Cultural Intelligence: How Do We Engage Faithfully in a Polarized and Hostile America?

A week from tomorrow, the climate of our nation will be in upheaval as the counting of presidential ballots begins. Presumably, the total number of ballots won’t be counted for at least a few days or weeks after Election Day, as the number of mail-in and absentee ballots will dramatically increase this year. Regardless of which candidate is declared the victor, the inflammatory rhetoric and hostile stance of various groups will be intense…and the Church will be in the midst of it all. 

How can we engage faithfully in a culture and atmosphere that’s arguably more divisive than ever before? How can we make sure our tone is prioritized alongside our beliefs? Can we do so successfully while avoiding inflammatory and hostile responses?

Darrell Bock addresses this in his new book, Cultural Intelligence: Living For God in a Diverse, Pluralistic World. Bock notes that Western Christians have maintained the individual level as their prominent communication focus, when the Church historically has been designed to address issues on three levels: individual, community, and society. While some interpret the latter two levels as a nod to political responsibility, Bock presents it in the context of how we establish and carry on in one-on-one conversations.

Highlighting six different New Testament passages, Bock crafts a theology of “cultural intelligence,” arguing for the eradication of an “us versus them” mentality (which Christians have largely not done a great job of recently). People made in God’s image are not the enemy – sin and brokenness are. As ministers and messengers of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17-21), we are to consider the elements of love and relationship in every interaction.

While Scripture makes clear that forgiveness is a command and not just a viable option, reconciliation (forgiveness + trust) is admittedly not always possible this side of heaven. However, no matter our depiction in the media or greater public’s eyes (or our frustration with it), the body of Christ is to proceed with love, kindness, and intentional seeking of understanding and mutual ground. Reconciliation defines our relationship to the Father through Christ’s death and resurrection, so it should be foundational to how we approach any person or issue.

Bock provides details and strategies for a “triphonic” dialogue structure (triphonic means three sounds or tones playing simultaneously), so the analogy highlights that we should take all three levels (individual, community, and society) into account when conversing with others. 

A simple contrast can be realized by asking the question, “How do I talk about culture, and how do I engage culture? Those two questions should have different answers and resulting methods. Much like the Scriptural contrast of Paul in Romans 1 and Acts 17, our tone in engaging culture matters greatly. 

We consistently need to ask ourselves if we care more about facts and being right than being an example of Christ’s love in conversation. Next, we need to see if our actions reflect our answer to that question. Of course facts are important.

But if people know we belong to Jesus by how we love one another, will our “undeniable facts” root them out of their opinion stronghold…or will our tone and actions be a better method?

If you have the best answers and information (which we do with the gospel), but terrible tone, your answers and information won’t matter to other people. Yes, God is sovereign and can use and work with things however He chooses. But a big part (if not the biggest part) of making disciples is modeling for those disciples. You can and should stand firm in your beliefs, but that doesn’t mean your tone always needs to be firm. In fact, it rarely does if we’re modeling an appropriate strategy of loving others well. Again, if we are people of the resurrection, then we are ministers of reconciliation.

Finally, how we engage culture has to do with salvation. While an unfortunate amount of Christians have an unhealthy link between salvation and good works via legalism, salvation and sanctification (the process of being brought into closer relationship with and attaining the likeness of Christ) are linked. They’re not just linked in some theologically abstract way, but in a practical way for us to live out. If we are new creations who are helping to usher in the kingdom, as Jesus preached, than we must realize a truth that Bock masterfully states in his book. “Salvation is not about gaining a place but about regaining a Person and learning to live in ways that are pleasing to Him” (Bock, 77) Conducting ourselves in a manner that reflects our reconciled relationship to the Father is a big part of that, but so is our willingness to engage others by demonstrating we believe and desire to love our neighbor as ourselves. 

I encourage you to read Cultural Intelligence, as we all require a long-term methodology of healthy interaction for ministry and relationship purposes… especially starting next week. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t see our nation and culture becoming less polarized any time soon. Let us not lose hope, but remain humble, lead with love, and lean in dependence on our one true hope – Jesus Christ. The author and perfecter of our faith. 

If you would like to hear my interview with Dr. Bock about his book, it will drop on November 3rd (Election Day) via my podcast, Youth Ministry Maverick. You can listen on youthministrymaverick.com or wherever you stream podcasts.


Jeff Harding has been working in youth ministry since 2004. He currently serves as youth minister at Trinity Fellowship Church in Richardson, TX. He is also the Dallas/Ft. Worth Area Coordinator for the National Network of Youth Ministries, blogger for Youth Specialties, and host of the Youth Ministry Maverick podcast. Oh, and he loved Chipotle before it was cool. He hopes you can connect with him on social media @jeffdharding, or through youthministrymaverick.com.
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