Culture is one of the hardest words in the English language to define. But as we think about culture through a Christian lens, as we did at our 2018 Intersection Conference, here are some of the baseline assumptions we make at the Telos Collective.
- All of life and every ministry is situated within cultural contexts. This calls for humility and discernment in how we speak and act as Christian leaders.
- If the rule and reign of God are the most true, most real things about our world, Christians and churches are released from fighting culture wars. We can trust the sure work of God and the biblical narratives concerning the telos of creation as ambassadors of God’s kingdom.
- Though we always resist worldliness, we are free to be lovers of culture, rejoicing in all the ways and places where the wisdom and love of God can be found.
- The person and work of the Spirit, especially in relation to the spiritual transformation of people and communities, is foundational for Christian cultural engagement.
Based on these convictions, we often use the term cultural sacramentality. This is not to make a sacrament out of culture, but to recognize culture as the inescapable “space” of divine encounter and to see cultural engagement and cultural formation as sacred work.
What all this means and how it works out in thought and on the ground is of course a huge topic of conversation and forms the focus of this, our second issue of the Intersection Journal: “The Sacred Work of Cultural Engagement.”
The Rev. Dr. JR Rozko
Executive Director of the Telos Collective
A Jesus-Shaped Engagement with Culture
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Todd Hunter
Bishop, The Diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others and Founder and President, The Telos Collective
April 8th, 2021
Tara, 22, was working her way through university as a barista. Her coffeeshop was situated between campus and a large office park. This meant the customer base was comprised mostly of students, heads buried in their laptops, and business leaders making deals.
One such corporate customer was Samantha. “Sam” was in her early 40s and slowly climbing the corporate ladder in the health insurance business.
Tara and Sam had interacted plenty of times as Sam waited for her drinks. But they had their first real conversation late one afternoon, just before they both headed to their cars and home for dinner.
Sitting at a black iron table in front of the coffee shop, Sam got Tara’s attention on her way out after her shift: “Hey Tara, can you sit down for a moment?”
Tara, judging Sam to be a safe person, agreed. As Tara sat, Sam hesitantly said, “This is going to sound totally judgmental, but I am honestly curious about your generation.”
“Ah, ok,” Tara responded. “Go on.”
Sam barged right in. “If I believe the caricatures written about your generation—and I’m not sure I do, that’s why I am asking—you are irreligious, liberal progressives who believe all White people are racist, that all sexual minorities need special protection, and that America should become a Marxist, socialist country, making everyone wear masks and carry vaccine passports to travel. I’m sorry for dumping on you,” Sam finished. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I am so curious, and I don’t have anyone else to talk to.”
Tara was not as put off as Sam feared. She simply retorted, “Well, no, I am not offended, but I don’t think you’re seeing a very nuanced picture. I do get where you’re coming from though. I wonder about your generation too. Lots of people your age seem like conservative religious nuts who think Donald Trump is the second coming of Christ. They believe in QAnon, they demonize immigrants, they want to suppress voting rights of minorities, and they seek to give the rich and powerful a pass so people like you and your corporate colleagues get all the breaks. That way, no real progress ever happens for the little guy.”
A Radically Jesus-Centered Approach to Culture
As portrayed in partisan terms on cable TV and talk radio, Tara represents the stereotypical liberal accommodation to all supposed progress, while Sam represents conservative culture warring. But these are not biblical categories. Partisan and church are a contradiction in terms. Church transcends party—puts it in its place.
The group the Church belongs to is called the people following Jesus in the Kingdom of God. And the Kingdom, God’s rule and reign, is a redemptive critique of every approach to culture, as it is of every human heart. But this standing critique is worthless unless one has the heart-desire to welcome it, to repent, to align with it. This is not easy—few find the narrow road.
If we listened to Sam and Tara, we might think that the Church’s engagement with culture is limited to left and right—accommodation or culture wars. In actuality, what we are shooting for are the categories of evangelism, discipleship and justice—Jesus-style, Bible-style. We love our culture, but we resist worldliness (1 Cor. 9:19ff, MSG). That is the vision for the intersection of Church and culture. The missional invitation from the Holy Spirit is to resist the reductionist, dualistic Spirit of the Age. Missiology is simply an endeavor to take the words, works and lifestyle of Jesus seriously.
Radical Jesus-centeredness is the only thing that can make the Church’s work in culture sacred. Without a center in Jesus—the long Jewish story (Genesis 12:1-3) he completed and the telos he came to ensure (Revelation 22:5)—the Church’s work in culture devolves into mere social services or moralizing. We are socially serving for sure, and we do seek moral transformation, but we must pursue both with a unique motivation and an irreplaceable end in mind. We must strive for the healing, justice-bringing will of God for the marginalized and the soul maturation that comes to Christians as they seek, like Jesus, to be about the Father’s business.
When cultural engagement is thusly sought, all participants are transformed. Distinctively Christian approaches to engaging with culture have this crucial two-way Kingdom dynamic: We need a culture (“the world”) in which to be an ambassador of Jesus, and the culture needs the healing righteousness/justice of God.
I have a book releasing later this year from Zondervan called Deep Peace: Finding Calm in a World of Conflict and Anxiety. In it is a quote from my friend Richard Foster, whose doctoral work included thinking about the intersection of spiritual formation and issues of social justice—as did his book Streams of Living Water. Foster helps us realize a central truth at the intersection of formation and mission/culture:
Nothing disciplines the inordinate desires of the flesh like service,
and nothing transforms the desires of the flesh like serving in hiddenness.
The flesh whines against service but screams against hidden service.
Given the low esteem in which the Church is held (see The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are and Where They Are Going) and the confusion about its purpose in society, becoming servant-hearted ambassadors of God’s Kingdom will be both evangelistic and transformative.
Adjusting to a New Cultural Moment
How do we flesh out this vision? Ministry in the months and years ahead is not going to be marked by “going back to normal.” Some social things, of course, will normalize. But culture has changed over the past 15 months. Its center, attitudes and practices have morphed in extraordinarily profound ways. This means we have to adjust if we are going to be present to the current intersection of Gospel and culture.
Don’t worry, shift is not compromise. But shift will, by definition, require you to adjust your pre-pandemic ministry plans.
Jesus interacted with others on their terms, where they were in their thinking, not where he wished they were. This explains his conversations with Nicodemus, the woman at the well, Levi, the woman caught in adultery, Zacchaeus, Mary and Martha, James and John, etc. That is the pattern for the Church’s work in the world: It is contextually, culturally situated.
If you are a senior pastor, consider this axiom: Everyone is a church planter now. For instance, as you are getting ready to have indoor public worship services, don’t just try to get the old volunteers back. Cast, for instance, a compelling vision for caring for children. Many kids have been traumatized during COVID, and increasingly, they have adult topics to deal with, such as human sexuality. Children’s Ministry is not a place for volunteers as much as it is a place for those called to use their gifts to disciple the most precious among us (Matthew 18:1-7, etc.).
If you are a therapist or spiritual director, you may be facing novel forms of brokenness attached to belief in conspiracy theories and other forms of disinformation. I’ll bet you are seeing increased levels of fear and anxiety. You have the tools—your invitation may be to let the Spirit utilize those tools in new ways in this evolving cultural moment.
If you are a deacon, you may want to become a scout, on the lookout for people who are falling between the cracks of the social system. As you begin to notice issues, ask the Spirit to lead you to the one or two places where you should dive in. As you place yourself in our cultural space, have confidence in this: New callings will evoke new gifts required for that new calling.
The basis for our confidence is God’s wisdom and love constantly at work in culture. On this basis, and following the lead of the Spirit, we must envision and create fresh expressions of communities of the Kingdom to be Good News in a new cultural era. Parachurch ministries need the same freedom and confidence. Individual Christians, living their lives in the work-a-day world, need fresh eyes to see divine openings for ministry and fresh faith to know that God will meet them there. This means the way you have previously positioned your church, ministry or self in public needs careful, prayerful attention. You are likely to need a new imagination and a new language for post-COVID, harshly divided, evermore-secular America.
Pastors: What might you do to transform your church into an embassy of the Kingdom?
Follower of Jesus: Can you hear a call to transform from simply attending church to being an ambassador of the Kingdom?
During the season of Pentecost, your church could begin cultivating the soil for ministry at the intersection of Gospel and culture by praying this prayer from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:
Increase, O God, the spirit of neighborliness among us, that in peril we may uphold one another, in suffering tend to one another, and in homelessness, loneliness, or exile befriend one another. Grant us brave and enduring hearts that we may strengthen one another, until the disciplines and testing of these days are ended, and you again give peace in our time; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
We don’t have the power to pick up and shape culture as if it is a piece of Play-Doh in our hands. But we do have the ability, as ambassadors of the Kingdom, to be faithfully present and discerningly, confidently and humbly engaged, in a Jesus-shaped fashion, to the twists and turns of modern life.
Name the aspect of culture that most alarms you. God sees it and is present to it. There is nothing to fear. Fear is a very bad master. Following Jesus is free and light—giving us a winsomeness in our engagement with culture.
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Finding a Home in God’s Bigger Story
“Culture” begins in actual relationships and patterns of relating. It begins first in our local communities.
But in the United States, we often ignore the financial and institutional inequality that plagues our cities. For culture to truly flourish, I believe we need to face systemic inequality head-on and intentionally invest in the financial wellbeing of our local communities, starting with the homes we live in.
Many Christian conservatives decry the decline of “culture”—while seeking “dominion” over media, government, etc.—without doing much to help local communities. But there are important questions we must ask ourselves, including:
- Do we help lower-income folks not get squeezed out of their homes by gentrification?
- Do we promote stability in communities by lowering people’s exposure to debt?
- Do we overlook the history of government-subsidized white flight to white suburbs due to the Federal Housing Authority and GI Bill in the 1930’s – 60s, and the Homestead Acts of the 1800s before that?
More liberal-minded Christians often celebrate a little “diversity training” at work, while practicing NIMBY-ism (“not in my backyard”) in zoning, protecting their kids at all costs, and neglecting low wages and the high cost of living. Are we only interested in a middle- and upper-class diversity, in our unsustainable suburban lifestyles?
God cares about our sense of home, place, and community. He planted the garden of Eden as an initial home for humanity (Genesis 2:4-10). God meant for us to spread the ordered beauty of the garden down the four riverways across the wild creation. It was God’s Housing First paradigm. And like tomatoes taste differently in different soils, human cultures would diversify.
God brought the people of Israel back into a garden land (Deuteronomy 11), to be another version of Adam and Eve. He desired to make His home among them (Exodus 35 – 40; 1 Kings 8), even in their very humanity (Exodus 34), to let His love and light shine through them. Every 50 years, God regifted and rebalanced the garden land to Israel again (Leviticus 25). God said, “You’re all my kids, and I’m bringing you into the garden land as if for the first time.” God did not allow children to inherit all the possible advantages and disadvantages their parents could pass on to them. In the United States, we tend to do so, despite the new covenant’s central principle that God does not do that (Ezekiel 18).
Jesus said that in himself, there are many “rooms” (John 14:2) for us to “dwell” by his Spirit. God’s ultimate place of hospitality is His Son, by His Spirit. And in the final restoration, God provides a garden-city (Revelation 21 – 22), renewal of earth and heaven in such a way that nature and humanity is reconciled.
Intentional Christian Community and Multiplying Homeownership
As single people, my wife Ming and I had each been inspired by Christian mentors who used their homes as part of Jesus’ kingdom work. One of the reasons she and I liked each other enough to date and get married was our vision for Christian intentional community and urban ministry. We got married in 1999 with the hope of starting one. We did not know then how much God would teach us about the history of racism in American finance and housing, or about how much more expensive it is to rent than to own (on average), or how passionate we would become about housing justice.
Finances were one of the most important aspects of our intentional community. In January 2000, Ming and I bought 91 Nightingale in Dorchester, MA for $245,000, with a 10% down payment. We moved into the first floor of this triple decker house. It’s a simple, no-frills, rectangular-style house built in the 1930s for working-class Irish Americans. Two- and three-story houses made home ownership more affordable, especially in extended families, as rental income from the other floor(s) helped the owner pay the mortgage. Each floor of 91 Nightingale has a master bedroom, two regular sized bedrooms, a kitchen, dining room, living room and bathroom.
Ming’s friend Tischa Brown grew up in this area, which had been quite pan-African American for perhaps 30-40 years. Tischa also had experiences living in Christian community. She moved in, along with her adopted teenage daughter. So did a few other people that we knew, who wanted to be part of this Christ-centered community.
We charged $400 per month for the other master bedrooms (one on the second floor and one on the third floor), $300 for regular sized bedrooms (two on the second floor and two on the third floor), and $150 for each of the two basement rooms. Some housemates were roommates with each other, bringing their rent down further. Most housemates were teachers, did non-profit work, etc. The monthly mortgage and insurance was about $2,000/month.
From 2002-2004, as a household community, we were able to help our housemate Tischa. Tischa’s mom moved in with her own adopted son, an elementary school age boy. This young boy needed to go to play therapy and reading therapy three times a week at Mass General, so elementary homeschool was the only good option. Tischa left her teaching job at Lexington Montessori Academy to homeschool her adopted brother. We did this by talking openly about our finances. Each person chipped in about $50 more per month in rent so Tischa would not pay for a room.
Tischa was also able to send her adopted daughter to private school, save, attend a first-time home-buyer’s class, and earn extra money by setting up an after-school program and summer program on her floor. She called it the Harvest Montessori Summer Program. In the summer of 2001, 12 children ages 3-7 attended, from both suburban Lexington and urban Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan. The program grew so large in summer 2003 that Tischa had to hold it elsewhere.
In 2004, Tischa moved from Boston, Massachusetts to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to join friends in a neighborhood-based Christian community. After six months, she was able to buy a house on a teacher’s salary and the savings she had. After just a few more years, Tischa was able to buy a second house (a duplex) so some family members could move from Boston to Milwaukee. In order to buy this house, a friend lent her $10,000 to just hold in her bank account for a few months, because the bank required evidence of assets.
There are so many other stories like Tischa’s, but I’ll share just one more. Carla Booker was a housemate at 91 Nightingale from 2005 to 2015. As a single mother of a young daughter, she paid between $700-900 for two rooms. She was able to pay down her student debt, breathe and get some space for her own health, take vacations, and even send her daughter off to college. In 2015, Carla moved to 72 Esmond, just around the corner from 91 Nightingale, to be part of the Traction House program, a residential discipleship program for young people started by Leslie Moore, another former housemate who had purchased homes, and our friend Laura Mitchell, who had bought 72 Esmond for $235,000 in 2012.
By 2019, Boston’s real estate market was quite overheated, and 72 Esmond was appraised at $600,000. Laura recognized that white people like herself often benefited from real estate at the expense of black people like Carla. Laura felt Christ prompt her to sell the house to Carla. So in 2019, Carla purchased 72 Esmond from Laura for $245,000, less than half the appraisal price. The bankers and lawyers couldn’t believe it. They thought something shady was going on and took a long time to approve Carla’s mortgage. Carla and Laura, though, had a chance to share about their relationships with Jesus, and how he had led them into friendship and ministry partnership.
From 2019 onward, Carla, in turn, offered lowered rent to her housemates at 72 Esmond. She, too, shared this vision of Christian community and multiplying homeownership. Carla charged $500 for one room, compared to $1,000 market rent. Her housemates included a married couple from our church—Roberto and Nakia. On a warm summer night in 2020, Roberto and Nakia stumbled onto a meeting happening on the front lawn of 72 Esmond. Carla, Leslie and Laura had called together a larger group of people (fully masked) interested in housing justice and intentional community.
Roberto felt God challenging him to turn his financial fears over to Him. He and Nakia got their credit checked out and realized they had saved enough by living at 72 Esmond to buy their own condo 25 minutes away. This condo unit has an extra guest room, wide-open basement space, and beautiful backyard. Roberto and Nakia are now planning to build their bedroom in the basement and move down there so they can invite others to live with them.
“Culture” is found in all the things that I did not narrate: the laughter of three families opening Christmas gifts together, the adults discussing what we appreciate in the children of our extended household, the help that my wife and I had from our housemates when we needed a babysitter or homework help or more adult encouragement. “Culture” is what happens when single people build deep friendships with married families with kids. “Culture” is developed in the community garden that my wife and housemates spearheaded, which brought elderly and teenage neighbors together for gardening, cookouts, and family outdoor movie nights. “Culture” is made in attempts to bridge language barriers for the sake of neighborhood meetings so we can call upon the city to fix potholes and broken sidewalks. It’s found in our church’s meeting in the gym of the Boys and Girls Club down the street. It’s found in neighbors taking walks together in the park.
My church, and my friends and I, in particular, are trying to draw more people into this vision.
My church is setting up a “Pay It Forward Fund,” a way for people to invest in one another. People who have gone through our “financially healthy community spirituality” curriculum can apply for a zero-interest loan. Maybe they can get out of debt faster. Maybe they’ll be able to put down a larger amount for a down-payment on a house. It’s another small way for us to be a community. But maybe it can grow.
And what is this “financially healthy community spirituality” curriculum about? It’s a cohort experience where we share our budgets, practice financial transparency with each other, give our emotions and hopes to Jesus for him to shape, learn from Scripture about God’s vision for shalom and justice, and understand what the U.S. has done to put obstacles in the way of various people, especially black and brown folks. It’s harder for them to reduce debt and build assets. So we work on personal financial goals, but the curriculum is not only for personal finance. It’s for a church community. It’s for casting vision for being financially connected. Because it’s in community that we build a new, Jesus-centered “culture.”
Our neighbors, and even a realtor we’ve worked with, have remarked on what an unusual group of people we are. Praise God that others are seeing the work of Jesus in us, by his Spirit. “Culture” is made friendship by friendship, household by household.
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