Cultural Engagement and the Messy Middle

Cultural Engagement and the Messy Middle

September 7, 2022

During our series Transitions, I mentioned the term “messy middle” to explain how I go about engaging in culture and cultural issues; it’s how God’s church engages a lost world. Here’s an image that helps explain the messy middle. 

If I had to guess, I would say many (if not most) believers don’t have a cultural engagement theology or strategy. I would assess that many engage culture based on what they learned from their parents or pastors or their own (cultural) presuppositions. In other words, they have a default cultural engagement theology and strategy.

What goes into developing a cultural engagement strategy? Having spent the last fifteen years studying this, I would say there are at least three key elements in developing a cultural engagement strategy. The three elements are a robust missiology, a rough eschatology, and a rudimentary understanding of the role of government.


What is the mission of God? After understanding God’s mission in the world, you begin to build a missiology (the study of God’s mission) for the church. It is very important to keep in mind that the mission of God gave birth to the church—not vice versa. Thus, the church’s mission flows from God’s mission.

One’s cultural engagement theology and strategy will originate from an understanding of God’s mission and then will seek to understand how the church serves as a vehicle for advancing His mission on Earth. I know there has been (and is) much debate around the Missio Dei (mission of God) and the church’s role in carrying out that mission. Regardless of what you conclude, know that it affects your engagement strategy. 


Some may find it strange that eschatology (theology of the end times) is a key element in developing a cultural engagement theology and strategy, as it is typically seen as a tertiary theological issue. But if you’ve ever studied eschatology, you know it is a complex subject. If you’re like me, you’ve probably been asked, “Are you pre-mil, post-mil, or a-mil?”

The reality is—just like missiology—there are various faithful eschatological camps. Is the world going to get better or worse? When does the rapture happen? Is there a rapture? Does the church usher in the millennial reign? Where do people who do not place their faith in Jesus go? These questions and more are eschatological in nature and thus inform and impact our present engagement strategy.

While I would certainly see myself in one of the camps, I have made it a point to sketch out a rough eschatology around the idea of God’s Kingdom. God’s Kingdom originated in the Garden, was foreshadowed in Israel, was inaugurated at Jesus’ first coming, is reflected in the church, and will one day be consummated on earth at Jesus’ second coming. Therefore, I believe we are living in the “already” but “not yet” Kingdom of God. And the church is a signpost, a reflection, a movie trailer that provides just a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.

Whether you know it or not, your understanding of the future gives (or should give) shape and formation to the present.


Why would having a rudimentary understanding of the role of government be a key element in developing an engagement strategy? Because the church’s cultural engagement strategy is always executed within an earthly governmental framework.

In my study of both the Old Testament and New Testament, it is quite interesting how God’s people, from the position of exiles, never sought to actively transform the government or governing structures of the city or nation in which they lived. For instance, Daniel (nor his friends) never sought to transform Babylon, Jesus never sought to overthrow Roman rule and occupation, and Paul never sought to change Rome or Roman policies. Yet, full of faith, Daniel embraced the punishment of the lion’s den. Jesus famously uttered, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and God that which is God’s,” and Paul penned, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.”

My conclusion in studying both the Old and New Testaments, the cultural engagement strategy of the people of God should be able to work within any kind of governmental system. In other words, the cultural engagement strategy of the people of God should be able to cross borders, boundaries, cultures, and thus systems of governments—just like the Gospel. But, may we never forget, as Christ-followers, that our earthly citizenship should never exceed our citizenship in God’s Kingdom.

For Americans, we live in a democracy—or better yet, a constitutional republic. So, what does it mean to actively participate and engage in democracy from the primary position of a citizen of God’s Kingdom? This is a loaded question and one that will require a robust missiology, a rough eschatology, and a rudimentary understanding of the United States government.

At least from where I sit, a lot of the current friction, factions, and fighting seen among churches and Christians today is over cultural engagement. And I don’t foresee anytime soon where there will be consensus of full acceptance by Christians or churches with regards to how God’s church engages a lost world.

To help bring some clarity in this area, our current sermon series will seek to develop a robust understanding of God’s mission. In doing so, I hope this series provides the foundation for how we understand what God has been doing in the world since the very beginning, as well as inform our present thinking about how we, as a church, engage and participate in God’s mission. 

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