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Engaging the Culture:
not easy, not optional
from Summit Ministries

[COMMENT:   The article below bespeaks a coming revival among Christians of their intellectual credibility. 

But we are so far behind the 8-ball in politics which governs government, and thus the enormous centralization of coercive power, that, renewal or not, we Christians just might be in for a serious, maybe bloody, persecution. 

Nevertheless, if we continue to grow in faithfulness, there will be a turning around of things.       E. Fox] 


University of North Carolina Wilmington Professor Mike Adams began his professorial career in the normal way, as an atheist and political liberal. But then he did something distasteful: he converted to Christianity. As it happens, changing worldviews changed his politics, and Adams found himself committing the one unforgivable sin in the eyes of liberal professors: he became a conservative. This put Adams in opposition to many of his fellow faculty members at UNCW, a tension that grew worse as Adams became a popular conservative columnist. So when Adams applied for a full professorship in criminology and sociology, a promotion he was fully qualified for, the UNCW brass stiff-armed him, arguing that his conservative columns had hurt the university and that he should therefore be denied the promotion.

Attempts to resolve the conflict internally failed, and Adams filed suit against the school. The Alliance Defense Fund took up his case. Attorneys for the university went so far as to argue that Adams had no First Amendment right to publish his columns as long as they ran counter to the school’s institutional worldview. Unfortunately, similar situations are becoming increasingly common.

The Battles Are Heating Up

The university campus has become  the arena of choice in which postmodern, secular humanist, and Marxist-Leninist ideologues wage their cultural battles. In recent months a spate of universities have attempted to hamstring Christian student organizations by forcing them to admit non-Christians as group leaders or else lose school funding, their school monikers, and their campus meeting places. Academics who espouse anything other than politically correct views on a host of issues — including same-sex marriage, biological origins, and the veracity of Scripture — are regarded as “anti-intellectual.”1

But the university isn’t the only battleground. Christians in the entertainment industry almost have to live closeted lifestyles, lest they be found out and blacklisted. An unforgiving press corps demonizes Christian politicos. Labor laws may soon silence those who don’t think it permissible for men who feel like women to use the women’s restroom. And, depending on outcomes in the judiciary, employers may soon have to pay stiff penalties if they object to buying their employees contraceptives and abortifacients.

In each case, Christians submitting to what the late Chuck Colson called “the spiral of silence” worsens the problem. Middle ground no longer exists. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “Silence in the face of evil is evil itself. To not speak is to speak; to not act is to act.”

Engagement Is Not Optional

As we pointed out in the December 2011 Journal, appropriate cultural engagement is a responsibility Christians have inherited. From the rescue of abandoned infants on Roman hillsides, to equal education and legal standing for women, to the abolition of the slave trade, Christian engagement is a fundamental part of what we consider to be good about Western Civilization.

The call to engage culture, in the spirit of the apostle Paul in Athens (Acts 17), is still as big a part of Christ’s discipline-making commission as it ever was. Tactics and points of engagement have changed, but the call remains.

Mike Adams eventually won his lawsuit and has since been teaching as a full professor at UNCW. The experience has propelled him to champion students being quieted by university speech codes, often aimed at hushing those with a biblical worldview. “It’s helped me to teach kids at Summit,” Adams said. “We’ve handled it in a Christian way. I tried to resolve things [at UNCW] internally, but they wouldn’t allow me to do so.”

But cultural engagement doesn’t ordinarily start in the legal arena, or even the political. For those wanting to intensify their engagement, we suggest three steps.

Cultural Engagement Step One: Ask, Don’t Tell

Too often Christians try to engage by preaching to the culture. If no one listens, they raise their voices. Summit students learn that the key to unlocking cultural engagement is asking questions. If you preach, people can ignore you. If you ask questions, though, they have little choice but to converse and defend their assumptions.

Through years of teaching at Summit, Adams has developed a strategy for cultural engagement. This summer he’s introducing a new lecture to Summit students: “How to Take Sociology 101.” In it he walks students through a series of thoughtful yet direct questions they can ask a sociology professor spouting the benefits of socialism, same-sex marriage, or other postmodern or secular humanist-based positions.

Of the dozens of books Adams has purchased from the Summit bookstore through his years of teaching (one summer he left Manitou Springs with fifty-two books: one for each week of the year), he considers Greg Koukl’s Tactics  to be the most helpful. “Greg nailed it, he really did,” Adams said.

Tactics introduces readers to ways they can engage skeptics about any number of issues. The foundation for Koukl’s approach is what he calls the “Columbo Tactic,” named after the TV detective. Koukl writes:

The key to the Columbo tactic is to go on the offensive in an inoffensive way by using carefully selected questions to productively advance the conversation. Simply put, never make a statement, at least at first, when a question will do the job.2

The advantages to using questions while engaging others are numerous, according to Koukl. For one, they’re flattering to our interlocutors. Second, questioning our interlocutors educates us on what they believe, setting up a better conversation. Third, as Koukl says, “questions allow you to make progress on a point without being pushy.” And most importantly, “carefully placed questions put you in the driver’s seat.”3

The Columbo Tactic begins with two questions: “What do you mean by that?” and “How did you come to that conclusion?” The third step in Columbo is the use of leading questions (like those Adams has developed for his lecture on sociology). These questions help push the conversation forward in a non-abrasive fashion while cutting to the heart of a person’s logic (or lack thereof). Koukl says: If someone’s thinking is flawed, the key to finding the error is to listen carefully to the reasons and then ask if the conclusions follow from the evidence.

Point out errors with questions rather than statements. You might soften your challenge by phrasing your concern as a request for clarification or by suggesting an alternative with the words “Have you considered . . .” before offering your own ideas.4

Koukl spends the rest of the book helping culture engagers spot logical inconsistencies. The Columbo questions, though, set up the opportunity to get past rhetoric and get to the logic of a particular argument. When engaging others, questions are indispensable.

Cultural Engagement Step Two: Develop Personal Relationships

Engaging in individual conversations and focusing closely on the ebb and flow of each question and answer may seem an inefficient way to change the culture. But the possibility that it may actually be the best technique is a concept New Zealander Greg Fleming is pondering more and more.

Fleming and his family are on sabbatical in Manitou Springs, speaking to Summit students and diving deep into the world of ideas. Back home, Fleming is the CEO of the Maxim Institute, a New Zealand public policy think tank similar to America’s Heritage Foundation. Maxim’s aim is to speak into the political conversations in New Zealand in a way that improves the everyday lives of the country’s citizens.

When he began with Maxim, Fleming thought being louder and more articulate than the opposition was the way to change culture. Now, with Maxim’s flourishing internship program,

Fleming is beginning to see his role in equipping individuals — particularly the culture shapers of the next generation — one person at a time. “The dawning realization is that politics is downstream of culture,” Fleming said. “I did not think that when I started; I was a reluctant convert. It’s at the level of persons that ultimately culture is to be changed.”

As New Zealand becomes more postmodern, engaging at a personal level is becoming an even more significant strategy. The population at large is not likely to pay attention overarching metanarratives, but it is more interested than ever in engaging in conversation.

Cultural Engagement Step Three: Engage Souls, Not Just Culture

No matter what form our engagement takes — a Columbo conversation with a professor, a mentoring relationship with a fellow church member, an internship program for college students, or film production in Hollywood — we need to remember that people make culture, and people are both rational and emotional. The same-sex marriage debate illustrates how emotional investment can shape a conversation for better or worse (for a closer look at that issue, see the Summit Spotlight on page 7).

The fact that personal engagement is necessary doesn’t make political engagement irrelevant. If current trends continue, though, the number of voters who support traditional values will continue to decline. How we vote is no replacement for how we engage our neighbors, family, and friends through direct, person-to-person persuasion. Good questions “keep on asking” even after the conversation is over, and good conversation echoes in a person’s mind. Koukl aptly sums up the objective of cultural engagement: “All I want to do is put a stone in someone’s shoe. I want to give him something worth thinking about, something he can’t ignore because it continues to poke at him in a good way.”5  



1. “The Evangelical Rejection of Reason,” Karl W. Giberson and Randall J. Stephenson, The New York Times, October 17, 2011,

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/18/opinion/the-evangelical-rejection-of-reason.html?_r=1&emc=eta1 .

2. Greg Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan, 2009), p. 47.

3. Ibid, 48-49.

4. Ibid, 88.

5. Ibid, 38.

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Date Posted - 06/24/2012   -   Date Last Edited - 07/07/2012