Like missionaries in a foreign land, they study the culture they're trying to reach by learning its stories, language and customs. Sometimes this education takes place in a movie theater; other times it happens in front of a television during primetime or while on the Internet; sometimes it's under a tree with a John Grisham novel in hand or with an iPod blaring U2's latest hit.
Because of this unorthodox education, many of them are viewed with suspicion by their own kind. And why not?
By learning, living and ministering in culture's mainstream, they walk a fine line. On one side they're in the world and on the other side they're of the world. These culturally connected Christians say their engagement in the world is worthwhile because they're finding Christ in the most unlikely places and sharing Him with some of the most unreached people on Earth.
In doing so, they claim, they're also making the church and its message relevant to a skeptical and apathetic world. But is this just one more way in which evangelical Christianity is being diluted by secular values?
Ministry Today sat down with several leaders on the front lines of cultural engagement to talk about why Christian leaders should embrace the mandate to transform society—and what's at risk if we don't.
Craig Gross spends time hanging out with porn stars. Though he doesn't watch porn and opposes it vehemently, he travels regularly to porn trade shows. There, while producers, directors and actors peddle all things porn, Gross shares the peace, love and grace found only in a relationship with Jesus Christ.
"We show people Christ's love instead of just saying, 'You're going to hell,'" says Gross, author of The Gutter and co-founder of XXX Church.com, a Web site dedicated to ministering to people hooked on pornography. "People either love or hate us, but that was true of Jesus too."
Gross ministers where he does because Christians, he explains, must have a presence in the world's darkest crevices and in the places just around the corner.
"Every Christian has a place where they need to shine the light," he says before rattling off locales such as Starbucks, soccer fields on Saturday mornings and office cubicles. "The church has spent way too much time taking care of its own. We've got to make an impact on this world rather than just seeing problems and griping about them."
To achieve that in his life, Gross decided to wade into a foreign world—the porn industry. In doing so, he has been able to tell hurting people who are unlikely to find their way to a church that there is a God who loves them and is yearning to restore them.
"There's danger in going to the gutter to minister because you're going close to the fire, and you could get burned," he says. "But there's also a danger in removing yourself far away from the world."
The dangers Gross speaks of raise questions that many evangelicals are trying to answer: Should Christians even attempt to be culturally engaged? Is there value in remaining separate from the world? Can culturally-connected Christians and those who try to remain separate from the world coexist and even be of benefit to the kingdom of God?
A SLIPPERY SLOPE?
David Bruce, founder of HollywoodJesus.com, an Internet site dedicated to providing reviews highlighting the redemptive messages of movies, says there is much biblical support for Christians engaging culture in order to spread the gospel.
Bruce points to Acts 17 where the apostle Paul is at Mars Hill in Greece looking at idols. Though Paul, a Jew, was looking at something his people considered detestable, he took advantage of the opportunity by finding something he could use as a bridge between the Greeks and himself.
"When I read that I thought: 'That's it! That's the biblical model for using the culture to win the culture for Christ,' " Bruce says.
Since 1997 Bruce has been spreading the gospel by utilizing movies—one of culture's favorite and most powerful ways of telling stories. Though some Christians doubt that anything redeeming could come out of Hollywood, Bruce is unwavering in his endorsement of movies as evangelistic tools.
"The Bible says greater is the One within you than he that is in the world," Bruce says. "It also says, 'Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for Thou art with me.' That was all said in the context of going into all the world to proclaim the gospel."
Terry Mattingly, a newspaper columnist and author of Pop Goes Religion: Faith in Popular Culture, implores Christians to critically engage culture in the same way a missionary would.
"We have to learn the language, stories and mythologies of the culture and learn to talk back using the strengths of what the church does," he says.
Doing that, Mattingly says, requires believers to expound on the messages the culture is sending through its music, movies and other art. It does not, however, Mattingly notes, require a believer or the church to embrace societal norms and cultural standards and methods.
"What happens in our sanctuaries is going to have to address the content of people's lives," Mattingly says. "To do that, we're going to have to address the content of the media that is dominating people's lives."
Marvin Pate, a professor of biblical and theological studies at Ouachita Baptist University and co-author of Crucified in the Media, which aims to dispel media-created myths about Jesus, also sees a biblical basis for engaging culture.
"The way we can help people become culturally engaged is to show them there is a biblical basis for doing so," he says. "God's eternal truth is revealed in the Bible through various cultural settings."
He points to the book of Deuteronomy where God used the structure of a Hittite covenant treaty to express the truth of His law. In the New Testament, Pate identifies the incarnation of Christ as the epitome of God revealing Himself through culture.
"The Lord used the cultural norms through which to reveal His Word," Pate adds. "I wouldn't suggest that God's Word is reduced to culture and that Christians need to buy into everything culture says, but if all truth is God's truth, we don't have to be afraid of where we find truth."
For years Mattingly has examined religion and pop culture extensively as a professor and as a columnist. In that time, he has come to the conclusion that "all media is inherently religious because it's all trying to communicate about ultimate subjects."
He points to J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books as evidence of this. Her books are filled with religious symbolism and Mattingly even argues that she is coming from an explicitly Christian point of view. "Few people realize this," he contends, "because she has encoded her message."
If Mattingly is correct, than why are so many Christians up in arms about the controversial books that children can't seem to get enough of?
The reason, according to Mattingly, is that Christians have not taken time to read the background material on such books. Mattingly says background research is a vital point for anyone interested in becoming culturally engaged. In fact, Mattingly says, too few ministers and laypeople take time to research most aspects of pop culture.
"That's something you'd think clergy would be doing," he says. "But they don't research popular culture because they don't take it seriously because their seminaries didn't take it seriously."
So how does a church leader become culturally engaged without derailing his or her faith?
By being wise and discerning.
"I share the concern of those who are aware of the degree to which American Christians have become like the culture. It's absolutely not acceptable," says Dick Staub, founder of the Center for Faith and Culture and author of Too Christian, Too Pagan: How to Love the World Without Falling for It.
"We have Christians who have a high cultural literacy, meaning they know the names of all the latest movies and titles of all the songs on the radio. But many are biblically illiterate. As Christians, we have to have the highest calling and that is to be fully literate in our faith and fully literate in our culture. At that point we have to allow our faith to be the grid through which we observe everything that is going on in culture so that we can understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ."
For some, the way out of this problem of low biblical and high cultural literacy is either cultural isolation or the creation of intrinsically "Christian" versions of entertainment. Bruce has harsh words for this solution.'
"I don't know what 'Christian' entertainment is," he says. "I view so-called 'Christian' entertainment as something that actually is designed to train young Christians that the greatest value is to remain separated from the culture that Jesus Christ died for. To stay away from people who need to hear an effective message of the gospel that could radically change their lives is wrong."
Is he worried that engaging culture will negatively affect a person's faith? "In the real world we all stumble and fall, but that's part of the growing process," he adds. "Plus, that gives us every reason to keep our prayer life, fellowship, Scripture reading and accountability alive."
Staub has similar views.
"We're called to enrich culture," he says. "The way Jesus did that was by being a loving, transforming presence."
To be present, Staub explains, believers cannot withdraw from culture or buy into the notion that holiness is equal to separateness. When Staub speaks of a loving presence he points out that Jesus had compassion for people who were like lost sheep without a shepherd. Jesus' motive for engaging culture was not political, Staub says, it was spiritual, and that should be every Christian's motive. Finally, to be a transforming presence in the culture, Staub says, believers must not conform to the culture. Instead they must live like aliens.
"So, how do we love people and speak truth into their lives?" Staub asks rhetorically. "That's the challenge for the church, that's the tension Jesus called us to."
Last year Time magazine ran a story highlighting the 25 most influential evangelicals in the nation. Not one of them was under 40 years of age. Gross was dismayed.
"There are many up-and-coming people who aren't on anyone's radar screen," he says. "These are people doing ministry that is drastically different from the way our parents and grandparents did it and it's needed.
"You can't blame the dark for being dark, but you can blame the light for not shining enough light on the darkness," he adds. "We need to get people out of the church and on the front lines, but we have too many Christians who are scared and don't want to do a thing except go to church on Sundays."
According to a survey conducted by George Barna last year, 55 percent of born-again believers shared their faith in Christ with one nonbeliever in the previous 12 months. Not exactly mind-boggling statistics for a body of believers whose main goal is to take the gospel into all the world. But slowly, strides are being made.
Scott Bruegman, pastor of Red Rocks Church in Golden, Colorado, could be speaking for millions of young believers when he says it all starts with Christians living like Jesus.
"As a pastor, I want to point people to a relevant God," Bruegman says. "I do that by modeling and emulating Jesus Christ who was right smack dab in the middle of the world. He was a carpenter, took on a normal name, lived among sinners—yet He was very influential because He had His lines drawn."
The best place to do that, culture watchers tell Ministry Today, is where the people are—in the culture.
Though there is debate that any person who lives in the United States can live a life sans any influence and even connection with the culture, Staub says every Christian is mandated to get out of the confines of their church and take the gospel to a dying world. "You can't follow Jesus and stay in your church," he says.
For Bruce the future of evangelicalism in the United States will be largely determined by where the church puts its emphasis.
"Living our lives for God and others is what it's all about," he says. "Legalism keeps us from loving others the way God would have us. We really need to be there where the woman at the well is, where the tax collector is and where the wine bibbers are. That's the model of Jesus. If that was the pinnacle of the Christian experience, there would be no stopping the church."
Gross is more ominous in his prediction of the future of the evangelical church if more Christians do not engage culture.
"Instead of just going about our days, we need to look for ways God can use us among the people we associate with," he says. "Otherwise the church will die a very slow death."
Kirk Noonan is a frequent contributor to Strang Communications publications.