On Approaching Culture

I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. – Jesus in the Gospel of John 17.15-18 (ESV)

With these words from the Upper Room Discourse of John’s Gospel, Jesus (probably intentionally) set the stage for how His followers should interact with the world. Often characterized as a call for Christians to “be in the world, but not of the world,” these words (along with various New Testament statements by Paul and James) have been used as the basis for Christian cultural engagement.  That is to say, Scripture sets the parameters for how Christians should live in, participate in, and relate to the world in which we live.

Unsurprisingly, exactly what this engagement looks like has varied even among faithful followers of Jesus. In fact, over the years, various Christians have crafted and lived different interpretations of what Scripture communicates about the appropriate relationship with the world. Today, there are five basic approaches that Christians take:

Five Approaches to Culture

First is what we might call the Antagonistic Approach. In this view, the expectation is that followers of Jesus should generally oppose the world and its culture, norms, and practices. Think of the Amish or ultra-conservative Christians who eschew many modern practices and technology. For the sake of comparing all five views, I want to use the Harry Potter books. If for no other reason that the clarity of the example, since their release, Christians have had very clear reactions to these books (and the movies). So they make a solid test cast. For the antagonistic approach, since the Harry Potter books are not explicitly Christian, they are something in culture that should be personally avoided and perhaps even widely opposed.

A second option is the Accommodating Approach, where the expectation is that followers of Jesus should accept and welcome the world and its culture, norms, and practices. This is a more prevalent and often “Christian-lite” approach, although ancient Christians such as John Chrysostom reveal that there is nothing particularly new about this approach. The perspective on the Harry Potter books here is that they’re all good, something to be enjoyed and accepted and adopted without any thought to the contrary.

A third option is the Countercultural Approach, where followers of Jesus should forge alternative, Christ-centered options for cultural expression and practice. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is largely the approach taken by Christian bookstores and the Contemporary Christian Music movement. Here, rather than reading the Harry Potter books, you should instead read some Christian fantasy, perhaps The Lord of the Rings (for the fifteenth time) or the Chronicles of Narnia or something similar.

The fourth option is the Two Worlds Approach. Here, followers of Jesus live between two worlds (sometimes called Two Kingdoms), where sometimes we prioritize the culture of Christ and other times we prioritize the culture of this world. This is the historic view of the Reformation, as this approach was fostered by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and their theological descendants. To continue our example, the first question for this view would be which world do the Harry Potter books belong to? If you’re going to use them for mere entertainment, they’re probably safe, since they belong to that world. But if the books are going to form your worldview, they have overstepped the boundaries of their world and should thus be returned to their proper place.

And finally, there is the Redemptive Approach. In this view, followers of Jesus should seek to redeem the world and reorient its culture, norms, and practices toward Christ and His Kingdom. Not everything is redeemable, of course. But many things are. In this approach, Harry Potter gets recast in various ways. Perhaps the books get celebrated for encouraging literacy or maybe parts of the story are mined for lessons about the battle between good and evil. In this view, culture is engaged for the purpose of finding and drawing out what is true and good and beautiful.

Which Approach?

Now, there are faithful Christians who attempt each of these approaches. And in my experience, there’s typically some overlap in approaches by individuals, families, and communities. (Here I should also not that the accommodating approach seems likely to be the kind of thinking that Jesus and James push back against in Scripture, so it’s probably best to not default to that approach.)

But personally, I lean toward attempting a redemptive approach to our world. A redemptive view takes seriously the reality that culture tends toward sinful brokenness and thus we should not be easy friends with the world. But it also focuses on the fact that our world consists of people made in the image of God who need redemption and whose cultural output is often worthy of redemption too. A redemptive approach understands that not everything is beneficial for the follower of Jesus, but that our world must be engaged and redeemed, nonetheless. This is why, for example, the church as pastor at often uses video clips to open messages. It’s why we spoof culture to make points. It’s why we have message series that use pop songs from the 90s as ways to think about the book of James.

There is much about culture that is not great and should be cautiously engaged by Christians, yes. But there’s also a lot that can be redeemed for the Kingdom of God, not ignored or feared or cast aside.


What about you: what are your thoughts on approaching culture? What boundaries or indicators to do you use?