eunuch not to defile himself. God had granted Daniel kindness and compassion from the chief eunuch, yet he said to Daniel, “I fear my lord the king, who assigned your food and drink. What if he sees your faces looking thinner than the other young men your age? You would endanger my life with the king.”

So Daniel said to the guard whom the chief eunuch had assigned to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, “Please test your servants for ten days. Let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then examine our appearance and the appearance of the young men who are eating the king’s food, and deal with your servants based on what you see.” —Daniel 1:8-13

Daniel had a choice to make: he could participate or not participate in the diet, meaning he could participate or not participate in this aspect of the Babylonian culture. But everyone else was participating? Surely Daniel could just wink at this, right?

No, he couldn’t. Daniel chose not to participate — non-participation — in this aspect of his culture because he knew he couldn’t eat the Babylonian diet and obey God’s commands at the same time. That’s how we should decide whether or not to engage in culture today.

(Now, not every situation is black and white. Sometimes it’s unclear if we can or cannot participate in a particular form of culture, but for the sake of space, I’ll have to explore that in a future post.)

Daniel chose non-participation despite the very real danger to his life because to do so would be against God’s commands. All of us will face moments where non-participation is called for. Our lives may not be endangered, but our reputations, or jobs, or savings, or relationships might be.

Posture 2: Faithful Presence

Daniel chose non-participation when a particular form of cultural engagement would cause him to disobey God’s commands. But what about those times when engagement wouldn’t cause us to disobey a direct command from God?

That brings us to the next lesson from Daniel’s life, which I’ll call faithful presence. Faithful presence is what it looks like to participate in a sinful culture in a godly way.

This lesson comes from all of Daniel chapter 2, where the Babylonian king is distraught over a dream and is looking for someone to interpret it for him. So he told the mediums, necromancers, magicians, and wise men that if they didn’t tell him what the dream was and interpret it, that he would have them and their families killed. Daniel was considered a wise man, so he was on the chopping block too.

The wise men were, naturally, in disbelief, because how could the king ask them to read his mind? No one can do that. But the king wasn’t backing down.

When word of the king’s decision made its way to Daniel, he was understandably grieved and afraid. Daniel hightailed it back to his house and told his buddies, and urged them to pray so that they, along with Babylon’s other wise men, wouldn’t be destroyed.

In the night, God came to Daniel in a vision and revealed the king’s dream and its interpretation to Daniel. Not wasting any time, Daniel found someone that trusted him in the king’s guard and pleaded with the guard to let him go before the king.

Here’s what happened next:

The king said in reply to Daniel, whose name was Belteshazzar, “Are you able to tell me the dream I had and its interpretation?”

Daniel answered the king: “No wise man, medium, magician, or diviner is able to make known to the king the mystery he asked about. But there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has let King Nebuchadnezzar know what will happen in the last days. Your dream and the visions that came into your mind as you lay in bed were these: Your Majesty, while you were in your bed, thoughts came to your mind about what will happen in the future. The revealer of mysteries has let you know what will happen.

As for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because I have more wisdom than anyone living, but in order that the interpretation might be made known to the king, and that you may understand the thoughts of your mind. —Daniel 2:27-30

Daniel was forced to participate in his culture or he and his friends would be killed for an unjust cause. This was a time where participation in the culture was good and right.

Daniel’s answer reveals what that being a faithful presence starts with acknowledging God. Daniel told the king who thought he was the lord of the earth that there is a God in heaven who is actually the one in charge. And that God is in control of what happens to the king, his kingdom, and everything else. 

But Daniel was also humble. He could have easily just taken credit for what he already knew. After all, God had already revealed the king’s dream and the interpretation to him.

You’ve no doubt found yourself in a similar situation where you could easily keep quiet about the God of the universe his Son who rose from the dead. In those moments, don’t forget to acknowledge God. Like Daniel said, God is the only reason any of us has anything to offer.

When you receive a promotion, are you quick to pat yourself on the back and allow others to sing your praises? It would be easy to do. What if you first acknowledged that God gave you the wisdom or work ethic or experience needed to get the promotion?

Posture 3: Resistance

The last lesson we’ll look at from Daniel’s life comes from the famous Daniel and the Lion’s Den story in Daniel chapter 6.

By this time, Daniel had risen through the ranks to be one of the king’s trusted satraps, or governors. The Lord blessed him in everything he did, so, naturally, the king loved him and his fellow governors hated him. They hated him so much, they decided to try and get him killed. 

The only problem was they couldn’t find any faults with him. He was so competent and faithful that he was above reproach in every area of his life. But there was one thing they knew Daniel wouldn’t compromise—his God.

So they tricked the king into making a law that all Babylonian citizens were required to pray to the king alone. If anyone prayed to another god, they would be thrown into a den of lions. The trap was set, and the king’s decree went out to the nation. Daniel 6:10 records what happens next:

“When Daniel learned that the document had been signed, he went into his house. The windows in its upstairs room opened toward Jerusalem, and three times a day he got down on his knees, prayed, and gave thanks to his God, just as he had done before.”

Resistance is taking action to pursue obedience to God in defiance of a cultural norm. That’s exactly what Daniel was doing. He learned the document had been signed, so he went home.

What does he do at home? What he’s always done. He prays with the windows open, facing Jerusalem, giving thanks to God. He knowingly disobeys the newly established cultural norm because obeying the norm would mean disobeying God.

This is more than non-participation. This is Daniel taking action to resist the culture.

Each of us is presented with moments like these, probably more than we think. Have you ever found yourself in a culture of lying at work, where everyone fudges the numbers or slips an extra receipt on the expense report? Do you resist or give in?

Or maybe you’ve been out with other your married friends when they started bashing their spouse and they wanted to know what bugs you about yours. Do you resist or give in?

These are everyday moments. All of us are called on to take action to resist culture when participation would cause us to disobey God’s commands.

The Danger of Cultural Engagement

Now that I’ve covered these three postures for cultural engagement, let me say a quick word of caution. The danger with cultural engagement is that we enter the culture trying to influence it but we end up being influenced instead. Too many Christians set out to colonize the world and end up being colonized by it. That’s not what we’re after.

When Jesus engaged the culture, he rubbed off on them, not the other way around. He ate with sinners but he didn’t sin with sinners. That’s what effective cultural engagement looks like. To be in the world but not of it; working in the world without being stained by it.

And the only way to pull that off is to first be colonized by Christ. The Spirit of Christ has to have taken up residence in our heart, soul, mind, and strength before we can engage the culture for him.

So, please don’t engage the culture if you haven’t first engaged Christ. Otherwise, you have nothing to offer the culture that it doesn’t already have.

Engage with Christ through faith — spend time with him by reading his Bible and praying with him and seeking his insight. Then and only then will you or I or anyone else be truly prepared to engage the culture.

Should Christians Engage Culture?

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

So begins the late David Foster Wallace’s 2005 address to the graduating class at Kenyon College. The fish in this parable are surrounded by water and have been for so long that they take it for granted. For fish, water is an unavoidable part of life that it defines and shapes every aspect of life, to the degree that it’s impossible for the mythical fish to imagine a world without it.

Culture is like water — we can’t avoid it any more than fish can avoid water.

But we don’t have to engage something just because it’s unavoidable. As long as there have been Christians, they have been debating the issue of cultural engagement. There are many viewpoints on this issue, but we have to start with a simple question: should Christians engage culture?

What is Culture?

Before we can answer that question, we need to define some terms. Let’s start with culture.

In his book, Culture Making, Andy Crouch says,

Culture is the fruit of the human quest for meaning in the world. Culture is both the things we make and the meaning we make in the world around us. Those things and meaning we produce are culture.

According to Crouch, as we make something of the world, whether through meaning or things, we’re making culture. That means when you bake a cake, you’re creating culture; when you develop a spreadsheet, you’re creating culture; when you take a family vacation and make memories, you’re creating culture.

Now let’s define “engage.” When we say “engaging” culture, we’re using engage as a verb. When used that way, it means “to participate or become involved in.” So to say Christians should be “engaging culture” means that they should become involved in culture, or participate in culture.

In one sense, it doesn’t make sense to say we should participate or become involved in culture, because all of us participates in several cultures already, such as our family’s culture or our workplace culture. But when Christians use the phrase “engaging culture,” what we usually mean is engaging non-Christians on their terms, in their culture.

So, to come back to our question, should Christians engage culture? Let’s see what the Bible says about culture.

What Genesis Says About Culture

Whenever we go to the Bible to see what it says about a topic, it’s a good idea to start at the beginning — the very beginning. So let’s go to the Creation account on the first page of the Bible. In Genesis 1:28, right after God made man, the Bible says,

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.”

So here’s this brand new world filled with all the wildness of animals and plants and trees and oceans — a new world teeming with life and possibility. Then God creates Adam and Eve and tells them to subdue it and to rule it — to make something out of it — using the raw materials he has provided. And that’s essentially what culture is — the meaning and the things we make.

This verse, Genesis 1:28, is referred to as “the cultural mandate” — the mandate to make culture and renew the world for the glory of God. So from the first page of the Bible, we’re already talking about culture. But let’s keep going. And let’s just go straight to Jesus.

What Jesus Says About Culture

What did Jesus say about engaging culture? Well, when Jesus relayed what could be called his mission statement, or why he came to earth, he said,

For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).

“The lost” refers to those who are living in sin apart from saving faith in himself. If Jesus came to seek the lost, that means he had to go and find them. And where would Jesus find the lost? In the culture, in the world, around him. 

If Jesus was interested in seeking and saving the lost, which he clearly said he was, he had to enter into the culture to find them. So, clearly, Jesus was interested in engaging the culture.

What about Paul; what did he say about engaging culture?

What Paul Says About Culture

In perhaps his most far-reaching statement on cultural engagement, the Paul writes,

Although I am free from all and not anyone’s slave, I have made myself a slave to everyone, in order to win more people. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews; to those under the law, like one under the law — though I myself am not under the law — to win those under the law. To those who are without the law, like one without the law — though I am not without God’s law but under the law of Christ — to win those without the law. To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some. Now I do all this because of the gospel, so that I may share in the blessings.”

—‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭9:19-23

Paul is saying that he engaged all sorts of cultures — Jew and Gentile, slave and free — in order to reach them with the gospel. Paul was clearly engaging the culture around him.

We also know that Paul and other New Testament writers quoted non-Christian sources in their letters and teaching, indicating that they had enough knowledge and understanding of their culture to be able to apply it to their teaching to help their audiences understand them.

Participating in the Work of God

Based on the few examples found in Genesis and the teaching of Jesus and the Apostle Paul, Christians should engage culture. But notice why Christians are called to engage culture.

In each of the scriptural examples listed above, there is a common reason for engaging culture: to participate in the work of God. And what is the work of God? The work of God is to renew all things — including people and the world. This means we engage culture to renew the world and win people to Christ.

Christians shouldin fact, they mustengage culture. Christians can’t be faithful to the call and commands of Christ without engaging the culture around them.

And besides, a fish can’t avoid water.