Why Biblically rich cultural engagement may not be happening in our churches as much as we would like

I’m picking up on a theme from two sources.  First, there is my friend Tim Suffield’s tweet that prompted my little survey the other day.

Then there’s a recent book that has been generating a lot of excitement among conservative evangelicals “Biblical Critical Theory” by Christopher Watkins.  The book, according to some of the most lavish praise is seeking to do what Francis Shaeffer did for his generation or even what Augustine did for his with “The City of God.”  I’m reading it at the moment and so you’ll get to find out whether or not I agree with the assessment when I review it soon. 

The focus of “Biblical Critical Theory” is on seeking to develop a Biblical framework for engaging and critiquing the culture around us. The idea is that as well as challenging competing worldviews, we should be able to provide a positive vision of what the world and society are meant to be like.

I would suggest then that both the book and the tweet share a common desire, to see Christians fully engaged with God’s Word and the world around us in a way that is theologically rich.  In other words, we should be like John Stott’s image of the preacher, holding the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other (I suspect that today it is a tablet with different tabs open rather than a physical book and paper).

Now, I would share that desire.  I think it’s a good and noble thing for us to aim for.  I would also argue that the right and best environment for this to be cultivated is within the local church.  However, I also do not think that this is happening. 

Why?  Well, there are two main reasons.  First, we must do some honest, soul searching about our preaching and teaching.  This includes the nature of Bible studies as well as Sunday monologues.  There’s a lot of pressure for us to do two things.  First, when it comes to preaching, there’s the pressure to preach to particular frameworks and structures, to keep it short (we have it drummed into us that attention spans are limited to 20 minutes) and to ensure that we provide immediate application in terms of things to do in the week ahead.  Our preaching is designed to get people through the next week.  When it comes to Bible study, much of the approach is modelled by Bible study booklets which in effect spoon feed people step by step through a Bible passage and, in my opinion, don’t allow space for people to truly grapple and wrestle with Scripture, especially the parts that disagree with them.  We expect Bible studies to move quickly to the right answer. 

I am writing primarily about conservative evangelical approaches to preaching and teaching here because that’s my own primary context.  Once we abandon expository preaching and we accept that there are no right answers, there are another array of problems to face but those are not my concern today.

The second reason, which is part of the cause and pressure for the first is this.  That big and expansive vision sounds very much like a luxury.  That’s exactly why we tend to assume that those kinds of questions should be asked in seminaries and Universities, not in local churches.  It’s why these kinds of conversations seem rather removed, even from traditionally middle class contexts such as University and graduate churches. 

You see, we want something to get us through the week ahead because that’s as far as our gaze is razed. The horizon only takes us to next Sunday and we cannot see beyond it in terms of the long term future.  Our worldview has become narrowed in to our immediate circumstances.  Thinking about culture, society, the wider world, even the task of world mission seems beyond us. 

This reality is the consequence of living in a world that is troubled and in upheaval.  It’s what happens when you have a cost of living crisis and people do not know how they will make ends meet day to day.  It’s what happens when workplaces are full of bullies and you don’t know if you’ll be able to stay in your job until Tuesday.  It’s what happens when there’s the fear of pandemic or brutal, ugly, potentially nuclear war on our very doorsteps.   Our horizon has shrunk.

So, we need to beware the temptation to decry Christians and churches for failing to engage in a greater vision.  We need to be alert to the immediate needs of those we are preaching to and pastoring.  If something that we consider to be desirable, essential for them feels like a luxury and we impose it, dropping it in on them, then it will feel like a heavy burden.

However, this does not mean that the diagnosis is incorrect.  It strikes me that Augustine wrote City of God, as a preacher/pastor, right in the middle of a terrible crisis. People in his day may have considered his musings to be an unwanted luxury.  Yet, I think he correctly established that what the church of his day needed, if it was to survive was deeper thinking and a greater vision.  Similarly, when we think about the likes of Lloyd Jones taking his congregation at Westminster Chapel deep into Romans and Ephesians or Francis Schaeffer’s critical engagement with philosophy and culture during the last century, it’s worth remembering that the backdrop to their ventures was the Second World War and the Cold War.  They recognised that troubling times required deeper thinking not shallower preaching.

So, the question for us is how can we help our churches to engage richly with Scripture and thoughtfully with the world around them?

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