Thursday reflections for week one

Defining Culture

In class Thursday, we began to wrestle with the idea of culture. What defines it?

The class threw out a number of ideas and definitions of culture. Most centered around the idea that culture was the shared expectations, traditions, beliefs and values that hold a group of people together. (Ok, so that was my group’s definition, but I thought it was pretty good.)

Ryan Bolger provided an overview of how different social theorists defined culture. They ranged from the “learned behavior of a society” (Margaret Mead) to the “ensemble of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves” (a very postmodern definition courtesy of Princeton anthropologist Clifford Gears).

Studying culture in the Western world is a relatively new phenomenon, but as researchers began to turn their focus to it, they saw that how culture was created was different than they had originally assumed. They assumed a top-down hierarchy where the upper class created culture and the lower/working class seemed to ignore it or adopt it. But as research progressed they began to see how the working class was instead resisting the “high” culture and actually creating their own culture.

So, related to the idea of culture and society, here’s a question. In church life, are we imitating or creating culture? Many of the larger, “cool” worship services have become adept and imitating culture. They have seen success by presenting the message of God in a way that a broader slice of culture can understand. By presenting the Gospel message in a new way, they break from the traditional expectations of what church is and cause a slice of the population to give ‘church’ a second look. Churches like Northpoint, National Community Church, and more seem to do this well. They aren’t merely copying someone else’s model. They’re creating and innovating within a cultural context.

Groups that create culture, however, don’t seem to grow as quickly and often aren’t noticed nationally. They’re groups like the Simple Way, who Shane Claiborne talks about in his book, The Irresistible Revolution (you’ll see a book review on this blog next). They don’t go into an area with the idea they’ll create a worship service and tell people about Jesus. Instead, they seek to live incarnationaly with all of scripture in mind. They seek to serve the poor and live a communal lifestyle that supports a holistic view of life. Instead of being attracted to an impressive show and logical explanation of truth, people are attracted to a lifestyle that models Christ. They effectively create a space where people can experience the love and grace of Christ firsthand. It’s a challenging model and idea that I’m still processing, but it’s difficult to debate the Biblical basis of what they are doing.

But here is the point. A danger of simply imitating culture without creating a culture that transforms individuals and gets to a real relationship is one that Chuck Kraft outlined. He said that if the church is not where a person finds connecting points for all meaning, they create another life somewhere. Bolger said that in England, the club scene is the religion of the people. It is where they feel connected to friends, where they feel connected to their idea of god, where they feel cleansed, and were they make decisions. It is the container in which they connect the dots of their life. Even those who attend a religious service on Sunday may find true meaning and core influences somewhere else in life (club, sports, etc.).

If we’re really going to impact and transform culture, we have to consider the question Bolger posed. How is the way we do church and communicate truth out of sync with the ways people make meaning in culture? As Bolger said, we need to create conversations and environments that allow the very core of our being to be touched by spirituality and worship to God.

In my opinion, that process involves the inner self and the outer self. Not only do people (both those being introduced to Christ for the first time and those on the journey of getting to know him) need environments where they can experience Christ’s truth in a way they understand, but they need opportunities to see it lived out in service. They need opportunities to join in that service. They need chances to get real and transparent in relationships.

Too often the church latches onto a “come and see” model that is dominated by corporate teaching and worship when most real life change comes from the “go and do” mindset that is dominated by community and action.

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