Part 5: Cultural Engagement

The Twentieth Century saw an enormous cultural shift away from Christianity in the West. In general the church responded by focusing on evangelizing individuals and personal salvation, rather than engaging the culture. This pietistic approach did not accomplish what many were hoping for, and in many places a renewed focus on the importance of the Christian worldview and cultural engagement occurred. Different models for church/culture relationships have been developed, and various approaches to culture have been implemented. One model is the Tranformationist model which emphasizes that Christians are to live out their Christian worldview in every area of their lives, thus transforming culture. Although there are nuances in the Transformationalist model, it has strong affinities with Kuyper, and adherents believe that Christians can do Christian work in any sphere and that secularism in the public square needs to be challenged. Transformationists have recognized certain problems and dangers in their model, including an understanding of worldviews that is too cognitive, underappreciating the church, pride and triumphalism, putting too much emphasis on politics, and not recognizing the dangers of power.

Another model is the Relevance model, which believes that God’s Spirit is at work in culture to bring about good and further his kingdom. Christians operating in this model are positive about cultural developments, emphasize the common good, seek to make the church more relevant to people’s needs and sensibilities, and call the church as a whole to engage in social justice. Churches that adopt the Relevance model can actually quickly become irrelevant when the culture changes. They also can minimize doctrine and preaching the gospel. The Counterculturalist model emphasizes the contrast between the church and culture. Culture is seen as being the enemy of God and the truth, and the church is called to shun politics and power, living in genuine community and caring for the poor. Criticisms of this model are that it is too pessimistic, it demonizes government and capitalism, it fails to see the inevitability of contextualization, it downplays doctrines like justification, and it minimizes articulating the gospel in evangelism. The “Two Kingdoms” model takes the position that God rules all of creation through natural revelation in a common kingdom, and he specially rules over a redemptive kingdom through special revelation. Christians are to serve God as citizens of both kingdoms and they are not to try to find a uniquely “Christian” way of doing their vocation or transforming culture (there are intramural debates about this latter point). Government and culture can restrain evil but they are limited in what they can achieve. Some problems with the Two Kingdoms model is that it puts more emphasis on common grace than the Bible does, it mistakenly attributes certain societal goods to natural revelation rather than the influence of special revelation in society, it sees life as too religiously neutral, it neglects proper societal engagement, and it places the work of clergy above the laity.

It is important not to caricature these models or their proponents. There is a lot of nuance and intramural debate in each of them. There is also a lot of modeling that is attempting to learn from others and become more balanced. Two fundamental questions that help clarify our views are: 1. Are we positive or negative about the possibility of cultural change? 2. Is culture redeemable or fundamentally fallen? We need to always keep biblical theology in mind when thinking about culture. We need to balance the goodness of creation with the Fall, sin, the curse, and common grace, as well as God’s redemptive and restorative work. We live in the tension of the already and the not yet. No matter which model we tend to gravitate towards, we need to be balanced and recognize the best of every view, eschewing either compromise or withdrawal. It is also necessary to recognize that not all cultures are equally hostile or favorable towards Christianity, and a culture’s view of the church can change over time. Because of differences in gifting, personality, and calling, we will resonate with the concerns and emphases of different models. Working from one model but appropriating the best of the others can be fruitful, but we need to guard against pride, blame, frustration, and being naïve.