What ‘We’ Have Gotten Wrong in Cultural Engagement… and Why It Wouldn’t Have Mattered

There's a lot of helpful stuff out there about how Christians and Christian organisations can interact more skillfully in a social setting where Christian ideas and institutions are not necessarily perceived as normal, acceptable and persuasive. Accepting this reality will stop Christians from coming across as rude, mean, oppressive or gospel-less. Becoming more thoughtful in this area might help us be more persuasive in general, and more distincitvely Christian.

I don't agree with everything that gets said on this topic. Sometimes the recommendations are bad. Sometimes they are overstated, reactionary, narrow, too morally and theologically soft.

But in this post there's two particulary things I want to touch on about this chatter. 

There's No Simple 'We'

The problem with some of this talk is that it speaks about a global Christian 'we': WE have done this that or the other. WE have failed in this or that way. Generalisations can of course be made. However generalisations are extremely clumsy tools for analysis. 

Generalisations also confuse and blur culpability and agency in all sorts of ways. The 'we' could be seen to be 'leading institutions'… or 'vocal Chrsitians in the media'… or 'patterns and tropes in preaching, book writing and Facebooking'. But these are not things that can easily be laid on the shoulders of the whole Christian community. Nor can they be easily fixed. Institutions have a stubborn and slow life of their own. Patterns of speaking and writing are perceived to endure and predominate even when they are in the minority or have been in decline for a long time. Vocal Christians in the media often don't fairly represent every other Christian.

Bold and universal declarations about what 'we' have done and what 'we' should do need to be toned done and balanced out.

It Wouldn't Have and Won't Matter Heaps Anyway

The strong implication in a lot of this talk is also that if 'we' had done things differently, then Chrsitian ideas and institutions would have been more persuasive or if 'we' do things differently now, we could in the future have a greater opporutnity to be persuasive.

There's some truth in this, for sure. But only some. 

Because the movement of culture ideas and practices are out of our control. The books on Christ and culture— like those by Don Carson, Andy Crouch and James Davison Hunter— all point out that the larger the cultural artefact or grouping, the less we can control or predict its effects. 

So in the case of Christianity's acceptance and influence in the West: I very much doubt that a few thousand more tactful John Dicksons would have change things much. A larger cultural mood and trajectory was and has been happening, and our masterfu, gentle, nuanced and gospel-centred cultural engagement can only ever have a minimal effect on it.

What then?

What's my point then? What should be I do?

  • Keep praying and preaching and living the godly life. We are ultimately not just passengers on a historical or sociological journey… we are servants of God in his soverign rule over history.
  • Much of the thoughtfulness and tact is still good and right… even if it won't guarantee a different outcome. So keep working at interacting with our soceity on all its different levels with reflection, love and a desire to bring glory to Jesus.
  • I need to also cultivate virtues that will serve me in decline of influence and rise of hostility: forgiveness, contentment, courage, integrity, peace, prayerfulnes.
  • It's very likely that the future of Christianity will continue to be in the Global South and in the East. So rather than trying to 'win' amongst the secular west, we need to also play our part in investing in a healthy and rich and mature church among different cultural groups. We can share what we have learned, and hopefully protect the true emerging church (as opposed to the so-called 'Emerging Church Movement') from becoming reactionary, jingoistic, fundamentalist, theologically eccentric and so on.

Mirrors 3rd November 2017

  1. @ArthurGDavis replies to my comments on his proposals for change to campus ministry 
  2. Final Pop-Up Blog Tour event for 2017 will be happening in Hobart on 21st November 
  3. Interesting podcast on the Reformation in this whole podcast, but last 4 minutes are intriguing: 1. Atheists must realise most people are religious and religion is a very powerful force   2. Islam is 600 years younger than Christianity, so it is going through its torments now 3. Islam doesn’t have the same distinction between church and state that Christianity has 4.  Don’t tell history in a bedtime story way, that reassures and whitewashes. History should disturb us
  4. The whole ‘generation’ thing is dumb. But I like the concept of Xennial. anyway 
  5. This event looks interesting: The Tasmanian Dilemma — Should I Stay Or Should I Go?
  6. What is slowing you down or making you mad that you should just replace?

“Your Identity Is Valid”… surely not a blanket statement, right?

This poster has been buzzing around in various forms. A friend of mine saw this poster at UTAS recently:

Why 'Valid'?

'Valid' is an interesting choice of word. What does it mean in this context? Cogent? Coherent? Legally legitimate? I think I get what it is aiming to say: there are many identities that people can hold, that if someone holds it, they should be treated respectfully according to their expressed identity.

But 'valid' is an especially telling choice. For my identity to be respected and accepted in kindness… it must be legally validated in some way. A person cannot be received and loved unless they are affirmed and legitimised. It's not enough to have freedom to discover and/or define your identity: what you discover and define must be declared legitimate. It's not enough for me to respect your chosen identity, I need to legitimise it.

Does ANYONE Really Want to Say All Identities Are Valid?

Now I may not entirely agree with that as intended by the poster-maker, on their own terms and limitations, on transgender issues. But more: not even the poster-maker seriously believes this is a blanket statement, right? Does anyone really want to say that absolutely all identities are valid without exception?

 

— What of the extremely and destructively delusion identity: I am Satan?

— What of an identity of deep self-hatred: I am ugly, worthless and no one would ever love me?

—What of an immoral or self-destructive identity: sub-cultures around extreme eating disorders or extreme sexual practices?

— What of a conservative religious identity: I am not my experienced sexual and gender experiene, but am instead a child of God and should live according to God's norms as revealed in the scriptures of my religion, and not according to my experience/inclination?

We all outline certain boundaries around which identities are valid and which are not. I expect that the poster maker, and those sympathetic to its declaration would argue that such boundaries are obvious and commonsense and universally understood. But this is an assertion disguised as a fact. Manifestly this has changed dramatically in our culture over the last 100 years, and is different from culture to culture. It is not as intuitive as it might seem.

What Word Is Left to Describe Respect and Acceptance without Legitimising and Approving?

We need to work hard at treating people with dignity and respect, listening to what they saying, and accepting and acknowledging what they are going through. But part of loving other is to not entirely agree with and approve of their interpreation in all situations. The give and take of friendship, leadership, medical care and government is to respect individuals while also upholding other values and standards which may be considered unhealthy or immoral or untrue in some way.

I think we all know what this is like, when we are dealing with people whom we recognise to be severely and destructively psychologically disturbed or criminally inclined. We want to humanise the person and listen carefully to the person, while not accepting their current interpretation of their experiences.

But to use the example of the criminal or the mentally ill is painful and clumsy and ineffective. It sounds like millitant, hateful, fighting words… are you saying that X other group are therefore criminals? Is that what you're saying? How dare you…

So there is a gulf between this sub-category and everyone else. And no rational way to discuss whether something sits on one side of the gulf or the other. And no allowance that some of the realities that apply in the extreme cases, might apply in more subtle cases of psychological instability or immoral action.

We have lost words to describe this respectful treatment without agreement. For 'respect' and 'accept' and 'acknowledge' are now all loaded up with concepts of 'approve' and 'celebrate'. We need new words. It's tricky huh?

Mirrors 7th October 2017

  1. This is a really great response to the issues around sensitivity and freedom of speech
  2. There was a delay getting a bunch of my sermon-lectures from this Semester up online, so here are 5 of them in

    our series on the history of Christianity:

    1. The radicals of church history
    2. The Crusades
    3. Didn’t The Early Church Invent Christianity?
    4. The Miserable Puritans?
    5. Colonialism and Missionaries
  3. Great to hear expert guests on this episode go hard against ideological attempts to legalise “sex work” 

When a team grows too big to be everyone’s friend

Recently, the AFES Hobart staff team has grown outward and downward. I am direclty overseeing 5 staff, but there are 2 additional staff being overseen by our FOCUS team leader. Next year there will, God-willing be 2 MTS apprentices and another part-time staff in the mix.

What's b

een particularly different for me, is not particularly the number of people, but the layers: having staff one step removed from me, 'reporting' to someone else. I've been in that situation before with the FOCUS staff team, and it's always a bit different and a bit tricky. Why? Because I no longer have the same directly relational bond with the person one step removed.

This means that there is less affection and trust. It means that it is harder for us to be persuasive to each other in quite the same way, and easier for us to misunderstand, annoy or hurt each other. It's a little easier for them to not want to submit to my instructions and a little easier for me to be suspicious of a more distant team member.

Building relationship

Of course I need to go out of my way to invest in that relationship, being considerate, prayerful, interested. I aim to meet briefly, once a month with these staff, just to keep a point of connection.

It also makes the light chit chat when we cross paths, the interactions on email and SMS, and the time together in combined staff meetings all important. Time spent talking, chatting, reading the Bible and praying and eating corn chips is all important.

Letting go of the need to be liked

But at the same time, I need to make peace with the fact that part of growing the team, is moving away from needing a tight relational bond with everyone. I need to let go of that desire as well as the burden of guilt for not doing more. I need to be ok with the fact that I'm perceived as a bit more removed, and a bit more bossy and unapproachable or whatever. I need to not be driven by a need to be liked.

But I also need to make sure I lead in other ways which make up for the lack of close relationship.

Leading through vision, policy and character

I might no longer have the same relational pull, but I can possibly have an even stronger influence in setting a clear vision and set of priorities. Perhaps those team members closer to me might zone out when I set vision: they know who I am, and they are following me, not some vision statement. But those who are less close to me rely a bit more on a clear sense of what we stand for and where we're going.

Likewise, clear policies about expectations and freedoms and communication need to be spelled out and consistently applied. I need to not 'punish' team members for appealing to these policies, as if that somehow shows they are not Really On Board.

Crucial here is also my own character and conduct. In my speech, actions, consistency and integrity, I will need to strive to lead the whole team not based on my rapport with personalities, but instead based on alignment with our vision and fair application of our policies. My team needs me to be a just, merciful, faithful and kind leader, so that they don't miss out through favouritism or sloppiness.

Leading through other leaders

Laslty, I need to give responsibility to build team ownership and rapport to those staff who are leading other staff. They now have the job of providing relational glue. I need to teach and train and encourage them to invest in that, as this might be a new job that they have not consciously recognised.

I need to support their decisions, and allow them freedom to lead. Of course I need to hold them accountable to the vision, to our policies and to their own conduct. But I want to beware of undermining them. I also need to help their staff resolve issues with their immediate team leaders wherever possible, rather than relying on me always stepping in.

 And finally, I need to ask for a greater degree of communication from these team leaders, I want them to report to me not only on their own work, but also on the progress of the whole team.

We need a Venn Diagram for family, home, marriage and legal significant other

I've already blogged on this before here.

Family is a powerful value-word. It features in discussions about 'normal' and 'non-traditional' families—are they all equally 'family' and are they equal in every way? But it also features in church contexts: where we (over)load the spiritual family of the church with all sorts of expectations, measures and ideals. Inded the idea even spills over into corporate and nationalistic settings.

What happens with a lot of our discussion is that a series of words, often with several different meanings and overtones for the same word, all get blurred together. So that we have far too much fuzziness in our thinking about how the following are the same and different, or necessarily required by each other:

  • Family—blood relations and natural children.
  • Legal family—legally incorporating others into your family through marriage and adoption.
  • Home—a group of people who accept, care and live together with a range of pledges of loyalty to each other and the permanency of that home.
  • Legal significant other—be the person who has significant legal rights in relation to another.
  • Marriage—union to express sexual love, start a family (both as a union and through having children), found a home and be the lifelong legal significant other.

But these aren't all the same, and don't necessarily all go together:

  • The church is a metaphorical 'family' in a way that doesn't over-rule our blood relationships or potential sexual attractions.
  • A spouse is not family in quite the same way that a brother is. How much more a mother-in-law. 
  • An adopted child is not family in quite the same way that either a spouse or a natural child is. 
  • An immediate blood family, or even a marriage union sadly doesn't always found a stable home.
  • An adult child is not bound to the home of their birth family in quite the same way that the husband and wife are.
  • Different cultures and individual families include a smaller or larger circle of blood relatives into their home.
  • A marriage might not always successful in giving birth to children.
  • I might choose to make someone other than my blood relatives or spouse my significant other for all sorts of various reasons.

But what is striking is that 'family' and 'marriage' carries with it an expectation of permanence and obligation on some level. A very serious act of 'disowning' or 'divorcing' needs to be done to completely break a family or marriage bond in a way that few other social ties require.

About Xian Reflections

Xian Reflections is written by Mikey Lynch.

Mikey graduated from the University of Tasmania with a Bachelor of Arts in 2002. In 2000 he became one of the founding leaders of Crossroads Presbyterian Church where he was the lead pastor for 7 years from 2003.

Mikey now works as the Campus Director of the University Fellowship of Christians, University of Tasmania, Hobart. Mikey is the chairman of The Vision 100 Network (Tasmania) and a founding director of Geneva Push (national) – both church planting networks. He is also a chaplain at Jane Franklin Hall and the chairman of New Front Door: the Church IT Guild.