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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3 Ways to Integrate Culture into Whole-Life Discipleship in the Church
Dr. Michelle Ami Reyes
Vice President of the Asian American Christian Collaborative and Scholar in Residence at Hope Community Church
April 22nd, 2021
As I think about cultural engagement as sacred work, my attention immediately turns to the many Christians of color I’ve counseled over the past few years who find themselves as the lone minority, or at the least one of very few minorities, in majority white churches. For many there is a constant wrestling with, “Should I stay or should I leave?” It’s a question born from experiences of pain and frustration of not truly feeling seen, heard or valued. When Christians of color attend majority white churches, they struggle to find people who see the world the way they do, let alone who have experienced racism and marginalization the way they have. No one understands this feeling better than Jesus, of whom John says, “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (John 1:11). Indeed, tending to the experience of these friends and their attempts to faithfully engage the cultures they inhabit feels like deeply sacred work.
Elena is one such friend. As a Latina, she longed to not just feel welcome in her church, but to feel like her church cared for the surrounding Latino community and the issues that impact it, such as immigration and the situation at the border. Eventually, silence around these issues convinced her she needed to find a new church.
However, shortly after, she came over to my home one evening and shared what felt like a major development within her church and her impetus for now staying. “I’m so excited. My church has finally put a team together to offer Spanish translations of songs on Sunday mornings,” she told me. Elena was beaming. I could see the joy on her face, and I knew that this felt like true progress for her.
Especially since the summer of 2020 in the wake of George Floyd’s death, many churches have made an effort to become more culturally competent. Some have read books on culture and race with their small groups. Others, like Elena’s church, were adding bilingual lyrics to their Sunday morning worship services or even hiring Black and Brown ministers. These efforts, however, while often well-intentioned, do not necessarily translate to real cultural change within a church.
For many churches the commitment to a multicultural body of Christ is to optics alone. Cultural competency is relegated to smiling minorities on the church website or reading books on culture and race only after a racial tragedy. Token ethnic leaders are brought in to make the stage look more brown, but they have no real decision-making power. Lyrics are translated into Spanish regardless of whether the church is responding to racial violence against the Latino community. Worse, those who seek to implement change beyond appearances are labeled divisive, even dangerous.
As long as cultural issues are treated in superficial forms, considered unworthy of theological inquiry or systemic change, we are not going to make progress in the areas of cultural identity and cross-cultural relationships within the Church, let alone society at large. Real progress that leads to lasting impact, healing and solidarity across racial lines is only possible when culture is seen as central to our spiritual formation and is integrated into whole-life discipleship.
A Theology of Culture
Integrating culture into whole-life discipleship within the Church first requires a fundamental theological shift. Too often Christian leaders and pastors want to dismiss the distinctions between different people groups. This is a posture of colorblindness. Colorblindness often arises out of good intentions, as churches attempt to minimize differences by saying, “I don’t see color,” or “We are one human race.” But this posture can cause more harm than good. Not only do such statements make people of color feel like you are saying to them, “I don’t see you,” they also reflect a deficient theological framework for understanding the proper place of culture within our spiritual life and formation.
Our cultural identity is interwoven into our spiritual DNA. From God’s covenant with Abraham, who is named “father of the nations” in Genesis 17:5 all the way to the scene in Revelation 7:9 depicting every tongue, tribe and nation bowing in worship before him, God reveals his intent for a multiethnic body of believers. In fact, cultural flourishing is paramount to our ability to be together in Christ, not only in the present age as the Church but also throughout eternity. John, the writer of Revelation, presents a picture of believers as multiethnic and multicultural, coming from all the nations of the earth to worship God together. In Revelation 7:9, we see “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.”
Around the throne of God one will find Ugandans, Mongolians, Arapaho, Vietnamese, Russians, Argentinians, Polynesians, South Africans, Koreans, Iranians, Bulgarians, Hmong, Mexicans and a host of other peoples from thousands of different tribes and nations. This image conveys people of all different skin colors singing in many voices and languages. It also portrays people of different backgrounds, histories, experiences and viewpoints coming together to worship God. The image of all tongues, tribes and nations worshipping God in Revelation is powerful in that diverse cultural identities remain, while racial division and hostility has been completely healed.
In other words, Scripture offers us a picture of the ideal humanity with each person retaining their ethnicity, story and voice as they unite in worshiping God for eternity. This vision of the future should impact how we see and approach culture in the Church today. God created us as a diverse people. In a holistic, not superficial form, we must pursue Revelation’s vision to be culturally diverse on earth as it is in heaven.
Multiethnic does not mean multicultural. You can have a congregation of different ethnicities and still have a monocultural church. Pastors and Christian leaders need to consider, “What is the culture of my church?” Moreover, “Who is comfortable and who is not?” Discomfort around culture is ultimately what leads cultural competency within churches to become a failed experiment. As Kori Edwards argues, “Multiracial churches tend to mimic white churches in their culture and theology; whites are not comfortable with black church culture or addressing the elephant in the room, race; multiracial churches work—that is, remain diverse—to the extent that their white members are comfortable.”
Here are three ways your church can embrace holistic cultural engagement as truly sacred work:
1. Hire Racially-Conscious Christians of Color to Direct Strategy and Decision Making in the Church.
Does the leadership of the church reflect the congregation and local community? Sociologist Michael Emerson shares that more than 70% of multiethnic churches still have a white lead pastor. Only 19% are led by African Americans, 7% by Latino/a Americans, and 4% by Asian Americans. That’s a problem. Additionally, studies show that people of color in multiracial churches are often relegated to roles that are more symbolic, ones that people see (like usher or singer) but that have no real influence or authority in the church.
We have to understand that whoever leads the church directly impacts not just who walks through the doors but also how issues of race will be addressed within the church. Pastors must assess the demographics of their local community and make sure voices in their church are equally represented and decision-making power is shared. We need racially-conscious pastors, ministers and leaders of color in the Church. They bring new voices and new forms of leadership that are appropriate for their specific contexts and communities. They play a key role in helping a church lean into, develop and celebrate the cultural identities of its congregants.
Racially-conscious leaders will also know best how to direct strategy and decision making as it pertains to their own people. We could have avoided so many cultural and racial tragedies, especially in the Church, if Christians of color had been at the leadership table, making strategic decisions and serving as head pastors.
2. Read Books on Theology and Culture by Christians of Color.
Many pastors and leaders were not required to read books by Christians of color in seminary. However, pastors who do not see the world intentionally through a multiethnic lens, and who aren’t educating their congregants into this lens, will not only ignore their own cultural viewpoint, but they will also ignore the cultural identities and views of others as well. Whether they are Black, Brown, or white, leaders must read and teach from a variety of texts regularly in order to fully see their brothers and sisters of color around them.
Moreover, the Church’s understanding of culture and race must move beyond the Black-white divide. For too long, the stories of Asians and Latinos in this country have been overlooked and erased. As a second-generation Indian American, I believe it is time for a reckoning with Asian American history and for all people to see the lived experiences of Asian Americans, including the racism we endure, as essential to an understanding of the American story, which is, of course, inseparable from the story of Christianity in our country. The problems of race for Asians in America look different than they do for the Black community, for the Latino community and more. We can challenge our limited perspectives by educating ourselves on the history of anti-Asian racism both within the Church and society at large.
3. Preach Culture, Race and Ethnicity From the Pulpit.
Pastors must be trained to see issues of culture and race throughout Scripture and to approach it both exegetically and homiletically in any passage they preach. Whether it’s a sermon on Genesis 16 or John 2, they must see color in Scripture. In a sermon or homily, a pastor could spend time identifying different Bible characters’ ethnic identities, naming them aloud, finding where they lived on a map, discussing what they might have looked like and unpacking the significance of these details in the text. If a church only hears about culture once or twice a year, it is easy to regard it as insignificant. Congregations need to repeatedly hear about ethnic and racial tension and the beauty of cultural identities, as well as God’s heart for racial reconciliation and restoration to counteract the formational agenda and power of this world—and to truly embrace a communal identity as the body of Christ that cares for our God-given ethnic heritages and cultural identities.
To take this one step further—a pastor can build relationships with a church of another culture and have pulpit swaps. This allows congregants to sit under the teaching of a pastor from a different culture who sees the world differently, who will bring their whole self to the reading of Scripture, and offer fresh theological insights.
The Church has a unique opportunity in this cultural moment to pursue the call in Revelation 7:9 to live as a multiethnic body of Christ. To do so, we must move beyond optics and pursue real orthodoxy and orthopraxy that leads to cultural flourishing—not because of any societal pressure or expectation, but because God himself calls us to this sacred work. If we can live this out, not only will we be able to better love our neighbors, we will be able to strengthen our biblical witness to the world as well.
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Trading Influence for Credibility
Brandon J. O’Brien (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School)
Director of Content Development and Distribution for Redeemer City to City
April 29th, 2021
As a child soldier in the “culture wars” of the 1980s and ‘90s, I learned early that Christian cultural engagement was largely a matter of conversion and resistance. On one front we worked to make the culture more Christian one person at a time through conversion. On another we resisted the rising secular tide by voting the right people into office, protesting the teaching of dangerous ideologies in public schools, and boycotting companies who used their profits to make America less Christian. Songs like Dallas Holm’s “It’s War” (1985) and books like Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness (1986) reinforced for me the reality that our battle to save the culture reflected a cosmic battle in the heavenlies. Souls were on the line!
By adulthood I was exhausted from the fight and convinced we weren’t gaining much ground anyhow. It was much to my delight, then, when I stumbled upon another approach to cultural engagement that leveraged a different metaphor for Christian faithfulness—agriculture instead of warfare—that suited me better temperamentally and theologically. This approach predominates in the corner of the Christian world I inhabit now: the concept of “cultural mandate.”
The Cultural Mandate
Rather than summoning Christians to array as an army against the Lord’s enemies, the cultural mandate is a call to partner with God to continue the work of creation. It derives from Genesis 1:28:
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
The cultural mandate acknowledges that God created a garden with potential. God created plants to beget other plants, animals to beget other animals. Even the humans God created were made to be fruitful and multiply. But the human contribution is different because, in addition to begetting, people play a supervisory role. People are supposed to superintend the creative work of the rest of nature, to make sure the plants and animals do the multiplying they’re supposed to do.
Genesis 2:15 implies how this responsibility played out. It says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” Adam and Eve exercised their rule (or dominion) over creation by ensuring that the environment in which animal begat animal and plant begat plant was conducive to their thriving. Working the garden was managing space in which all the inhabitants of the garden could do what they were created to do. It wasn’t creating from nothing; it was cultivating. It was culture making.
People still bear the responsibility for culture making today, but the job takes on new dimensions east of Eden. Because we have sin to grapple with, a fundamental part of the job today is discerning how the culture in which we operate is or isn’t “how it should be,” and then working to correct it.
Different Approaches with a Common Danger
For all their differences in tone and tactics, both resistance and cultivation share something in common. They are both efforts to exert influence in the broader culture. To borrow the language from Genesis, they are both efforts to exercise rule (NIV) or dominion (ESV). Exerting this sort of influence requires a lot of confidence in our own judgment, including 1) clarity about how things should be, 2) discernment about how the culture is not how it should be, and 3) a clear sense of how to correct the problems we find.
It doesn’t take much imagination to anticipate abuses that might result from getting either the diagnosis or the prescription wrong. Colonialism and its many evils are the starkest example. Europeans justified land-grabbing on grounds that indigenous peoples in the New World had failed to faithfully steward the land on which they lived. Uncultivated land was not as it should be and was therefore up for grabs. Slavery was likewise justified on the grounds that Africans were not what they should be, culturally and intellectually. But they could be molded—educated, civilized, Christianized.
The danger in influence is that our vision of what’s wrong with the world and how to fix it is never only shaped by our Christian faith. It is also shaped by our own personal preferences and experiences, our community values, and even our political commitments. Our motives are always alloyed by (sometimes unconscious) cultural values.
No one sees this better than those outside the Church. No one sees the potential for mis-evaluation better than the culture we feel called to influence. And given our history, we can understand when our non-Christian neighbors are nervous when they hear about our goal of remaking the world—even our little corner of it—in accordance with a Christian or biblical vision of it.
Solution: From Influence to Credibility
As Christian influence continues to wane in American society, we will be tempted to come up with new strategies for preserving it or regaining it. A better approach is to prioritize establishing credibility over exerting influence. We need to prove to the broader culture that Christians have something uniquely positive to offer the society we share.
Here are three ways to build credibility:
We lose credibility when we refuse to entertain criticism from those outside the Church and those who have left the Church. Our critics charge that while we were busy trying to renew or reclaim the culture outside the Church, we created a toxic culture inside the Church. It’s not lost on people outside the Church that we are often quick to point out the ills of the broader culture while ignoring our own. They may quote Jesus: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5).
Martin Luther said the entire life of believers should be one of repentance. We can model that core commitment of Christianity by listening patiently to the criticism of others, and repenting when that criticism is fair and right. Our credibility depends on our demonstrating that we are as committed to our own renewal as we are to cultural renewal.
I heard some version of 2 Corinthians 6:17 many times growing up (and always from the KJV): “Come out from among them, and be ye separate.” It’s tempting to believe that we Christians stand fully apart from the culture we are cultivating or resisting, that we only enter into it on our terms, how and when we choose. The truth is, we do not operate fully outside of the broader culture we are trying to influence. Instead, we are shaped by it, and we are complicit in some of the sins for which we judge it.
We discredit our witness when we discuss racial injustice and sexual abuse, to take only two controversial issues, as if they are “secular” issues only. #MeToo led swiftly to #ChurchToo. To be credible witnesses in our generation will require that we admit our complicity in the areas of our culture that are broken and in need of renewal.
Complicity runs deeper than specific sins. For all our differences in values and ideologies, American Christians share with the broader culture a lot of baseline cultural commitments. Alasdair MacIntyre said of “modern conservatives” almost a generation ago that “their own core doctrine is as liberal and as individualist as that of self-avowed liberals” (After Virtue, 3rd Ed. [Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007], 222). Something similar could be said of American Christianity. When we decry the dangers of individualism, consumerism, and materialism in American society, our credibility requires us to acknowledge how those same cultural forces have shaped our own efforts to apply our faith in the world.
Finally, the most persistent and intractable issues in society—those most in need of renewal and reorientation toward God’s design—are complex and multilayered. As Christians we undermine our credibility when we seem out of touch with the realities of the culture around us. Rowan Williams said it well: “When the Church appears not to understand and be attuned to the complexities and the struggles of actual humanity, its authority is once again diminished” (“The Authority of the Church,” 25-26).
One way Christians deny the complexity of contemporary life is by reducing multi-layered issues to “heart issues,” the inevitable consequence of life after the Fall (Genesis 3). While it’s true that sin creates the context in which we labor, knowing Jesus doesn’t make us experts in social issues with deep and contested histories. Credibility requires us to admit the complexity of our greatest challenges and posture ourselves as learners along with other cultural leaders instead of experts with a spiritual vision for renewal and nothing else to offer.
People Who Can Be Believed
Our ability to fulfill our sacred calling to join Jesus in the renewal of all things, at this moment in history, depends on “Christians always transforming themselves into a people who can be believed” (Williams, 28). As we work to make ourselves credible by accepting criticism, admitting complicity, and embracing complexity, we will find another layer to this sacred work—that, along with Jesus, we partner also with our neighbors to bring healing to our broken world.
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