How to Engage Culture with Your Students and Kids

There’s an old Chinese proverb that says, “If you want to know what water is, don’t ask a fish.” It’s supposed to teach us that the more exposed we are to something, the less we notice it.

Culture is to humans what water is to fish. That means being changed by our culture is as certain as getting wet in water and often we don’t notice it.

So how should we respond?

What is Culture?
First, we need to define the term. I think Stonestreet and Kunkle describe it well in A Practical Guide to Culture. They say, “Culture is what people do with the world and what the world does back to us.”

How should we as Christian youth ministers and parents, posture ourselves?

Culture as Harmless
Some leaders of young people view culture as essentially harmless. It’s just water, right? If this is true, we should expose our children to as much as possible, but be careful to avoid the extremes. This narrative goes something like:

“Cultures are different all over the world. People believe, think, and feel differently. It’s not our job to question those assumptions, but to teach our kids to accept and affirm everyone in whatever they believe. You need to accept the culture. Watch the movies, listen to the music. Everything’s fine, just don’t go crazy.”

Culture as Warfare
For other leaders of young people, culture isn’t water, it’s war. There are barbarian hordes roaming our streets, televisions, and politics who want nothing more than to indoctrinate our children. If this is true, we should build thicker and taller walls to keep culture out of our homes. The narrative goes something like:

“Culture is poison. If you are exposed to it for too long, it will infect you. People believe, think, and feel differently. If you’re not careful you’ll end up just looking just like them. You need to reject the culture. Don’t watch their movies. Don’t listen to their music. Nothing is fine.”

Culture and Jesus
But I don’t believe that either the “Harmless” or “Warfare” positions view culture the way Jesus views it in the gospel.

Jesus, when he looked at our world saw the water all the way down to the bottom. He saw cultures and humans that were totally broken. In every era of human history leviathans of inequality, slavery, corruption, genocide, and depravity swim. And every human heart swims in its own current of pride, self-righteousness, anger, and lust.

Jesus did not do what the “Culture as Harmless” people do. He did not rubber stamp the human condition and let it continue on. But neither did Jesus do what the “Culture as Warfare” people do either. He did not build bigger and better pearly gates to shut heaven up from the dirtiness of the world.

Unlike the latter, he entered into the culture of humans out of his great love for them. But unlike the former, he challenged our most deeply-cherished values and affirmations. Jesus’ incarnation modeled how Christian parents and leaders should approach cultural engagement – with compassion and critique.

Compassion and Critique.
Before Jesus died, he prayed over the disciples:

“I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one… As you send me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17:15, 17-18).

Unlike the “warfare” folk, Jesus did not remove his disciples from the world but intentionally sent them into it. And unlike the “harmless” tribe, he didn’t call his disciples to accept and affirm the world’s values – they’re from the evil one! He called his disciples to something different. Jesus prayed that his disciples wouldn’t be isolated from the cultural surf, but that they would be strong enough to swim in it.

Swimming Lessons
It’s important for us to understand that thinking of culture as either only benign or only cancerous are both simplistic and unbiblical. Unbiblical because we are given God’s understanding of culture on the very first pages of our Bibles.

Culture is what people do with the world. If we want to understand Scripture’s view of culture, we need to understand Scripture’s view of humans. And Scripture tells us three things simultaneously about humans, all in the very first book of the Bible.

A) We were created good.
We are made in God’s image. Man and woman are part of God’s “very good” design. We were told in Genesis 1:28 that our job was to spread God’s image and glory over all of creation. And since we were created good, everything we created, the things we did with the world, and the cultures we formed would be good as well.
B) We’re fundamentally corrupted.
But, we rejected God’s good design for us and the world. We assumed we could live a better life if our standards of good and evil ruled. But that was a lie. Instead, everything was corrupted. Every endeavor was and is shot through with pride, self-glory, and an innate rejection of what God calls “good.” Everything that people do with the world is now, fundamentally corrupted.
C) We’re fundamentally meant to be transformed.
But at the same time we are fundamentally good, and fundamentally corrupted, Scripture tells us a third characteristic about people. We are fundamentally destined to be redeemed. There is a promised Son (Gen 3:15) who will reverse the corruption and allow humans to create a very good culture with God once again.

If we want to swim in the cultural surf we need to realize that humans and the things we create are simultaneously three things: good, corrupted, and meant to be transformed. As Christian parents and leaders we must do all three. If we only affirm the culture or, on the other extreme, only battle the culture, we reveal that we have forgotten the deep gospel story that saved, is saving, and will save us and our world (1 Cor 15:1).

Getting in the Water
Almost everything humans create and champion (whether songs, movies, politicians, or philosophies) needs compassionate critique.

Our culture engagement requires compassion because people made in the image of God are often creating and building from their imago dei. There is almost always something to affirm in what people are doing with the world. Very few people, and very few ideas can be dismissed without compassionate affirmation.

But, our cultural engagement will also require critique because people are also fundamentally corrupted. Every artifact and product will be shot through with self-sufficiency, idolatry, and the presumption that we are wiser than God.

Finally, our cultural engagement must point to Jesus because he offers the only satisfaction of our culture’s desires, and the only rest from our culture’s efforts. This is the hard one. Parents and leaders need to acquire the ability to assess the good desires of our culture (equality, fairness, diversity); the wrong methods of our culture (“you do you,” “follow your heart,” the myth of progress) and show their kids how it’s only in Jesus that our greatest desires are filled, and our efforts can be put to one side.

This seems impossible. Until you remember who is praying for you and who is empowering you. Jesus is always interceding as you send your kids into the world (John 17:20). And his Holy Spirit is always working to show you the mysteries of his will that unite all things in heaven and on earth in him (Eph 1:9-10).

Seth Stewart is a husband and a dad, and after a decade in student ministry is now working as the Editor-in-Chief at Spoken Gospel. Spoken Gospel creates online resources that point to Jesus from every passage of Scripture. Seth spends his day writing, speaking, and being his family's chef.

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