Making connections with the culture without compromising your convictions
Our world is changing. Most of us have a sense that the rate of these cultural shifts is increasing with each passing day. As followers of Jesus, we know we are called to walk in this world like he did, but we are not to be of the world. Our thoughts, motives, words and actions should never be pressed into the shape of this world. Instead, God’s people should be change agents.
For this to happen, we need to forge spiritual connections and have meaningful conversations with people all around us. In a radically changing culture, deep relationships and grace-filled interactions are essential. We can’t withdraw or ignore what is happening in the world around us. We must also be careful not to be swept into the currents of our culture that are becoming normative and acceptable. We walk a fine line of engagement without being corrupted.
Say Yes to Cultural Engagement.
If we are going to be bearers of the good news of Jesus and have a voice that speaks to our culture, we must be aware of what is happening around us. To bury our head in the sand like the proverbial ostrich is never the answer. Instead, every Christian needs to become an anthropologist, studying the many cultures that exist right where we live, worship, work and play.
This will mean listening both to people we agree with and those we disagree with. It means being kind and gracious with people who don’t affirm our faith, who practice other faiths or who are hostile to Christianity.
Consider keeping a journal of insights about your community or neighborhood and the varied cultures you encounter. Study what people think, why they act the way they do and their common patterns and behaviors. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you insight into the people groups around you and near your church. Then, pray with passion. Ask for a heart that beats for each people group and a mind that understands their joys, pains, fears and deepest longings.
Jesus knew the hearts of people, and he loved them. We do not have the insight of Jesus, but we can ask the Holy Spirit to help us see, learn, listen and love people as we become aware of their culture and history. When this happens, our love grows and ministry flows out of care rather than fear or obligation.
A few years ago, a dear friend asked my wife and me if we would write a small group study on a book he had written, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. We were honored and delighted to work with Nabeel Qureshi on this project. One of the stories Nabeel tells in the book was of a young Muslim man who came to the United States as a student. He arrived with only two suitcases, one full of clothes and the other filled with gifts from his home country that captured some of his story and culture. He brought them so that every time he was invited to the home of a new friend or family, he would have a gift from his homeland to present to his host.
As I read this story my heart broke and I wept. You see, this young man went home after his college years with the same suitcase filled with gifts. Not one person invited him into their home to share life and get to know him. In his culture, an invitation was a sign of love, interest and care. Just imagine if 10 Christians had modeled hospitality and invited him into their homes and hearts—gotten close enough to hear his stories, fears, joys and dreams.
The gospel is unleashed when we dare to get to know people right where they are. This happens best when we are curious about people, understand their background and story, take time to listen and allow ourselves to get close to them.
Say No to Compromise and Voyeurism
We must also be attentive to enticements that come as we walk in the world. The first challenge is the lure of compromise. The Enemy of our soul would love to see us get so close to the systems of this world that we get swept into practices that compromise our witness and erode our faith.
We would all agree that a recovering alcoholic should be very cautious about jumping into a ministry that involves going to bars or being in environments that might trigger a relapse. But all of us need to tune in to the many subtle temptations we face everyday.
Endless movies, streaming television series, and online shows are filled with messages and images Christians should avoid. Just because our friends watch certain TV shows does not mean they are healthy for a believer who is seeking to live and grow in holiness. We might even feel out of it or be a little embarrassed if we are not up on certain shows, but engaging in culture does not mean we have to partake of everything.
What is amazing is that, in most cases, people respect when a follower of Jesus sets boundaries. It can lead to meaningful conversations with a friend or business associate who asks the deep theological question, “Why?”
Another enticement that should be named and noticed is voyeurism. I have watched too many Christians and even church leaders claim to be observing culture while they were actually scratching a sinful itch in their soul. One profound example is the numerous Christian leaders I know who felt the need to walk through the red light district in Amsterdam when they were visiting that part of the world. I have done ministry in the Netherlands many times and have been encouraged by leaders to go see how bad that area it is. I decided long before my first visit to Amsterdam that I did not need to see human beings being sold as sexual slaves. We don’t have to look at every sin to know how perverse it is.
As you engage in the culture, ask yourself a couple of challenging questions:
• Am I getting too close because something in my sin nature is being satisfied?
• What is driving my interest in something I know is sinful?
• Am I justifying voyeurism by pretending I am praying for something or someone?
• If Jesus were with me, would he delight in my attitude and actions?
It takes honesty and humility to admit that we are engaging in a behavior because we have crossed the line from being appropriately engaged in culture to satisfying a sinful urge in our hearts.
Followers of Jesus are called to make spiritual connections with the people around us. We can’t have deep and meaningful conversations and share the story of Jesus with people we don’t know or spend time with. We must engage in the cultures around us and seek to understand the people God places in our lives. At the same time, we need to be discerning, wise and vigilant. When we see compromise or voyeuristic tendencies growing in our life, we must fight against them.
May God give us love to draw near the people around us, minds to understand their culture and story, courage to invite them into our life, wisdom to know if we have crossed any lines of compromise, and boldness to share the life-changing love, grace and story of Jesus.