Cultural Engagement (or variations of this phrase) is a popular phrase in the circles I run in. In For the Beauty of the Church, Andy Crouch says that culture is what we make of the world in both senses of the phrase. It is both what we believe the world to be about as well as the physical things we make from the materials of the world. The term engagement carries with it the idea of things being bound together through a mutual interest. If we are in an engaging conversation, we are in an interesting conversation that keeps us hanging on. The meaning of engaging can range from entering into battle to committing to marry someone. So, to culturally engage someone is to strike up a conversation with someone (literally or metaphorically) in a way that is meaningful to both the speaker and the listener. Knowing this, it’s really kind of a silly thing to tell Christians that they need to engage culture because it’s kind of impossible to not do it. It’s just that sometimes Christians do it well, and then sometimes we go about it in a horribly wrong way.
It seems that many Christians go about cultural engagement with an attitude of cultural infiltration rather that cultural creation. I believe that this is one of the answers to why many Christians would spend a thousand dollars on a flat screen for their church lobbies and would never in a million years spend even a measly $100 on a painting to hang in their churches because that money would be better spent on something like missions or feeding the hungry. This is how the thinking goes: “A large TV is culturally relevant therefore people will come to our churches and think we are up to date and modern. Then they’ll listen to our pastor talk about the gospel and they will convert and be baptized.” That’s ultimately why investing in trendy, soon-to-be-obsolete things is seen as a good investment.
Cultural infiltration, or the Trojan horse approach, is to take something that others in the surrounding culture like and stuff it full of pithy, gospel-y things. Then, when they take a bite, they will probably spit it out because it isn’t what the packaging advertised, but a select few will keep chewing and kind of like it. Cultural creation, on the other hand, is not the repackaging of Jesus to be culturally palatable. Cultural creation is the creation of an arts culture of hope and substance. It’s the joyful telling of the big story over and over again. It is about creating beauty to the glory of God.
But it seems we have sadly forgotten how to glorify God outside of evangelism workshops and rehearsed “gospel presentations”. We think that if some kind of spoken, rehearsed gospel presentation is not present, then whatever we are doing is useless. Everything we do in the Sunday morning service seems to only serve the verbal presentation of the gospel. And let me tell you, the happy greeters I’ve never seen before, the chrome stage decor, the lights, all the things that feel and look cool but are devoid of any meaning: they don’t fool me. I know the intentions are good, but should the rich feast of the gospel be so streamlined? It’s like watching one of those movies of the future where they take pills instead of eating. How boring! But all that matters is that our nutritional needs are met, right? Of course not! There is no “Come and see! Come and taste! Come and hear! Come and eat with us!” in a pill. There is something incredibly human about creatively cooking and communally eating. The gospel is a feast, and it is rich and free. But we have narrowed it to a few catch phrases that ultimately only say, “Give me your logical assent.”
We act like people are dogs and the gospel is a pill that we have to bury in cheese to get people to swallow. We’ve learned how to turn “got milk?” into “got jesus?” and “Coca-Cola” into “Jesus-Christ” thinking this will strike up a gospel conversation. Did that make your eyes roll? If so, is it really that much different than what we do on a larger scale? How often do we look at what culture has created around us and tweak it to use it with the hopes of attracting more people? This is cultural infiltration, and it isn’t fooling anyone. Like I said, it’s like a Trojan horse except we lose. It is not creative; it is incredibly derivative, and it is not engaging. This is why I want to advocate not for the kind of engagement that infiltrates, but I want to advocate for cultural creation.
God did not send down an efficient systematic theology book with an excel spreadsheet for recording baptisms and church membership; He sent us the unfolding narrative of scripture. He didn’t give us a formulaic sinner’s prayer; he invited us to be a part of the grand story and the people of God. It’s a story of beauty, hope, meaning, and redemption. It’s bloody, raw, and real; yet it’s tender, loving, and sweet. It acknowledges the depths of human wickedness, pain, death, and misery; and it acknowledges the source of goodness, life, and hope. It leaves us in awe of profound mysteries that make us worship God in all of his greatness. Good Christian cultural creation should do this as well as it attempts to understand where we fit in to the larger story. God created people to love creative beauty and creative stories. Do we not have the best story to tell? If so, why not tell it in a thousand different ways? Why not paint it in a thousand ways? Why not sing it in a thousand ways? Why not inspire mysterious awe of the ultimate artist?