Great Expectations? The Challenge of Cultural Engagement in Our Pluralistic World

By Dr. Darrell L. Bock

Christians discussing cultural engagement often do so with a wide range of expectations. For some, it is fear that comes with the prospect; for others it involves a challenge; for still others there is an expectation of triumph. Does the Bible hold great expectations for us as we engage culture? Are we to major in the results or in the call?

We face great challenges in cultural engagement. Our world is becoming both bigger and smaller simultaneously. There are more people all the time, reflecting an array of cultures, religions and worldviews. Yet we also are more tightly connected by technology and by global movement, so our neighbors are becoming reflective of the diverse world in which we live, and our children are more aware of those varieties and differences than my generation was growing up. That is what makes engagement a challenge. It also can engender a fearful hesitation, because we instinctively sense that we know so little about the kaleidoscope of perspectives we might encounter. Am I prepared for that? Others, almost oblivious, just head in bravely expecting God to work, knowing we have the truth.

But how did the earliest disciples see engagement? They also saw it as a challenge, one that required preparation. Jesus literally spent the entire second half of his earthly ministry preparing the disciples for what they would face after his death. His words hardly pictured a cake walk. He talked about the fact the world would reject them as it did him (John 15:18–19). He said they would be lambs among wolves (Luke 10:3). These words hardly give comfort that engagement will meet with open arms and a series of easily achieved victories. The point is important because often the church complains about how the world reacts to them, but for Scripture it is no surprise and something believers should be prepared to face, just as Jesus’ earliest disciples were prepared to face it.

1 Peter is a great book, much of which covers engagement, written by one who sat at Jesus’ feet and took the engagement class Jesus held as he prepared the disciples to go out into the world. One of my favorite engagement passages is 1 Peter 3:15, a verse that often appears in Scripture memory programs. It reads, “But set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts and always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks you about the hope you possess.” (NET) What a great verse. We are to be ready to explain what we believe, our hope. Our faith is not ultimately about ideas, though it certainly has those, but is about hope, about understanding and appreciating why we are on earth and how we can connect to the Creator, who made us. It is an exciting call and a wonderful verse. But we often miss what is around it, and that helps us answer our question about what kinds of expectations should we have as we engage.

1 Peter is a great book, much of which covers engagement, written by one who sat at Jesus’ feet and took the engagement class Jesus held as he prepared the disciples to go out into the world.

It starts in 3:13, picturing a world as it ought to be: “For who is going to harm you if you are devoted to what is good?” So, if we do good, things should go well. Simple enough. Only, we live in an upside-down world. So, the next verse reads, “but in fact, if you happen to suffer for doing what is right you are blessed.” Now just look at that verse. It anticipates we will suffer for doing right. It sounds like Peter actually understood what Jesus taught the disciples. That is the world we engage in and with. Yet we are blessed, because we are being who God asks us to be, and our understanding and acceptance does not come from the world.

The next part of the verse is even more amazing. “But do not be terrified of them or be shaken.” There is to be no fear as we engage even though we can anticipate rejection and injustice. Now I have to be honest. A lot of what I see in the Church responding to our culture looks like fear or our being shaken. Those responses never help us engage well. Our hope and identity rests in God, so fear should not be present. It is at this point the famous part of the passage that we cited earlier appears. We connect to Christ as our hope and march into the world ready to engage.

We are blessed, because we are being who God asks us to be, and our understanding and acceptance does not come from the world.

Often, we stop reading in the passage right there. But reading on is worth it. Look at 1 Peter 3:16: “Yet do it with gentleness and respect, keeping a good conscience, so that those who slander your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame when they accuse you.” There is a lot to digest here. Let me make three quick points.

1. Our engagement is to come with gentleness and respect, not fear, not anger, not resentment, but with hope for the hope we share so we need not be threatened but be gentle and respectful. This is another thing I see less of what I might hope to see from the Church as it engages the world. We can do better here. My blog will consistently be coming back to this theme of “gentleness and respect as we engage” as it is crucial in engagement. Tone matters because it communicates our love for those we challenge with the gospel.

2. Our good behavior will be slandered. This is the second time Peter says your good will meet with bad.

3. We are to have a good conscience while knowing God knows the wrong we have experienced. The shame our accusers will have is before God. This is one of the reasons we need not fear as we engage. Peter explains why we can think this way in 3:17: “For it is better to suffer for doing good [yet a third mention of injustice!], if God wills it, than for doing evil. We are not to respond to the world in kind, even in the face of the injustice of some responses. Disciples engage and show a different way of relating, even to those who reject them. The reason for this is what Peter says next. It is the example of Jesus himself in 3:18. He was a just One who served to draw the unjust to God. He is our model. We suffer because we mirror that he suffered.

So where does that leave our question about expectations on engagement? Engagement will be challenging, but it can be engaged in with hope as we rest in our identity in God. We do not need to be fighters, but witnesses. We speak to hostility with hope. There is much more that could be said, but this is enough for now. Engage but expect push-back. Do not be surprised if it comes. Do not fear. Rest in the hope we have in God. Engage with gentleness and respect. Mirror the way God drew you to him when you were a sinner. Remember how Christ served you when you were not interested in him. Remember where we came from and how God’s grace and love turned us to a new direction. Model that. When we mirror the way of God in our engagement, and leave the results to him, we are faithful to our calling and witness to the way of God being different than the world. The expectations of engagement are to live the call by mirroring him as a witness and leave the results to God. Mirror the call, and our engagement will be great in God’s eyes.

Dr. Darrell Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary.