Wednesday, September 23, 2009

One-by-one or Aim for the Top?

I heard a presentation a while back during which the presenter called into question our usual approach of seeking to extend the kingdom one person at a time. His point was that, by failing to significantly engage with the "culture-formers" of our world, we always end up being "behind the cultural curve"--the culture's effectiveness at "making disciples" outstrips the church's more one-by-one approach.

OK, OK, nobody's saying it has to be either/or, and nobody's arguing that most of us will generally enjoy ready access to culture-makers. But from a strategic point of view, have we put ourselves at a significant disadvantage by failing to engage our culture at its formative levels (e.g., schools and universities, the media, the arts, government [uh oh]... and what else do you see as primary culture-makers/culture-shapers)? Are you aware of good examples of Christ's people entering into this kind of engagement? Do you think the presenter I referenced was missing The Point (and, if so, what might The Point be)?


just joe said...

So, are you (or the presenter) saying that the goal is to save culture rather than saving individual people? Or groups of people?

steve H said...

I've been reading "Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling" by Andy Crouch. I'm not finished with the book, but I don't think Crouch would not set disciple-making and culture-making at odds, nor would he see them as the same task. As I read Crouch, culture-making is the assignment given to human beings -- going back to Genesis 1-3. Disciple-making involves restoring and aiding others in finding and learning to fulfill our original creative calling.

Crouch says the recent emphasis (roughly speaking since Schaeffer) on Christian worldview is not enough. It is not enough to analyze and critique. Also condemning culture, or copying culture, or consuming culture -- although there may be a time for each -- are not ultimately helpful either.

What I hear in Crouch is that culture is a way of life, things we do and make, ways we interact. Humans have been given the task to live on earth a life rooted in God's ways, ways that are expressed in our doings, makings, and interactings.

In his concluding remarks, Crouch writes, "So where are we called to create culture? At the intersection of grace and the cross. Where do we find our work and play bearing awe-inspiring fruit--and at the same time find ourselves able to identify with Christ on the cross? That intersection is where we are called to dig into the dirt, cultivate, and create.

"We are marvelously different enough from one another that the simple quest for each one's intersection of grace and cross will take us to every nook and cranny of culture....

"So do you want to make culture? Find a community, a small group who can lovingly fuel your dreams and puncture your illusions. Find friends and form a family who are willing to see grace at work in one another's lives, who can discern together which gifts and which crosses each has been called to bear. Find people who have a holy respect for power and a holy willingness to spend their power alongside the powerless. Find some partners in the wild and wonderful world beyond church doors.

"And then, together, make something of the world."

just joe said...

Thanks Steve, that was a great overview of Crouch’s book! It sounds like another one I want to read (maybe a future topic for discussion here?). I read your post twice. I especially like the final quote about finding community, friends and partners who are willing to recognize grace at work in one another’s lives. This is what we are trying to do with our ‘god-parties’. And your comment is a great segway into the point I wanted to make about the missional work of evangelism/discipleship.

The premise this topic overlooks a third possibility (a third way? Lol!): oikos-by-oikos.

This is what Jesus seemed to be saying in his instructions to his missional disciples in Matt. 10 and it is what Paul and his colleagues most often did in their journeys. See the story of Lydia’s conversion in Acts 16

Trying to bring people to faith one-by-one is a modern manifestation of Evangelical individualism. (For a more favourable view of Evangelical individualism, see Christianity Today, July 15 2009, Richard Mouw)

We are specifically instructed to disciple “people groups” in (ethne: see Matt. 28:19).

The proper and most fruitful approach to the work of discipling is to work with people groups and social networks. This approach WILL shape culture eventually, from the grassroots as the early Christian movement (and potentially the Chinese house church movement) demonstrates.

Sadly, in our circles, not even individual conversions happen with any frequency, much less social networks or culture leaders.

steve H said...

Thanks for the reminder about "oikos," Joseph. The biggest effect we can have on culture afterall is at that level -- household by household, family by family.

At the same time, prudent involvement at the institutional levels (especially in "democratic" culture) can help provide an environment in which culture-making at the "oikos" level can thrive. The biggest danger of attempts at culture-making on the institutional level may be the deception that power can be used to advance Christian culture.

On the other hand, does disciple-making produce better disciples in high cost cultures, such as the Roman Empire and Red China?

Brian Emmet said...

The goal is not to "save" culture, but neither can the kingdom of God find expression except in and through human cultures. So the neglect of the culture-making centers within a culture may actually serve to make the church's overall mission more difficult to achieve. The conservative/evangelical churches in the West have tended to neglect culture, then feel like they have to fight "culture wars", and then often get laughed of the cultural playing field altogether for a season... unless we look at something like abolitionism, or the founding of universities and hospitals, which are significant expressions of culture-shaping work.

just joe said...

I forgot to mention the best book on this subject I have ever read, was written by a Catholic priest/missionary to the Massai tribe in Kenya. Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent J. Donovan. He would ask the tribal elders for permission to speak to the entire tribe for a year, outlining the truths of the gospel. At the end of the year, he would ask the entire tribe to make a decision … and he discouraged individual decisions going against the tribe. If the tribe decided to put their faith in Christ, they would have a tribal baptism.

A similar principle was followed by Bruce Olson, in Bruchko. The entire Motilone tribe in Colombia eventually came to collective faith, and the witch doctors (tribal wise men and healers) became the pastors and doctors. This is the principle that Dick Scoggins and two other apostolic-missionaries followed in Rhode Island. They established a couple dozen churches in greater Rhode Island over a 20-year period while all of them supported themselves in full-time secular employment …. And their churches were based on new conversions not on transfer growth (in one of the most resistant regions of the United States). If that does not get your attention, I don’t know what will.

Brian, your original topic lends itself to going in either of two directions: how to help people come to faith (evangelism/mission) or how to help shape culture (also a mission). I am happy to follow either topic.

Michael said...

A couple of initial reactions.
First I have to admit I have not thought much about the comment of one person at a time approach. Even though I have heard it. Isn't that CSM's tag line?
Second when I think about it in Acts it seems like groups of people, versus individuals, to Joseph's point made there way into the K of God.

Third, I wonder if influencing culture will work best thru an indirect approach verus head on. To me the end results have the DNA of the means tied into them.

Finally our gospel message - Get saved your going to heaven, verus repent, there is a new sherrif in town, might make a difference on how we impact culture.

Robert said...

Can lasting change happen apart from individuals who are deeply committed to their values? You can't go wider than you are willing to go deeper.

In terms of engagement, that seems to be where there is shortfall. Deeply committed followers of Jesus need to be asking questions regarding how they can make their community different because they are there. I am aware of churches that provide an annual dinner to honor teachers in their community. Others are actively involved in efforts to serve the poor in their area. There are lots of examples of churches breaking through the barrier of it being about them to a primary mission of it being about those who are not yet part of their circle. This requires very intentional work to find existing groups and organizations that are seeking to serve the needs of the broader community. It can be PTA, food banks, Boy Scouts, city councils, Habitat...just being present to make a difference. This requires a DNA change that does not come easy for people who have spent the majority of their time and resources polishing who they are in hopes of becoming attractive to outsiders. Becoming missional difference makers involves going to where other people live and engaging them where they are. And that takes individuals who have been deeply converted in heart and mind to follow Jesus into culture.

It is not either/or...maybe about whether the focus has been...on the "either" versus the "or."

Would our community miss us if we were not there? If not, what do we do about it?

just joe said...

I like what both Michael and Robert has to say. There is a post on McKnight’s Jesuscreed blog this morning, discussing chapter 6 of Jim Belcher’s book “Deep Church” which goes to the heart of what is the gospel. One the one hand, traditional evangelicalism emphasizes (Belcher and McKnight would say “reduces to”) individual redemption and over looks cultural influence and social justice issues. On the other, Brian McLaren heavily emphasizes (and many evangelicals would say “reduces to”) the social justice aspect with a central emphasis on the kingdom of God. The criticism of McLaren is that he also does a reductionism and neglects individual atonement.

It seems to me that Christianity’s emphasis on the value of the individual is an important contribution to history, but unchecked modern “individualism” is another matter.

I’m actually doing my dissertation on this very topic. The Catholic Church was losing political influence from the end of the nineteenth century through the early part of the twentieth … so under Popes Pius XI and XII, the church began what is called a “neo-Christendom” strategy of indirect culture influence through secular (lay) missionaries in the various secular spheres. It was actually called the “Lay Apostolate.” One of these apostolic movements was the Young Catholic Students movement which eventually existed in over 70 countries with thousands of “militants” in Brazil alone. Their vision was that students and faculty in the academy should be reached and influenced with Christian values IN the university setting (rather than IN church) …. And that the missionaries should not be professional priests but other students and faculty who were committed Catholics (they called them in Spanish “militantes”). They had a profound influence in Brazil and several other countries.

Here is a social experiment: If you are on facebook, count up the number of people in your “friends” list that you know through some aspect of church life. And then count up the “friends” on your list that you have met through some secular venue (work, school, neighborhood, etc.). Do the percentages.

It is not possible to influence society unless you have a circle of “friends” in some secular sphere. My son-in-law Carlos is slowly building contacts with reality show film makers here in Miami. This brings our discussion out of the academic and theoretical and into the practical. A friend of mine who is very missional, very open to innovation and very committed to reaching secular people tried this with his facebook account and found to his shock that 100 percent of his facebook friends were “Christians” that he knew from the church subculture.

Robert said...

I was struck by a report from a credbible source within Baptist circles that within three years of conversion to Jesus Christ, the newly converted lost almost any meaningful contact with those outside the church. There is a need for spiritual formation in a newly found faith...getting grounded in what you can deliver to others. You can't give what you don't have. The challenge of leaders is knowing when to direct the spiritual formation process into a meaningful engagement of culture and those who have not discovered faith in Jesus. When folks settle in to it being about growing their faith community without engaging the "others" increasingly becomes about them and their huddle. Much, if not most, of time and resources go towards bolstering the faith and values of the existing faith community rather than focusing on engaging God's activity in the surrounding culture.

An interesting study is the conflict of the Celtic ethos and Augustinian authority. The Celts were outward thinking, recognizing God at work in creation. Augustine pressed the need to come into the church to know God by receiving the sacraments. It was a regrettable contrast...both are needed. You come into the formational disciplines of the church in order to go out into the world to discover God at work. The consequences of neglecting either underlies the present debate as to what it means to the people of God in our moment...Carpe Diem

just joe said...

good comments Robert, and very true. It has been amazing for me how quickly even a new group can turn inward.

I have experimented with this dynamic for a long time ... to the point that, like Edison and his lightbulb, I probably know 99 ways that won't work. What solutions would you suggest?

John M. said...

Right now, I'm working hard to change the culture of my own soul.

just joe said...

personally, I have to believe that individual change is really difficult (but not impossible John).

I suppose that was what St. Paul was talking about in Romans 7.

Was it Gandhi who said, "if you want to change the world, BE the change you want to see" ?

steve H said...

Gandhi's words remind me of something similar Dennis Peacocke says, "You can bring about change unless you are in the change."

steve H said...

Oops -- need to proof read. Dennis says, "You canNOT bring about change unless you are in the change."

just joe said...

my admittedly poor understanding of string theory is that everything is interconnected at the quantum level. My friend Dr. Sam believes that we are closely connected with our wives and children at an energetic level ... if I deal with a particular issue in my life -- the benefits or grace automatically flows into the lives of those I am close to.

I don't want to be acused of being a "quietist" but it seems to me that the most powerful thing we can do to change the world is to start on the journy of internal transformation of our own heart.

and "Frankly my dear", that in itself is far harder than we realize.

just joe said...

so I guess to boil it down as a response to Brian's original question (in the title of the post) that answer is not to aim for one-by-one or to aim for the top, but rather to aim for me ... aim for my own heart.

steve H said...

Here's a passage from Dallas Willard and Don Simpon's "Revolution of Character" pp. 13-15

The revolution of Jesus is first and always a revolution of the human heart. His revolution does not proceed through the means of social institutions and laws—the outer forms of our existence—intending that these would then impose a good order of life upon people who come under their power. Rather his is a REVOLUTON OF CHARACTER which proceeds by changing people from the inside through ongoing personal relationship with God and one another. It is a revolution that changes people’s ideas, beliefs, feelings, and habits of choice, as well as their bodily tendencies and social relations. It penetrates to the deepest layers of their soul. External, social arrangements may be useful to this end, but they are not the end, nor are they a fundamental part of the means.

On the other hand, from those divinely renovated depths of the person, social structures will naturally be transformed so that “justice roll(s) down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24, NRSV). Such streams CANNOT flow through corrupted souls. At the same time, a changed “within” will not cooperate with public streams of unrighteousness. A transformed soul will block those streams—or die trying.

The impotence of political and social systems to bring about real change is one reason Jesus didn’t send his students out to start governments or even churches as we know them today. These organizations inevitably convey some elements of a human system. Instead, his disciples were to establish beachheads of His Person, word, and power in the midst of a failing and futile humanity. They were to bring the presence of the kingdom and the King into every corner of human life by fully living in the kingdom with him.

Those who received him as their living Lord and instructor would be “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved” (Colossians 3:12), NRSV). They would learn how to be “blameless and harmless, children of God, faultless in the midst of a twisted and misguided generation, from within which they shine as lights in the world, lifting up a word of life” (Philippians 2:15-15, PAR).

Churches—thinking now of local assemblies of Christ’s followers—would naturally result from this new kind of life. Churches are not the kingdom of God, but they are the primary expressions, outposts, and instruments of the presence of the kingdom among us. They are “societies” of Jesus, springing up in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the furthest points on earth (see Acts 1:8) as the reality of Chris is brought to bear on ordinary human life. This is an ongoing process, not yet competed today: “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).

Note: I used all caps in places where the authors used italics-- which I don't know how to do on the blog.

just joe said...

Excellent quotes Steve! Dallas Willard is DA MAN …. He is spot on and he has a message of personal discipleship that the people of God desperately need to hear today.
By-the-way, to use italics in this blog post, just use this code. To begin the italics use "< and i and then >" . To end the Italics, just put a backslash before the /i surrounded by the < and >. It is very important to get the backslash before the i.

Here is a passage of scripture that to some extent answers Brian’s original question:
1 Cor. 9: 22-23: I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 23I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
The best answer to Brian's question is “all of the above.” Begin with my own self, go one-by-one, try to reach oikos groups of people, and when possible, influence those who influence culture.

so... when can we get started? ;D

steve H said...

I fully agree.

And I do wish that I had focused more on seeking the disciplined transformation of my own inner man and that of those I serve, and less energy focusing on structures -- some necessary of course, but too often only partially effective in keeping the external man in line without transforming the inner man.

Brian Emmet said...

Wow, I've missed out out some great stuff, but am now back after a very bizzy weekend. Thanks, Joseph, for the S McKnight post right above this one.

In my new role as "griot" ("resident sage and storyteller") at our lil' school, I've been doing some work on "the spiritual formation of children." First Big Idea is that we can't talk about the spiritual formation of children without addressing the (ongoing) spiritual formation of their parents! It's easy to confuse or conflate spiritual formation with character formation (they overlap, but they aren't the same), "worldview education" (also good, but not quite the same), academic formation (Big Idol round here!) I think spiritual formation in its "inner" dimension involves developing our capacities for attentiveness, receptivity and responsiveness (to God); outwardly, these are demonstrated in lives of love and wisdom (Biblically understood).

I suspect that, in contemporary termminology, the Christian message and movement are viral, so the idea that we'd be better off seeking to influence the "culture formers" may be misguided, not because it's inherently "wrong," but because it understates the viral nature of the Message (the Gospel, not the Bible version!) We've cooperated with our cultural quarantine for too long!

Robert said...

Brian...please unpack:

I suspect that, in contemporary termminology, the Christian message and movement are viral, so the idea that we'd be better off seeking to influence the "culture formers" may be misguided, not because it's inherently "wrong," but because it understates the viral nature of the Message (the Gospel, not the Bible version!)

Especially "the Gospel, not the Bible version"


Brian Emmet said...

I only wanted to distinguish between "The Message" translation of the Bible by Eugene Peterson and "the message" as a synonym for "the gospel." The Gospel is "viral" in that it spreads exponentially from person to person. In the same way that a virus can overwhelm my body's defenses, so the gospel, by spreading thoughout a culture, can overwhelm that culture's defenses (slavery, brutality, materialism, etc.) against the reign of God. The "top down" approach inherent in the "go after the culture formers" model may represent the modernist impulse towards command and culture: "if we can seize the cultural highground, we'll be able to dictate the terms of the battle."

just joe said...

Brian: do you mean that the gospel is ‘currently’ viral? Or that it is ‘potentially’ viral? I don’t think I would agree that the gospel, as it is currently known or presented in the U.S. is viral. Maybe in China or Brazil or somewhere.

In the recent book UnChristian, some research by Barna on perceptions of Christians indicated that the public has a largely unflattering and unfavorable view of born-again or evangelical Christians as being angry and judgmental. The public knows Christians for what they are against rather than knowing us for our love.

Don’t want to push the analogy too far, but it seems that a cultural “immune” system has built up antibodies toward a corrupted or weakened version of the gospel: the gospel of anti-gay marriage, or the gospel of individual responsibility and small government to just give two examples. I don’t think the gospel can be viral when we present it as “attractional” – “come join our social group.”

Brian Emmet said...

I meant the real Gospel as opposed to the denatured version. The culture has developed antibodies to both... and churches have largely become viruses that have lost their ability to actually "infect" anything.

I'm not sure that I much like the "viral" analogy, because of its associations with "infection" and "disease"... but maybe the digital use of the term is losing those negative connotations.

John M. said...

Good comments Brian. I like your likening of spiritual formation to heightening our attentiveness, receptivity and responsiveness to the Lord.

just joe said...

do you really think that the gospel can be de-cultured? in other words, can it exist as a narrative about God apart from some human culture at some specific tmie and place?

John M. said...

Who said that Joseph? We live in culture, we swim in culture, Christian or not...

There are a couple articles in the latest CT that I thought you would appreciate Joseph. Don't know how much can be accessed free on line...

just joe said...

I was responding to Brian's comment above: "I meant the real Gospel as opposed to the denatured version." .

I see now that he said "denatured" version rather than "de-cultured" version ... I am a little suspicious of the use of the word "real" with gospel. I would probably lean toward saying "historic" or "orthodox" gospel and define it either from the New Testament or define it with the Nicene creed.... which differs in many ways from the modern evangelical "born-again" gospel.

John M. said...

Thanks for the clarification. I just read the email Ed Chin sent out earlier, "Looking for the Link". I assume most of you received it. After reading it, I was surprised that there weren't any comments. I just posted a comment, that illustrates just how tied up with culture the church is...

Brian Emmet said...

I don't think I saw the Ed Chinn item. When I use the term "gospel" I mean the "real" gospel in the Biblical/NT/gospel of the kingdom sense. I was using "denatured" to follow up on the "viral" metaphor: a denatured virus loses its ability to replicate itself, which sounds like what happens to the gospel in every cultural setting: the "toxins" of the cultural environment threaten to denature the gospel, rob it of its life and power by just tweaking a few little spots in the genetic code.

John M. said...

Good analogy Brian...