Contemplating Our Changing, Challenging Culture
In 2008 the Church of the Brethren hosted a gathering of Young Adults as part of the continuing conversations about ministerial leadership. The goal of the gathering was to discuss the emerging realities for the church as the denomination discerned the needs for a new system of calling ministers. Each of the sessions began with prepared presentations and a series of questions for those gathered to discuss around their tables. After the event, a Minute was prepared from the conversations. Brethren Life and Thought will publish a number of the presentations here over the course of several weeks.
The following presentation was prepared and offered by Matthew E. McKimmy.
How do we even begin a conversation on a topic as broad as culture? There are so many angles from which you might approach it, and it can mean so many different things. Therefore, I think that my first order of business should be to state what aspect of culture it is I intend to address.
Like any modern young adult looking for a quick and general overview of a topic, I headed to Wikipedia to see what it had to say about how we might define culture. Some possibilities I was presented: that culture is a general process of intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic development; OR a particular way of life, whether of a people, period, or a group; OR the works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity. The article then goes on to muddy things even further by saying culture can also be a mixture of these three.
So examples of culture can be anything from the particular, individual social constructions we use to relate with one another to the broad patterns and structures of human activity that define the entirety of our lives. As I speak to you today, it is the later, more “macro” aspect of culture I plan to address: the broad social constructions we operate within on a daily basis.
There is a definite advantage to being the first person to present at an event like this, where our topics intentionally begin broadly and then circle closer and closer to a more defined focus. The way I see it, I get to set the ball rolling by giving the pot a good stir, priming the pump, and bringing up some of the big questions that our subsequent topics and conversations must be mindful of.
Despite what some folks may say, or hope, or even preach, culture is inescapable. We cannot fully remove ourselves from culture, we can only seek to experience it differently.
The phrase “in the world but not of the world” gets tossed around a lot when the subject of culture comes up. I think it’s a good description of the inescapable nature of culture. We cannot help but be in the world, taking part in culture, but we must also recognize how that affects us. We are called to be aware of culture and avoid being blindly shaped by it, as best we can.
So who am I to talk about culture? Who am I to be here and a part of this presentation at all? This is an important question for all of us any time we attempt to discuss culture, for our social locations greatly impact our perceptions, opinions, and understandings.
A bit of background; some transparency about where I’m coming from as I speak on culture: I’m a white, twenty-something male from a lower-middle class background. I’ve spent over a third of my life as a full-time college student, and now, after finishing my M.Div. at Bethany in May 2008, I’ve been a full-time pastor since June 2008. Until relocating to attend seminary my predominant life experience was semi-rural and medium-sized-city life in Southwest Virginia. Now I call the small city of Richmond, Indiana home.
None of these places are the sort you might consider to be at the cutting edge of culture. If anything you might say they’re more likely behind the curve when it comes to the big-picture cultural shifts of the 21st century.
In many ways, our culture today is defined by such shifts. We are in a liminal time, a time in-between, in transition from what has been to what we are moving towards. While there are people who may refute the very existence of some of the particular trends and movements that I’m about to touch on, few can deny that there are massive cultural shifts underway in the world today.
The modern era has been shaped by a continual push for progress in all areas of human life, rooted in the ideals of the enlightenment. But somewhere in the middle of the 20th century we began to realize we might not be capable of the constant progress we hoped for. In a milieu of world wars, genocides, and other local and global atrocities the concept of post-modernity began to emerge. In our current age of seemingly endless information and advanced communications technology, post-modernity continues to gain traction. Absolute truths are looked upon with utmost skepticism. Traditional understandings of every realm of human experience are openly questioned.
Yet we are not a fully post-modern culture. We may be moving in that direction, but we have not yet arrived. Who knows, we may never fully arrive! It’s not an either-or proposition, whether we experience life and culture as modern or post-modern. Rather it is always an awkward mix of the two, which inevitably causes conflict and confusion along the way.
Similarly, our culture is shifting away from when Christianity has greatly influenced and shaped the predominant worldview. We’re moving into a time of post-Christendom where the influence of the church is greatly diminishing. Many people are questioning the relevance of the institutional church, wondering what role it will play in their lives and in culture in general. Not only intellectuals, scholars, and so on, but everyday folks in small cities and towns like Richmond, Indiana. This is especially true amongst us young adults. There are very few churches in the western world where the proportion of young adults is reflective of the number of young adults in the general population.
Some writers and thinkers have even gone so far as to say that rather than just moving into a period of post-Christendom, we are instead moving into a post-Christian or even post-religious era. This is less a statement about our culture’s overall desire to connect with the transcendent as it is a critique on the institutional nature of the Christian Church. I’m mindful of books like Dan Kimball’s They Like Jesus But Not the Church and Spencer Burke’s Heretic’s Guide to Eternity that speak to many people’s desire to follow the ways and teachings of Jesus but also reflect a cultural backlash against how these are commonly put into practice within the church.
As we enter into conversations on the Church and Leadership, this cultural trend towards re-thinking the role and shape of the church as an institution cannot be ignored.
Another place this trend is reflected is in the shift towards post-denominationalism. Even for me, someone who has been brought up in the Church of the Brethren and is deeply committed to it, I can see where this is coming from. For decades now most denominations have been in decline. The churches where the most growth is now taking place tend to be non-denominational, or at most loosely associated with various evangelical or Pentecostal movements.
Whereas denominational identity once more clearly defined the beliefs and practices of a congregation or individual, now at most it might give an idea of preferred worship style and general theological leanings, and often not even that. These days it’s more common to find greater differences within denominations than between them. For example I know Brethren who feel a closer spiritual kinship with Methodists, Quakers, Baptists, or Episcopals than with other Brethren, despite still holding firmly to their identity of being Brethren.
If there is one constant in our culture it is that we are constantly in a state of flux, changing between what was and what is still emerging. Our constant is change, and it seems to be taking place at an increasingly rapid rate.
Deep change is afoot within culture, society, and in turn the church. Change that we haven’t experienced in centuries. Phyllis Tickle and others have likened this time we live in to other so-called “great” periods in the history of the western world, such as the Great Schism or the Reformation. If you haven’t already read her latest book The Great Emergence, I highly recommend it.
As I look at the tremendous cultural changes that have taken place in the lives of people my grandparents age, just a couple generations older than me, it’s difficult for me to imagine that the social and cultural changes I will likely face in my lifetime will be exponentially greater.
One question comes to my mind in the midst of all this cultural and social change: why are we so determined to define ourselves in terms of what we have been and are no longer, post-this or post-that?
Instead, why can’t we be proactive, recognizing where God is at work in our time, our culture, claim that for what it is, and seek to faithfully take part? Rather than lamenting change and trying to put the brakes on it, why not find it an opportunity for transformation. Our recent Annual Conference theme comes to mind: “The old is gone, the new has come, all this is from God!” Is it possible for us to claim aspects of these cultural changes as God at work in our lives?
I guess I should admit I’m very much a practical theologian. After all, what good is thinking and talking about what is going on in our culture and society and where God fits in if we as people of faith aren’t willing to act accordingly? Yes the world and our culture are changing, and so must we!
I challenge us all, in our conversations both here and beyond, to not simply lament what is no longer and how we’ve become so disconnected from culture, but to instead speak of how we can and are rising to these challenges we face.
Yes, we live in a time where spirituality is of much greater societal interest than traditional, institutional church participation. We’ve probably all talked to folks who are “spiritual but not religious.” How do we help ourselves and others to recognize God’s movement in that desire for connection with the Spirit, and to respond?
Our culture is moving in ways that value relationship and authenticity more than hierarchy and expertise. Servant leadership and flat, shared administrative structures have been gaining traction in the world outside the church for a while now. With tremendous repositories of resources available at people’s fingertips, via the internet and other means, learned expertise isn’t as crucial to gathering raw information we as it once was. How can we seek to be more relational and authentic in ways that reflect Christ to our culture?
As Christianity finds itself farther on the margins of mainstream society how can we adopt a sense of mission that recognizes our own cities and towns to be just as viable mission fields as locations on other continents? How can we cultivate a missional attitude that reflects the mission of Jesus: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and bringing good news to the marginalized and oppressed people that we live among?
We all know our denomination is struggling with its identity. So are many others. Is there a way for us to reclaim a distinctive Brethren identity in a way that is welcoming of our internal diversity and also relevant to a changing culture? How can we claim our history of ecumenism and continue to nurture it in radical new ways as what it means to be a denomination continues to change?
Brothers and sisters, these are just some of the challenges, or rather opportunities, that our current culture affords. This is the context in which all our conversations during this forum are taking place. It is the context in which our lives and ministries as individuals and as the church take place. We cannot allow our visions to become too narrow because we choose not to see what is happening around us, for our voices to become constrained by the fear of speaking the truth to power, for questions to go unasked because we know there are no ready-made answers.
As we prepare to boldly, openly, and authentically begin our conversations in this space, I leave you with you this question to contemplate concerning culture: Which of these many cultural shifts and changes do you feel present us with the greatest challenges and opportunities as followers of Jesus?