Engaging with Culture

This session was taught at the Christ Church Manchester School of Theology on Saturday 17th November 2018. The CCM School of Theology was set up to serve local churches in Manchester and beyond.

Topic: Engaging with Culture

In this session, we look at how we can engage with the cultures we live in.

Speaker: David Devenish

David is one of the key leaders in the Newfrontiers network of churches and is a regular teacher and writer on various topics both in the UK and internationally. In this session he talks to us about engaging with different cultures, looking at Biblical examples of cultural engagement.



Engaging with Culture

1. What is Culture?

Includes e.g:

• How we traditionally behave

• Family traditions

• Dress

• Arts

• Taboos

• Relationships

• How society is organised

‘Culture can be defined as the way of life of a particular society, including its patterns of thought, beliefs, behaviour, customs, traditions, rituals, dress, language, art, music, and literature. These particular systems of beliefs and practices are based on the assumptions people make about themselves, about the world around them and about ultimate realities. Cultures involve the worldviews, social structures, and institutions that give meaning to life. Cultures provide people with the means of expressing their deepest feelings formalised in ways understood and accepted by those around them.’1

“Every human culture is an extremely complex mixture of brilliant truth, marred half-truths and over resistance to the truth. Every culture will have some idolatrous discourse within it. And yet every culture will have some witness to God’s truth in it. God gives out good gifts of wisdom, talent, beauty and skill completely without regard for merit. He casts them across a culture like seed, in order to enrich, brighten and preserve the world. Without this understanding of culture, Christians will tend to think that they can live self-sufficiently, isolated from and unblessed by the contributions of those in the world. Without an appreciation for God’s gracious display of his wisdom in the broader culture, Christians may struggle to understand why non-Christians often exceed Christians in moral practice, wisdom and skill. The doctrine of sin means that as believers we are never as good as our right worldview should make us. At the same time, the doctrine of our creation in the image of God, and an understanding of common grace, remind us that non-believers are never as flawed as their false worldview should make them.”2

“Cultural diversity was built into the Christian faith…in Acts 15, which declared the new Gentile Christians didn’t have to enter Jewish culture…The converts had to work out…a Hellenistic way of being a Christian. [So] no one owns the Christian faith. There is no ‘Christian culture’ the way there is an ‘Islamic culture’ which you can recognize from Pakistan to Tunisia to Morocco.”3

2. Law/Guilt, Honour/Shame, Security/Anxiety Cultures

• There are probably three factors – anxiety, shame and guilt.
o Anxiety often in animistic cultures e.g. African.
o Shame – fear of the disapproval of parents (or society at large) more important than the actual performance of a deed. Loss of “face” to be feared.
o Law/guilt can lead to concepts of “right/wrong”, “my rights” and individual approach to life and the gospel.

• In the cross, Jesus bore the guilt of our sins, the shame of the offence against God and one another and the power of Satan was broken thus setting us free from all fear and anxiety.

3. Hot Climate, Cold Climate

4. High Context and Low Context Cultures

5. Oral and Print Cultures

This would be better described as those who learn best by story and those who learn best by principles/concepts and writing things down.


• “Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does, not only when engaged in writing but normally even when it is composing its thoughts in oral form.” Walter Ong.

Oral learners

• Learn best through stories

• Like to keep things intact (holistic)

• Use intuitive reasoning

• Store truth in remembered stories and proverbs

Print learners

• Use lists (of points, principles, steps)
• Like to break things apart (analytical)

• Use formal logical reasoning

• Store truth in written, abstract principles 


6. Some Principles of Contextualisation

• Contextualisation involves thoroughly understanding the perspective of your hearers and the questions they are asking. o Therefore, we have to study the worldview of those we are reaching as well as the worldview of the Bible.

• Contextualisation is in the Bible itself – it is not just how we apply Scripture to different cultures today. o Acts 17:22-31. o We have 4 examples of sermons from Paul to unbelievers in Acts:
§ To Jews. (Acts 13) – a summarised version of the Old Testament and how it is fulfilled and reinterpreted in the light of Christ.

§ To pagan peasant community. (Acts 14) – miracles plus a God of nature who gives the harvest now revealed in Christ.

§ In Athens, Paul: • Quotes from a poet – a reference which in original context referred to Zeus. • Though disturbed by idolatry, challenges it but indirectly by referring to the fact that God is greater and can’t be reduced to something made with hands (the Jews had to be challenged re the Temple in a totally different non-idolatrous context). • Through the reference to the unknown god refers to a heritage story amongst the Athenians. It uses Athenian poets and heritage story as leading to Christ.

§ In Ephesus – a massive worldview change, through teaching of the whole plan of God described in session 1 and setting free from demons but “What we also learn, most interestingly, is that Paul had not engaged in specific defamation of Artemis/Diana – the patron goddess of Ephesus. This is not even a claim Paul makes for himself but is stated in his defence by the city clerk to pacify the riot fomented against Paul and his friends: ‘They have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess’ (Acts 19:37). Clearly Paul’s evangelism was uncompromisingly effective but it was not calculatingly offensive.” Christopher Wright. That is true contextualised preaching – change the worldview without unnecessary offence beyond the “offence of the cross”.  

• Contextualisation of Leadership

• What is missional in style is culturally dependent

• Contextualised Church

o Must not look like a strange outside imposition but a way of dressing, sitting, gathering, musical style etc that would not be too unfamiliar.

o Always ask the question – “is the model of church we are building easily reproducible in the cultural context we are working? – problem sometimes with churches started by expats.

7. In UK Today

 Also, for post-moderns, law/guilt is not as strong as it was and there certainly is less of a concept of sin. Some things are seen as definitely wrong but other issues are seen as valid choices rather than sin. It is getting increasingly difficult therefore to preach the classic grace to law/guilt because people don’t feel guilty.

“While guilt is a painful feeling of regret and responsibility for one’s actions, shame is a painful feeling about one’s self as a person”. Fossum and Mason, Facing Shame.

“We feel less guilty than ever before – and more ashamed than ever before.” Crouch.

1 Cor 9:19-22.

Paul is demonstrating that he is free but so free that can choose not to be free for the sake of others. He restricts his personal freedom by his missional concerns. 

8. For Further Reflection

• Approach all cultures with humility – read “Global Humility” by Andy McCullough.

• Consider the different cultures in the UK, including the middle class/working class divide – watch this video: 



 1 David Zeidon Contextualisation, unpublished paper

2 Tim Keller, Center Church

3 Andrew F Walls, “The Expansion of Christianity: An Interview with Andrew Walls”, Christian Century, August 2-9 2000, p.792



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