When it comes to the church’s cultural engagement—how the church participates in the missio Dei—there’s not one clear and cut definition or description that Christians have accepted. In fact, there are multiple definitions or descriptions people have adopted. This has led, in my opinion, to what I call the messy middle.
The messy middle is how the church engages the Kingdom of Man from the position of being citizens of the Kingdom of God. Such engagement is not only messy from the standpoint of mission, but it is messy from the viewpoint that not all Christians agree regarding the why and what of cultural engagement (see picture below).
In this post, I want to help shine light on why there seems to be so much division within Evangelicalism. In order to do this, I want to provide an overview of the four contemporary cultural engagement models and offer up three key elements that Christians must keep in mind when developing a cultural engagement strategy. I then want to conclude by noting one more messy middle that will continue to fracture Evangelicalism.
Four Contemporary Cultural Engagement Models
Since H. Richard Niebuhr’s, Christ and Culture, Christian thinkers and leaders have presented their various models of how Christians tend to engage culture. Another way of putting it, such leaders have offered up the various ways Christians tend to interpret and apply what they believe is the mission of the church participating in the missio Dei.
In his book, Center Church, Tim Keller presents a fair outline and critique of the four main models of cultural engagement. Let me give a brief overview of each (see, Center Church, 194–217).
First, is the Transformationist model, which seeks to “transform” the culture through an emphasis on Christians pursuing their vocation from a Christian worldview. Proponents of this model believe Jesus’ lordship should be brought to bear on every single area of life. Therefore, Christians should engage culture, attempting to transform the culture—bringing it more in line with the Kingdom of God.
Second, is the Relevance model, which believes God operates and works outside the church to further his kingdom. In this model, proponents (from a broad spectrum) place a high value on the larger culture. Thus, those in this camp believe Christ is at work within the larger culture even if it isn’t redemptive in its scope. Liberation theology would be an example, for it sees movements of political liberation as God’s work in the world. In short, anything good, moral, and just within culture is seen as an advancement of God’s kingdom in the world.
Third, is the Counterculturalist model, which emphasizes the church as a contrast society that God primarily works through. The church is the signpost of the Kingdom of God, which, by its nature, sits in opposition to the kingdom of this world. Very little emphasis is on common grace and God working outside his people. Counterculturalists have very little hope for the transformation of culture along Christian lines. Thus, the best thing the church can do for the world is exhibit the Kingdom of God largely through being a counter-cultural presence.
Fourth, is the Two Kingdoms model, which has become the counterpoint to many in the transformationists camp. Two Kingdoms adherents claim the Bible teaches that God rules all of creation in two distinct ways; one through the “common kingdom” in which all people operate by natural revelation, and the second through the “redemptive kingdom” in which Christians are ruled by special revelation. Two Kingdom adherents hold the position that believers should not impose biblical standards on a society but instead appeal to common understandings of the good, the true, and the beautiful shared by all people. Within the realm of the “redemptive kingdom,” they hold that believers are nurtured through the church by means of preaching, the sacraments, and participating in Christian community.
Keep in mind that these are general descriptions. While they may not form the entirety of someone’s understanding of cultural engagement, they do, at the very least, form a base of operation.
And it is from these various bases that the messy middle ensues. For instance, some Evangelicals today want to “reclaim” and “take back” America for they see America drifting further into a progressive and secular society.
Some Evangelicals operate from a place of relevance in the culture—seeing any movement that is moral, just, and good as God’s work in the world. And so, they engage culture by “joining” God in his work in the world.
Other Evangelicals see the world and the powers therein as corrupt. To guard against entangling themselves in the kingdom of this world, they seek to maintain their distinction in the world as the people of God—the city on the hill.
And still other evangelicals see two different kingdoms that slightly overlap. In that small middle that overlaps, they seek to be signposts of the ‘already’ but ‘not yet’ kingdom of God as they engage culture by maintaining their distinction as God’s people and working—through common grace—for the common good of the kingdom of man.
Again, I am well aware that these generalizations, and, as Niebuhr and Keller would admit, have limitations. While they may not represent people’s entire (cultural engagement) house, they do at least form a foundation.
In short, it’s clear that Evangelicals have differing viewpoints, either by default presuppositions or developed theological convictions. It is in those differing viewpoints, I believe, we find much of the division and derision—as well as the social media squabbles—between Evangelicals. Thus, it’s why I refer to it as the “messy middle.”
Three Key Elements in Developing a Cultural Engagement Strategy
If I had to guess, I would say many (if not most) believers don’t have a cultural engagement strategy. I would assess that many engage culture based upon their parents, pastors, and (cultural) presuppositions. In other words, their cultural engagement strategy is more by default than developed.
What goes into developing a cultural engagement strategy? I would say the three key elements in developing a cultural engagement strategy is a robust missiology, a rough eschatology, and a rudimentary understanding of the role of government.
Robust Missiology. What is the mission of the church? And does it align or have connection with what you would say is the mission of God? While the two are distinct, they are related. However, the mission of the church and the mission of God have more of a parental relationship. In other words, the mission of God gave birth to the church—and thus the church’s mission flows from God’s mission.
One’s cultural engagement strategy will originate from an understanding of God’s mission and then will seek understanding in how the church serves as a vehicle advancing his mission on earth. I know there has been (and is) much debate around the missio Dei and what the role of the church is in carrying out that mission. Regardless of what you conclude, or what camp you fall into, know that it affects your engagement strategy.
Rough Eschatology. Some may find it strange that eschatology is a key element in developing a cultural engagement strategy, as it is typically seen as a tertiary theological issue. But if you’ve ever studied eschatology you know that it is a complex subject. If you’re like me, you’ve probably been asked, “Are you pre-mil, post-mil, or a-mil?”
The reality is—just like missiology—there are various faithful eschatological camps. Is the world going to get better or worse? When does the rapture happen? Is there a rapture? Does the church usher in the millennial reign? Where do people who do not place their faith in Jesus go? These questions and more are eschatological in nature and thus inform and impact our present engagement strategy.
For me, while I would certainly see myself in one of the camps, I have made it a point to sketch out a rough eschatology around the idea of God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom originated in the Garden, was foreshadowed in Israel, was inaugurated at Jesus’ first coming, is reflected in the church, and will one day be consummated on earth at Jesus’ second coming.
While it may be fun—at least for some—talking eschatological details, the importance is to have a rough eschatology that informs your present, and how you might engage the world now. Your understanding of the future (should) give shape and formation to the present. Once again, regardless of what you conclude, or what camp you fall into, know that your eschatology affects your engagement.
Rudimentary Understanding of the Role of Government. Why would having a rudimentary understanding of the role of government be a key element in developing an engagement strategy? Because the church’s cultural engagement strategy is always executed within an earthly governmental framework.
In my study of both the OT/NT, it is quite interesting how God’s people, from the position of exiles, never sought to actively transform the government or governing structures of the city or nation in which they lived. For instance, Daniel (nor his friends) never sought to transform Babylon; Jesus never sought to overthrow Roman rule and occupation; and Paul never sought to transform Rome or Roman policies. Yet, Daniel, full of faith, embraced the punishment of the lion’s den, Jesus famously uttered, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and God that which is God’s,” and Paul penned, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.”
My conclusion in studying both the OT and NT, the cultural engagement strategy of the people of God should be able to work within any kind of governmental system. In other words, the cultural engagement strategy of the people of God should be able to cross borders, boundaries, cultures, and thus systems of governments—just like the gospel.
For Americans, we live in a democracy. The concept behind a representative democracy is quite different than living in a communist country, a theocracy, or a monarchy. A democracy is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Thus, in a real way, citizens of a democracy are in some way “Caesar” as they are not just the “governed” but the “governing.
So, what does it mean to actively participate in a pluralistic democracy from the primary position of a citizen of God’s kingdom? This is a loaded question and one that will require a rudimentary understanding of American government. Seeking understanding in this area, as well as building out one’s missiology and eschatology, will lead to being a well-grounded citizen of both heaven and America. But, may we must never forget, as Christ followers, our earthly citizenship as Americans should never exceed our citizenship in God’s Kingdom.
When you couple the four contemporary models of Christian cultural engagement with the three elements of developing a cultural engagement strategy, there will never be full acceptance by evangelicals. As a result, the space between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of man will continue to be a messy middle as it will divide Evangelicals.
One More Element to the Messy Middle: Christians in A Transitioning Democracy
Over the course of the last fifty years, the soul of America has changed substantially. It has seemingly become more progressive and secular—pushing the church (and faith) further to the margins of society. We are living in what many have referred to as Post-Christian America.
In addition, it’s important to note two other changes in American culture over the last fifty years.
First, it seems that America has lost a binding center—a common core of what it means to be an American. Second, it seems that America is now entering into serious territory surrounding what kind of country it will be in the future—namely a socialist (or democratic socialist) or capitalist country.
In sum, America seems to be in a season of transition. And American citizens (many of whom are Evangelicals) are caught up in and many are participating in this divisive, yet defining, season.
Not only is America in a season of transition, but Evangelicalism is as well. In fact, Evangelicalism is fracturing—and has been for centuries. Much of the fracturing has been over theological, missiological (thus the messy middle of cultural engagement), and methodological differences. However, in recent years, there’s been a fracturing over American politics.
Regardless of what you think about President Trump, he has added to Evangelicalism’s division. And for many Evangelicals who once found somewhat of a political home in the Republican party have now espoused their “political homelessness.”
My prognosis: I don’t see the fracture of Evangelicalism healing. In fact, because of the differing cultural engagement strategies and the growing political division (and vision) within, I predict Evangelicalism will become more and more fragmented (tribal). As a result, the church will continue to lose macro influence (at least for the time), culturally and politically, in American society.
In the midst of all of this, this is why it’s essential to develop a cultural engagement strategy built upon a robust missiology, rough eschatology, and rudimentary understanding of the government that’s in authority. This may not solve the messy middle, but at least we can articulate to one another how we understand our engagement with the larger culture. My hope is that in the midst of acknowledging the messiness of the middle, Evangelicals, at the very least, will still find the Good News of King Jesus as the truth that unites us in the mess.
 Ibid., 195–200. Abraham Kuyper’s “Sovereignty” largely influences transformationists.