It’s Still About Engaging The Culture

In 1996 I began work as the President of Seattle Pacific University. Like any new leader, I set out to learn more what this unique university was all about. I dug into some of the history, trying to locate its DNA. I talked to hundreds of faculty and staff, trustees and students, over coffee and croissants, often in our home that overlooked the campus. Out of all that conversation, and the ensuing reflection, and out of the DNA I brought to the table, we shaped a vision. We called it engaging culture, changing the world.

This was a moment of some pretty fierce culture wars. On one side were politically conservative fundamentalists, who wanted to upend the march of secularizing culture. On the other side were progressive modernists, who wanted much more accommodation to a rapidly changing world. My deepest instincts told me neither could be the full option for this strategic-urban-Christian university. We had to ride a radical middle. We needed first to sink the stake of the gospel of Jesus Christ at the center of our identity—and then, aggressively, winsomely, we needed to reach into our city and beyond. It was from the gospel outward—that’s the way we sought to engage the culture.

We faced tensions, the tugs in one direction or the other. I would speak downtown, for example, and I would hear from some that I didn’t speak the name of Jesus boldly enough. I was a wimpy Christian. At other times, I would hear from community leaders that my strong convictions about character formation, for example, were misguided. “That’s not the purpose of a university,” I would be told, bluntly at times. Conservative Christians all over the region didn’t always trust us. The ACLU sued us for hiring Christians on our faculty. That was a cost, I kept telling myself, for driving the stake of the gospel, and then, well, engaging the culture.

Of course I have zero say in the matter as a former president, appropriately, and I fully recognize that vision language must change, but I would still contend that part of the driving purpose for Christians these days is to engage the culture. I am alarmed at the disintegration of culture. That’s where we must reside now. The profound splintering of our society comes in the wake of radical commitment to individual freedom. We fight fiercely over a lot of things these days, but liberals and conservatives alike will go to the matts for individual freedom. Freedom from all limitations is the sine qua non. It is the trump card.

But I am reading these days an enormous amount of great writing questioning this centuries-old cultural commitment to individual freedom. It can’t be freedom from everything, can it? It can’t be unhooking ourselves from all tradition, things like the family, institutions like the church, healthy forms of school, even the classic voices of great literature from the past?

We’ve dismantled these ancient patterns of good social order, and we are paying the price. And here’s part of that tragic price: To rest all of our moral/cultural weight on the individual alone crushes the individual. We are providing less and less supporting tradition from which the individual can draw deeper sustenance, stability, purpose, direction.

The accumulating research seems clear: Destroy the family and the society will come apart. Take away all forms of healthy common activity—in the neighborhood, the church, the schools, good companies—and we will reap loneliness, isolation, even despair. We’ve reached that tipping point. At some level the loss of these things drives opioid addiction, suicide, the motivation for shootings. Our intense polarization comes from the breakdown of these traditional forms of common purpose.

Engaging the culture is still the call for Christians in our day. The terms are changing, I suppose, as the culture radically changes. The gospel, though, stays steady, even as we reorient our way of engaging. And part of our gospel is surrounded by long traditions of human flourishing. We neglect those traditions at our peril. We flaunt self-sufficiency of the individual with dangerous consequences.

As we continue to engage the culture, we need the family. We need healthy schools. We need thriving, nurturing churches. We need organizations built around love and care and grace for its members. More than ever, Christians need to engage the culture. Perhaps, as we engage the culture, maybe in smaller circles these days, in gestures of love and forgiveness and selflessness and grace, well, just maybe we can also change the world.