By Daniel Darling
When your members walk through the church doors this Sunday, they will arrive after a week spent living in a changing American culture. Their thoughts are not only being shaped through a variety of media — talk radio, social media, and television — but also through water-cooler conversations at work and dinner-table discussions.
Christians living in a fallen world are confronted by a variety of choices. How should we think through the moral and political issues? More importantly, how can God’s people, out of a desire for the flourishing of their neighbors and the advancing of God’s kingdom, winsomely shape the discussions going on in their spheres of influence?
It’s not only the pastors who are tasked with driving the discussions at church, it’s the church leaders who interact often with the average layperson. They carry a sober responsibility to steward their office well, to bring to bear the gospel on the questions brothers and sisters in the Lord are facing each day.
1. Be Informed by the Word
When it comes to cultural engagement, perhaps the biggest temptation Christians face is being influenced primarily by voices who may not share the Christian worldview. Regardless of political affiliation, we imbibe the latest content from our favorite cable news channels, ideological websites, or Twitter pundits. If we are not careful, we allow a political party or movement to form our belief system.
But Christians should be people of the Book. And church leaders should model this more than anyone in the church. In Acts 6, Luke tells us that the deacons chosen to serve the people were devoted “to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4, NIV).
God’s people have a different grid through which we view the hot-button issues of the day. What does Scripture have to say, not only about our positioning, but about the way in which we should engage? This doesn’t mean every Sunday in the lobby has to turn into an ethics lesson, but that those called to lead the church are known for their prayerful, thoughtful, gospel-saturated viewpoints.
2. Be Led by the Spirit
The men chosen to lead the church at Antioch were not simply men of the Word, but they were men led by the Spirit of God. And there are few places where the Spirit’s work is more evident or more important than in discussions about divisive cultural issues. It is possible to be correct theologically and yet sin with our tone and our speech.
Paul reminds us in Galatians that peace and joy are fruits of the Spirit. Church leaders must not only model Christ-like speech but must be sensitive and mindful of the right timing for discussions about culture within the church. There are times when it is better to simply listen to another Christian’s viewpoints without interjecting. There are other times when arguments are best left unengaged for the sake of unity in the body of Christ. The church lobby is not the place for warring political factions to wage their turf battles. Christian leaders should reflect humility and grace, serving as peacemakers and not agitators.
3. Recast the Story
The real cultural battles are not between Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, elites and the tea party. These are ancillary skirmishes in a longer conflict that traces its beginning to a garden and a snake. The crimson-colored narrative that runs through the Bible helps us see our world in a fresh new way. The injustice and evil we see around us are products of the fall, but in Christ we have a new King and a new kingdom. The gospel isn’t just something we tack on to the end of our messages, it’s the radical new paradigm that brings hope to the world.
The gospel teaches us to look at the evil in the world and know that the demand for justice comes from an inborn desire to see the world made right again. It points not to temporary political messiahs, but to the resurrected Christ who is Lord and King. It teaches us to view our political adversaries, not as enemies to be vanquished, but as people made in the image of God. The gospel breaks our heart as it broke the heart of Jesus, leading us to engage through tears, living out the mission of God in the world.
4. Mind the Mission of the Church
Many are asking today, “What is the mission of the church?” Is it to preach the gospel and see the lost converted and discipled into followers of Jesus? Or is it to be the hands and feet of Jesus in shaping the contemporary culture? But faithful Christians don’t have to accept this false dichotomy, because the gospel not only is the story of personal regeneration through Christ’s atoning work, but the
story of God’s renewal of His creation through Christ’s defeat of sin and death.
Therefore, Christians are not just saved from hell, but are saved to good works (Eph. 2:10), which is why we are not transported in a chariot of fire to heaven the moment we are converted. Jesus placed us as otherworldly citizens in this world. The church models in miniature what the kingdom will look like when it is fully consummated.
So the church’s mission involves both the conversion and discipleship of lost sinners and the flourishing of local communities, the care for every creature made in the image of God. This mission helps keep church leaders centered on the mission, from becoming single-issue outposts or auxiliaries of political parties or movements. By solid teaching, preaching, and gospel-informed discussions, church leaders set the tone, helping their people see past the one election, one ballot initiative, and one issue. Instead, we equip God’s people to engage for the long haul, a faithful presence on all cultural issues informed by the gospel.
5. Equip for Engagement
Lastly, church leaders are tasked by God “for the training of the saints in the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:12). Unfortunately, we’ve come to believe this simply means the work it takes to make a church run. And undoubtedly this is one aspect. Local churches have a need for continual training in ecclesial functions. But this goes much deeper than Sunday School teacher training or usher meetings.
The work of the ministry for a follower of Jesus means the holistic implications of the gospel in all areas of life. When we equip saints, we equip them to be influencers for Christ in the world in which God has called them. How they live as fathers. How they perform in the workplace, and for purposes of this discussion, how they engage the cultural questions of their day.
To equip saints for cultural engagement is more than simply mobilizing the church for activism but helping the church think through every cultural issue with a gospel lens. It’s equipping them on how to navigate the tension of courage and civility, how to speak and think with a kindness and grace that shapes civil discourse.
Bottom line: Church leaders have a unique position of influence from which to shape the people God has called them to serve.