Engaging Culture

By Tom Muir

When someone says ‘culture’, what do you think of? Modern Art? Poetry readings?

Often we think of culture as the arty element of society. Based on this assessment, you may think culture is not for you. However, Daniel Strange suggests a much broader definition in his book ‘Plugged In’. He says: ‘Culture is the stories we tell that express meaning about the world’. So it’s not just what the art students do when they hang out together. It’s what all humans are contributing to all the time: you, your granny, the Prime Minister, and the kids who kick around the corner shop on a Friday night.

If culture is constantly being created and expressed by all of the people around you, then even if you never go to the opera house you’re frequently hearing and participating in cultural stories. The Netflix series you watch, the radio station you listen to, and the chat around the staffroom table are all expressions of how life fits together (or doesn’t), for better or worse.

Engaging in culture is to have a well-tuned filter in place to process (and enjoy where appropriate) all of these voices. We need this not just to sift away the ‘bad’, but also to more effectively communicate the good – God’s big story of redemption in Jesus. Churches can try to do this at a corporate level, but it’s important first that individual Christians (including you) are switched on to this.

Your ability to evangelise requires a clear understanding of the gospel, but it also helps to have a clear understanding of the belief systems of your neighbours and friends.

God can, of course, cut right to their heart in an instant, but we also have a responsibility to listen well to what people are saying before we speak.

It’s helpful to consider the following kinds of questions in doing this. Are you conscious of what the underlying ‘story’ is in the conversations you have? Why do people agree with it, or take satisfaction from it? Do you know why it is ultimately unfulfilling, and do you know how the gospel is a ‘better story’?

In doing this, though, there’s one final and important point to make. This isn’t about detached sociological studies, but about real people and their hopes, fears, and dreams. It’s about discovering what people cling to rather than God to help them enjoy and/or survive life. Jesus saw bewildered, idolatrous people and was moved to compassion. Also, consider Paul in Athens who walked around drinking in the cultural air. While he addressed the Areopagus with clearly composed truth, he was still deeply moved by what was effectively a city-wide expression of idolatry.

Cultural engagement is about discerning the world’s values to better communicate the gospel, by God’s grace. Allow your gospel filter to apply to all the misleading cultural stories that surround you. Be moved to compassion for your friends, and don’t be afraid when you get an opportunity to speak; God has promised to be with you! 

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Tom Muir   Tom Muir

Esk Valley Church (EVC), Midlothian, was planted by Tom Muir. Tom is married to Sharlene, and they have a couple of young kids: Clemence & Sam. EVC is a part of the Free Church of Scotland, and has partnerships with Generation - the Free Church mission agency, and the City to City church planting network.