I recently heard a statement that struck me as particularly slippery: “If we want to reach our culture, we need to listen to our culture.” On the surface, this seems true, even self-evident. What could be more obvious than the Christian commission to reach culture? Jesus told us to go into all the earth, after all, and he didn’t give an exception clause.
But it’s not the “reaching” that I found slippery. It wasn’t even that perennially complicated word, “culture.” It was “listen.”
The Bible makes clear that we should listen—chiefly, to the revelation of God (Deuteronomy 6:4, Matthew 7:24), as well as to the counsel of the wise and the rebuke of friends (Proverbs 19:20, 27:6). In fact, we are not simply to be skilled listeners, but quick listeners, more eager to hear than to speak (James 1:19).
But what does it mean to “listen to culture”?
Here are four truths to keep in mind as we seek to listen to—and yes, change—our culture:
1. Culture change starts small.
We tend to think of cultural engagement as something big. It’s what Martin Luther King, Jr. and William Wilberforce did. It’s what we are secretly hoping happens every time we get a little too preachy on Twitter.
But, the first step towards changing culture is the realization that we’re all changing culture. In everything we do, we cultivate (same root word as culture) something. God called Adam to work and keep the earth (Genesis 2:15), cultivating the latent into reality. We’re called to do the same, in our own spheres of influence.
In our families, we cultivate gratitude or greed. In our workplaces, we cultivate justice or selfishness. In our relationships with others, we cultivate love or indifference. Changing culture starts small. It starts where you are. But each small choice you make contributes to a legacy that will outlast you.
Just think: Are your grandchildren going to be thankful for what you said on Twitter? Or will they be more appreciative that you cultivated something good, beautiful, and true—that you planted an orchard, wrote a poem, invested in them, or adopted a child?
2. Culture change starts small…so listening should, too.
Strictly speaking, you cannot listen to culture. You can only listen to people.
Here’s why that matters: We are constantly fed opinions on contentious subjects—political, personal, theological (animal, vegetable, mineral). Too often, these opinions will come to us through the debates splashed on social media or cable news. We are listening to people we don’t know—and never will—which makes us more inclined to criticize than listen.
There is a role for these forms of information. But listening to a topic from a talking head must never replace real-life, flesh-and-blood listening. To listen to culture, we need to listen to our neighbors, our co-workers, our family members.
Start small, with the people around you, and practice listening, not merely information processing.
3. We listen to our culture by listening to other cultures.
There is an old saying about culture, “You cannot push the bus if you’re sitting on it.” The less we’re able to step outside our culture, the less we’ll be able to understand or change our own.
One of the most profitable ways to step outside your culture is to read broadly. The best sources for interpreting contemporary Western life are not always contemporary Western people. They are chronologically or geographically diverse. So read old books and read books from other cultures. A healthy dose of Augustine or Leo Tolstoy will do wonders to open up your ears in the present.
And don’t forget people, either. Step outside of your own age, ethnicity, or gender. Engage with people who are different than you. They’ll think differently, and that’ll grant you a new perspective.
4. We listen best when we don’t feel the need to respond.
Technology has created a strange moment for us: Never before has the pressure been higher to listen quickly…and respond quickly.
This is neither biblical nor sane. To influence our culture well, we need to listen well. And to listen well, we cannot be listening for the sake of a rapid response.
Practically speaking, this means many of us should spend a lot less time keeping up with current events. (Add this to the 1,000 reasons you should limit your daily intake of social media.) You might think you need to “keep up” in order to stay relevant. Trust me: You don’t.
If we’re listening to the people in front of us, if we’re cultivating what God tells us to cultivate, if we’re listening to the challenging voices from other cultures and other times, we will not have less to say. We will have far more, far better, and far more timely words.