How to Influence Culture

Elect exiles.

This is one of the terms used in the New Testament to describe Christians.

An exile is a person who is living somewhere that is not their home. They belong in one place but are making their life somewhere else. They are the ultimate Third Culture Kids. ​

As Christians, our homeland is in heaven. When a person has been born again in Jesus Christ, they can no longer be truly at home in this world. We are citizens of another world, and yet it is on this earth that we live out our lives. More than that, each of us has a specific place on the Earth where we live. A village, town or city with its own distinctive culture and way of life, its own benefits and its own challenges.

The challenge of the Christian life is living out our heavenly citizenship in our earthly context.​

A Tale of Two Cities

This exile life is powerfully illustrated in the literal exile of the Jewish people in the Old Testament. As part of a judgment of God on the people of Judah, Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonian Empire, the Temple was destroyed, the artefacts were stolen and the best and the brightest from amongst the people were taken to Babylon and enrolled into a three-year program of study designed to indoctrinate them into the Babylonian culture and disconnect them from their roots. Rather than kill the cultural elites of Jerusalem, the Babylonian captors wanted to go one better - they wanted to turn them into Babylonians!

The challenge for these young men and women who had been taken to Babylon is much like the challenge facing Christians today as we live as exiles in the world and as we seek to contextualise the Gospel message for the communities that we are part of. Indeed, Jerusalem and Babylon have come to stand for much more than just the literal cities: they serve to represent the two places in which we we find ourselves: 'the city of God' and 'the city of man'.

Jerusalem (at least theoretically) was the place where God ruled. It was the home of the Temple, where God's presence dwelt. It was governed by God's laws. Following God is the default way of life and society is built with God at the centre.

Babylon, on the other hand, was the place where man ruled. It was a melting pot of different cultures and contained a plurality of gods. The Lord is given no regard, at least in the public sphere and the default way of life is secular and humanistic. 

It may be immediately striking that the places that we live will, to different extents, be a mix of these two extremes. There have been times in human history where societies have been built on the 'Jerusalem' model, with Christianity occupying a central role, and different laws and societal norms built on 'Christian ideals'. There have been other times when society has been much more in the Babylon mould, with Christianity (sometimes) permitted as a private option but sidelined in the public sphere, replaced by humanistic values and accomplishments. In many parts of the world, our age leans more towards 'Babylon' than it does towards 'Jerusalem'. 

As we compare these two cities, it is clear that Jerusalem offers the easier life for believers. Society is set up in a favourable way. There is much less call to go against the grain and facing opposition to the faith is unlikely. 

Whilst Babylon doesn't offer the same kind of easy life that can be found in Jerusalem, it does offer a much greater opportunity for influence. In a city where comparatively fewer people know God, and Christian ideas are less wide-spread there is a much greater scope for believers to transform the things around them. This influence is a two-way street, and therein is the key challenge of the exile life: can the believers shape Babylon, or will Babylon shape the believers?

This is what contextualisation is all about.

Let's take a look from the lives of a few of those Jewish elites taken to Babylon: Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. The account is found in the first three chapters of the book of Daniel.

Willing to Bend...

The thing that I find most striking about Daniel Chapter 1 is just how willing Daniel and his friends are to compromise with Babylon.

For starters, they actually go to Babylon, and when they get there they go along with the program that the Babylonians enrol them in. There is no record of any argument between these young men and their overseers, and we even see them responding to new names.  

The flexibility on the issue of names is particularly striking given the meanings of those names. The original names of the four men all made reference to God and were statements of their identities in him: Daniel means 'God is my judge'; Hannah means 'the Lord is the gracious'; Mishael means 'Who is what God is'; and Azariah means 'Helped by God'. Their new names not only removed God from the picture but replaced him with Babylonian deities. Daniel was called Belteshazzar (meaning 'may Baal protect his life'), Hananiah was called Shadrach (meaning 'command of Aku'), Meshael was called Meschach (meaning 'who is what Aku is'), and Azariah was called Abednego (meaning servant of Nebo).

It seems as though Daniel and co. were willing to respond to these new names (and the account in Daniel 3 even refers to 'Shadrach', 'Meshach' and 'Abednego'), yet they did so without embracing the identity that those names attempted to convey. 

These men realised that to have influence in Babylon the couldn't pick a fight about everything. There would be moments when they would need to stand up to the expectations that were placed on them (we'll talk about this in a moment), but when you have the clarity about what issues you are unwilling to compromise on, this gives tremendous flexibility to go along with the culture on other issues.

THINK IT THROUGH

What are some issues in your context where you are willing to be flexible for the sake of gospel influence? 

How can you ensure that y​ou don't forget your identity in Christ as you compromise in these ways?

...But Not Break

At no point in the process of Daniel and his friends engaging with the Babylonians did they let this chip away at their identity in God, and it is the very strength of this identity that gave them the confidence to accommodate to the Babylonians on the secondary matters. 

The moment did come, however, where the compromise that was being asked of the exiles was beyond what they were willing to comply with. The issue in this case was the meat that they were being served from the king's table (which had probably been offered to idols), but for us it could be one of any number of things - wherever we are being asked to compromise in a way that neither scripture nor our conscience will permit. 

Despite standing up clearly on the issue, Daniel appears to go out of his way to avoid confrontation. Rather than challenging the officials about serving this food in the first place, Daniel instead simply asked for permission not to partake of it. He listened carefully to the official's concerns and came up with a practical suggestion that allows the official to get on board with him, and he had faith in God to come through and ensure that they are not adversely affected. Daniel showed great winsomeness in the way he handled the issue. He achieved the outcome that he desired, and at the same time was able to expand rather than diminish his influence. Knowing when to make a stand is at the heart of integrity. Knowing how to make that stand is at the heart of influence.  

THINK IT THROUGH

It is important to know beforehand what are the issues that you would never compromise on. Try to come up with a list of what thing you would never go along with your surrounding culture on?

Think of ways that you could handle these issues in a winsome and peaceable way if they ever come up?

Believers Influencing Babylon

In Daniel 2 we see an example of the influence that a believer is able to have in Babylon.

The king had been awakened in the night by a dream and was disturbed by it. He wanted one of his wise men or astrologers to explain the meaning of the dream, but in order to ensure that he wasn't being fobbed off, the king raised the bar a bit higher and demanded that one of them not only tell him the meaning of the dream but also describe the contexts of the dream. If none of them could do this, they would all be killed. 

As it transpires, Daniel is able to bring the king what he wanted, because God revealed the dream and its interpretation to him. This led to an opportunity for Daniel to speak truth to the king about the kingdom of God, and results in an increase in the  authority that both Daniel and his friends have in Babylon. 

Daniel's influence can be attributed to a number of factors:

  • Engagement with the system. At this point in the story, Daniel's proximity to the king was nothing like what it would later become. Nevertheless, Daniel had completed his education program and had taken a role as one of the king's 'wise men'. It was through this participation that Daniel was able to find out about the issue and make a difference.
  • Gutsy Faith. I love the fact that Daniel arranged a time to meet with the king about the dream before he even had the interpretation to share with him. For sure there was an element of desperation (they were threatening to kill him...) and yet there was also a deep-rooted confidence there that God would reveal dream.
  • Practical Prayer. Daniel and his friends prayed that God would give them the interpretation. This kind of faith-filled prayer that is specifically focussed on the challenges ahead unlocks influence when answered.
  • A Winsome Nature. Again, the way Daniel approached the issue showed tremendous people skills. He spoke to Arioch politely. He requested his time with the kings and was happy to do so at the king's convenience. Though prophesying about the fall of his kingdom, the way Daniel speaks to the King is reverent and holds him in high esteem. All of this increases his chance of being heard.
  • Supernatural Revelation. Daniel had something to say from God, and this is ultimately what differentiated him from his peers. As we engage in our society and in our workplaces, as people who know God's truth we have something that nobody else has - and when we engage those contexts smartly with this truth then we are in a wonderful position for influence.

Babylon Influencing Believers

In contrast to the influence that Daniel was able to have in Babylon in Daniel 2, we are presented in Daniel 3 with Babylon's best efforts to exert influence on the exiles who were there .

The king had made a large golden image and had given the order that everybody should bow down before it. Obviously, this instruction didn't sit well with those who worshipped God and so comes the crunch question: how do you live in Babylon without letting Babylon lead you away from God?

The chapter reveals a few keys.

  • Be Ready to Go Against a Crowd. The issue here isn't the private practice of their faith but whether or not they are willing to go along with what everybody else is doing. Being willing to stand in contrast to what is considered 'normal' practice is important in resisting cultural influence.
  • Don't Go Looking For Trouble. Despite going against the crowd, it was't Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego that made an issue of it. They were happy to follow their conscience and get on with the quiet life that we are instructed to pray for 1 Timothy 2.
  • Be Ready For Trouble When It Comes. Just because we don't go looking for trouble doesn't mean there won't be times when we face opposition. Understand that this is part of what it means to follow Jesus and be ready to be opposed and suffer for the faith.
  • Have Faith In God. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego give us a striking insight into faith. They deeply believe that God will rescue them, but they also know that if he doesn't they still shouldn't work out the image. There is something incredibly powerful about the expectation that God will intervene coupled with the humble acknowledgment that his ways are higher than ours and that he might not do it quite as we expect him to.

On Broadcast this month we are exploring the theme of contextualisation. We'd love to here from you what things you have found effective in contextualising your ministry to influence your culture and what keys you have found to ensuring that the culture doesn't influence you away from the Gospel.