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Engaging the culture without embracing it
Posted By Eric Sammons On October 14, 2010 @ 8:17 am In Evangelization,Kill Your TV | Comments Disabled
Yesterday I wrote  about the “new evangelization” that our church leaders are calling for. As I mentioned, our Faith is timeless, and every age needs to find new ways to present this Faith in such a way that it is attractive and appealing to those who are sincere and searching for the truth. This means we must engage the culture in which we live.
But what does it mean to “engage the culture”? How does one go about doing that without falling into the errors and evils of a culture? How do you engage the culture without embracing it? How do we live in the world but be of the world? I think it is helpful to look at a practical example: television.
One of the major cultural touchstones in our day is the television. The influence of TV on modern culture cannot be underestimated. How reality is presented through this medium has had a profound impact on how we view the world around us. Anyone who thinks that television doesn’t change people’s behavior should ask why advertising agencies spent millions of dollars on ads if they don’t change behavior. And if ads – which so many people try to ignore – can influence behavior, what about the shows themselves, which are watched willingly? So there is no question that television is a major cultural indicator (and influencer).
So does that mean that in order to effectively evangelize – to engage the culture - we must watch television? This is exactly what I have been told in the past when I mention that I don’t own a television and therefore don’t watch the many shows out there now. The fact that I’m only vaguely aware of a show called “Glee” supposedly proves that I can’t engage the culture effectively. But I believe this is a misguided notion and shows a faulty understanding of evangelization.
Evangelization is most effective when it is based on a personal relationship between two people. A study was done on Mormon evangelization and it was shown that people were much more likely to convert to Mormonism if someone they were close to – such as a family member – was already a member of the LDS church. The same holds true for any evangelization effort: it is through close personal contact that people are most likely to be open to any message, including the message of the Gospel.
When I was in college, I was a member of Campus Crusade for Christ. We would go door-to-door trying to get people to “accept Jesus into their hearts”. Usually our efforts failed miserably. Why? Because we were not evangelizing, we were being annoying – we were not engaging the total person in our efforts but were instead just doing (annoying) marketing. (Note: I’m not against door-to-door campaigns – I’ve organized them myself; I’m against the idea of a “hard-sell” type of door-to-door campaign).
Effective evangelization involves a long-term effort and deep relationships. Is talking about the latest TV shows really building a deep relationship, or is it not usually just a superficial way to kill time and be sociable? I do not need to know the latest reality show in order to engage my fellow workers on a deep level, and in fact, keeping a conversation to the level of the latest TV show might hinder that effort. Instead of talking about who is about to be ousted on the latest “reality” show, I can talk about my co-worker’s kids or his ailing mother or his hopes for the future. In other words, I can talk about the things that matter – things that lead to the thing that matters most: a relationship with Christ in the Catholic Church. What I need to engage the culture is not to drown myself in that culture, but instead to form an understanding of human nature and the issues facing people today and use that understanding to engage each person in the struggles they face each day.
Please note: I am not saying that watching TV is evil. Although I do believe that most shows on television today are harmful and should be avoided – and that too much television watching can subtly affect how you view the world – that does not mean that the act of watching a TV show is immoral. However, the idea that watching television is necessary to engage the culture properly is an idea that has no basis in reality and should be rejected. It is more likely that regular TV watching will lead a person to embrace the culture than it will help them to engage it.
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