How to Engage Today’s Culture by Learning from the Church’s Past

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I love teaching college and seminary courses. Most often, I find myself in settings that are warm and welcoming to my theology, my jokes about bad theology and my Spurgeonesque assertion that all men should have beards.

The first time I taught a college course in a secular setting, I was amused by how befuddled my students were that I am a pastor. I walked into class sporting a fauxhawk and skinny jeans. As I introduced myself, the students seemed encouraged by the thought of having a young professor that dressed and spoke as they do. I shared a brief overview of my academic background and showed a picture of my family. After a few snarky references to a recently released movie, I was accepted and welcomed.

Then I shared what I do for a living. “I’m a pastor.” The wind rushed out of the room. I mean, aren’t all pastors old, racist homophobes who abhor pop culture and speak like their first cousin is Forrest Gump?

I was reminded how evangelicals are perceived: backwoods, irrelevant and going the way of the dinosaur. By creating our own subcultures (and poor ones at that), we have lost our voice in the prevailing culture. We have not followed in the footsteps of our forebears in faith; instead we have largely retreated from society. The fallout from this retreat seems shocking, but it isn’t.

Recent research reveals that roughly half of Millennials consider Scripture the Word of God in some sense—only half of that group believes all of Scripture to be the Word of God.[1] The church’s scriptural message is increasingly foreign to those around us. How have we responded? Have we even noticed? We may very well provide more hindrances than helps! These findings reflect the observation of the cultural apologetic scholar William Edgar: “Christians have grown so used to their own language, terms, and culture that they have become isolated from those who surround them.”[2]

There are two parts to the problem. First, we have falsely assumed in our proclamation that our listeners share our Christian worldview. Second, because we’re failing to address the presuppositions of their worldview, our audience isn’t even listening.

Too often our preaching has been like our view of history: dead and lifeless. Had evangelicals not abandoned the wisdom of our forebears, we would have maintained a much more persuasive and public witness in America.

Now, as American culture becomes increasingly indifferent to Christian messages and mores, we must learn from the example of past Christians. Christian leaders have always accommodated their message to their audience, while carefully articulating Christian doctrine and its logical outcomes.

If we don’t equip people to think biblically on trending issues, they’ll passively adopt unbiblical views.

We must engage the worldview presuppositions of our context to more clearly communicate Christian doctrine. Neither theology nor preaching occurs in a vacuum. Augustine of Hippo wrote one of the first textbooks for young preachers.[3] This influential theologian communicated skillfully; he masterfully employed analogies and illustrations. Augustine encouraged his students to study famous pagan orators to learn effective communication styles and language patterns. Augustine did not intend for his students to minimize Scripture or to dismiss its claims—that is, he didn’t mean that pastors should merely be sanctified Jim Gaffigans or Jon Stewarts—but that they should communicate in a manner that was understandable to their audience.

During the Reformation, Luther became the standard-bearer for the power and clarity of Protestant preaching. Luther was known for his bluntness, accessibility and linguistic relevance in the pulpit. Luther directly interacted with his culture: He used familiar language and illustrations. When some challenged his colloquial translations as unfaithful to the very words of Scripture, he vigorously defended his approach.[4]

In the 20th century, Francis Schaeffer arose as a mix of Aristotle, Jonathan Edwards and Grizzly Adams; he dedicated himself to theology, philosophy and art. Schaeffer routinely warned of the moral decline facing America. He also called for Christians to learn history and engage culture in a straightforward and germane fashion.

I have a very basic pattern for engaging worldview issues in teaching and preaching. Regardless of the worldview concept being addressed, I ask the following questions:

First, how is this issue portrayed or explored in pop culture?

Most Americans develop their worldview through the public school system and pop culture. Schaeffer masterfully assessed the worldview promoted and presented in various forms of art. By engaging the underlying worldview presuppositions of art, he helped shape an entire generation of Christians. Following Schaeffer’s pattern, I try to uncover the implicit worldview of a given art form or expression of pop culture. What is it teaching? What are its long-term implications?

Second, what are the socio-political ramifications for this topic?

Same-sex marriage was discussed in movies, music, video games and sitcoms long before it became the political cause of the day. Recognizing and even addressing (in a fair and kind posture) the sociopolitical implications of current worldview discussions is incredibly advantageous.

The members of your congregation are digesting the content of the worldview around them. If we do not proactively equip our congregants to think biblically on trending issues, they may passively adopt the unbiblical positions propagated around them. Justin Martyr tried to do this by stating how Christian values benefit all people (see below). We must reflect his example.

Third, how can I faithfully and scripturally address this issue in simple and contemporary language?

The model of Christians like Augustine and Luther shows us how to hold to a robust theology while speaking in a winsome fashion. The answer to this question will provide you with the content and tools necessary to address difficult issues with brevity and clarity.

For instance, I was once invited to participate in a sexual ethics panel discussion at a secular college. Just as the panel was concluding, the moderator asked me—the only evangelical on the panel—to explain why God wouldn’t want everyone to be happy by freeing them to explore their sexuality to its fullest expression. I had 60 seconds to respond. Thankfully, I had already considered this question. I referenced “That ’70s Show” as a culturally relevant illustration that created a bridge to God’s purpose and design for human sexuality as described in Scripture. We must be prepared for opportunities like these.

The first preachers of Scripture recognized the need for rational argumentation, culturally relevant appeals to logic and reason and apologetics. In an increasingly hostile culture, this kind of proclamation becomes ever more important.

For example, we are not the first generation of Christians to wrestle with complicated sexual issues. In his Second Apology, Justin Martyr discusses issues related to a former life of sexual sin. The sins that Justin addresses were widely accepted in that society. Justin carefully but directly engages not only what the gospel has to say about these sins, but also the public fallout from the church’s repudiation of the larger culture’s accepted behavior.[5] Centuries later, his words are of great value as the sexual revolution marches on in the United States and raises serious questions regarding what can be considered hate-speech in future years.

Many have navigated similar terrain before us; their example can encourage and instruct us.

This post is a modified excerpt from Dayton’s book, Church History for Modern Ministry. Learn More>>

[1] Robert P. Jones, Daniel Cox, and Thomas Bancho , A Generation in Transition: Religion, Values, and Politics among College-Age Millennials; Findings from the 2012 Millennial Values Survey (Washington, DC: Public Religion Research Institute, 2012); accessed online at loads/2012/04/Millennials-Survey-Report.pdf.

[2] William Edgar, Reasons of the Heart: Recovering Christian Persuasion (Phil- lipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 12.

[3] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine 4.2; NPNF 2:575

[4] Martin Luther, Defense of the Translation of the Psalms (1531), in Luther’s Works, 82 vols. projected (St. Louis: Concordia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 
1955–1986; 2009–), 35:213.

[5] Justin Martyr, Second Apology 2; ANF 1:88–89.

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Dayton Hartman

Dayton Hartman is lead pastor at Redeemer Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. He has a PhD in church and dogma history from North-West University (South Africa), and serves as an adjunct professor at both Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Columbia International University. He is the author of Church History for Modern Ministry: Why Our Past Matters for Everything We Do. Learn more at

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