If you want to learn about engaging the culture, go to New York City, stand in Times Square and simply look around. In fact, try not to look around. The multitude of flashing iconic images representing the latest music, art, movies, fashion and personalities virtually scream in your ear, every day influencing an increasingly homogenized global culture. Just like earthquakes can produce massive waves that travel thousands of miles from their origin, Manhattan produces a cultural tsunami that reaches all the way to Manila.
A recent meeting in New York with an executive from a major TV network confirmed my sense that as Christians, we are still lagging behind in the culture wars. In essence, this producer told me, “Christians aren’t shaping the culture in America; the culture is shaping them.”
I would have to agree. The culture is doing most of the talking; the question is: Will the church respond? And if we do, will our response (and how we respond) generate any real, lasting impact?
With this in mind, let’s consider what could be called the rules of engagement—proven biblical principles revealing how believers in the risen Messiah can make a difference as we engage the world around us.
Rule No. 1: Know your surroundings.
In any environment or culture, the first step to making an impact is understanding the context. Culture-making actually begins in the hearts of men and women, as thoughts become actions and actions become art, literature, music and everything else. Looking back over history, we can all list moments when the evil imaginations of people produced a culture that ended up destroying itself. Think about Noah and the flood.
Jesus warned that the same cultural conditions in Noah’s day would be prevalent before His second coming: “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man” (Matt. 24:37, NIV).
Like Noah, we’re called to strategic urgency as we engage the world around us with Christ’s message. The gospel is not behavioral modification or restraint; it’s transformation from the inside out. If the gospel has changed our hearts, then it will necessarily change our thoughts and ultimately, our culture. If you want to know what’s inside people’s hearts, look at the culture their thoughts produced.
If our supreme task as Christians is to preach the gospel to all people and nations, then understanding the cultural context is crucial to helping us share our message with the hopes of maximum impact.
Rule No. 2: Be prepared.
The word apologetics comes from the Greek word that means to “give a response” or “a word back.” First Peter 3:15 says that we are called to “be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”
As believers, we are all called to engage in apologetics. Scripture offers specific reasons to believe what we do, and we should know them. Whether it’s evidence for the existence of God, the truth of Christianity or the ethics of everything from divorce to homosexuality, we should be ready to speak up and speak out about it.
Thoughts, ideas and beliefs directly influence the way people live their lives, so we need to address those philosophies that are “strongholds” in their minds (2 Cor. 10:5). The strongholds in the minds of cultural influencers will eventually become strongholds in the culture itself.
Rule No. 3: Show compassion.
Of course, as we address these strongholds and communicate our beliefs, we’re to be wise and gracious, as well as loving and compassionate. Far from angry fundamentalists, we are people who have been forgiven by God and consequently should have a merciful, patient spirit toward those whose lives reflect a state of rebellion against Him. After all, He has certainly been patient with us.
This wisdom causes us to seek to understand the various aspects of the people and the culture we’re trying to reach, as well as the motives, reasons and pain that produced their beliefs. Each community has its own unique code that must be unlocked. Though universal and overarching issues exist for all communities, you’ll always find subtle differences from place to place and people to people.
Rule No. 4: Practice honesty.
Having compassion and wisdom doesn’t require us to back down when we’re called to articulate our beliefs and what the Bible says. It’s grievous to watch people of faith shrink back from answering questions about morality directly and truthfully when they’re in the media spotlight.
Scripture says we’re called to be honest, regardless of the potential consequences. The Bible tells us that God has written His law on our hearts. That means there’s a built-in sense of right and wrong that transcends culture or context.
When we speak God’s truth to people, the Holy Spirit is present to confirm that what we say is true: “When [the Holy Spirit] has come, He will convict that world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they do not believe in Me” (John 16:8-9, NKJV, brackets added).
Some have twisted this text, saying that the only sin the Holy Spirit convicts people of is not believing in Jesus. But Jesus Himself said, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46).
If we say we believe in Jesus yet don’t obey His Word, our faith is disingenuous. We all know Christians who equivocate and pretend that what they do doesn’t really matter because of God’s grace, but the unbelievers we’re trying to reach will quickly point out the hypocrisy of that position.
Rule No. 5: Live transformed lives.
The message of grace isn’t, “Live any way you want as long as you ask Jesus to forgive you.” Rather, grace calls us to “come out from their midst and be separate” (2 Cor. 6:17, NASB). I’m not calling for a return to the failed mindset of retreating as God‘s people and living reclusive, isolated lives. But we have to remember that to be holy and sanctified is not an option: “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14, NIV). To make a difference, we have to be different people. If Christ hasn’t changed us, then people can (and will) rightly ask, “Why do I need Him?”
Rule No. 6: Be convinced of the gospel’s truth.
Ultimately, we must be convinced that the gospel is true—not just for some, but for everyone. There is no Plan B.
Recently, someone asked me how I have stayed passionate about Jesus Christ and presenting His message to others for more than 34 years.
“It’s simple,” I said. “I really believe the gospel is true.”
It is a real story that tells us the truth about ourselves, our neighbors and the world around us. As Francis Schaeffer said, “It’s true truth.” That’s why we must be clear about what the gospel is:
The gospel is the good news that God became man in Jesus Christ; He lived the life we should have lived (by keeping the moral law) and died the death we should have died (for breaking that law). Three days later, He rose from the dead, proving He is the Son of God and offering salvation to anyone who turns and trusts Him as their Lord and Savior.
The gospel tells us what’s wrong with mankind—a real separation because of sin. Look around you. This broken relationship with God is reflected in the brokenness of our own relationships.
The gospel also tells us that God did something to heal our brokenness. Jesus walked upright before God and brought healing to broken lives and broken hearts. His resurrection proves He was God’s Son and that His words were indeed the Words of God Himself. The truth of the gospel sets Him apart from every other would-be savior or leader.
Rule No. 7: Know that we’re in a spiritual battle.
“Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving” (2 Cor. 4:3-4, NASB).
This verse makes us sensitive to the spiritual nature of people’s opposition. A person doesn’t have to be demon-possessed to be influenced by the forces of darkness. In fact, the thoughts and words of a fallen culture can act as virtual chains that bind someone to sinful actions, as well as distract them with the bright lights of deception. This awareness of the spiritual war we wage ultimately points us to the need to pray for the power of the Spirit to loose the chains and shine the real light in their hearts as they hear the gospel.
As we follow these rules of engagement, I believe the gospel will work just as effectively in our cities as it did in Rome 2,000 years ago. In a recent interview with journalist Tony Carnes, who has spent the last 30 years tracking spiritual progress in New York, he described the progress made over the last three decades and said that slowly but surely, New York—the place known as the “secular city”—was becoming “post-secular.”
All that’s needed to see a revival hit Manhattan is the same thing that must take place in every city in every nation: The gospel needs to be believed enough by those who call themselves Christians to compel them to credibly, confidently and clearly tell others.
Rice Broocks is the co-founder of the Every Nation family of churches, which currently has more than 1,000 churches in more than 60 nations. He is also the creator of Engage2020 and the evangelism tool The God Test. Broocks provides oversight for Bethel World Outreach in Nashville, Tenn., and has a doctorate in missiology from Fuller Theological Seminary.