Insights in Culture and Christian Formation

Douglas McConnell

Culture is a particular way of life for a group of people. It is shared, learned, able to adjust, and all inclusive. It applies on the broadest level, as in American culture, and, as any new pastor can attest, it is also identifiable in a local congregation. One is able to find its boundaries most readily by taking some action that is not culturally appropriate, usually followed by the refrain, “We don’t do that here!” It is wrapped in practices from the past – the Wesleyan hymns – and open to practices from the present – Hillsong choruses – all of which must be managed by the watchful pastor. Culture is a familiar force for anyone involved in ministry.

The question is: How do we influence culture so that it reflects our commitment to Christ? I began asking that question as a young missionary pastor with a congregation representing seventeen distinct languages, all mutually unintelligible. I continue to wrestle with the question now that instantaneous information challenges our senses constantly via the latest technology. An important part of the answer is found in who we are as human beings, embodied and embedded. We are physical beings with natural capacities and attributes that develop over time. And we are social beings who live in a particular place in time where we are nurtured by our family and community. In this interesting intersection of nature and nurture we are learning more about how culture is formed and transmitted.

Levels of the Self

Beginning with the individual we can identify three observable levels of the self. The basic sense of self shared with all creatures is at the core of our being or the core self. At the core an individual (animal or person) has a sense of its own being as capable of action and reaction. This is readily observable when encountering a dog behind a fence barking to let you know that you are trespassing. On the human level, it can be illustrated by the fight or flight reaction to the dog as threat. A second level shared with some creatures is the sense of a being in space and time. This includes the ability to learn from experience retaining actions and thoughts as a memory. It is tied to the emotional response, either positive or negative, accompanying the experience. At this level, the individual does not necessarily construct a story to explain the experience. It tends to be a feeling that guides future responses either of fear leading to avoidance or a positive feeling supporting one’s pursuit of the experience. These two levels of self are important aspects of our personhood at the level of navigating the physical challenges of life.

To answer our question of how to influence culture, we must move to what is uniquely human. This third level of self, or narrative self, presents the greatest opportunity for the formation of our identity. The narrative self is the ability to identify oneself as a member of a community, while retaining the significance of our individuality. It is here that we process our belonging. Through interpersonal communication, individuals tell their stories and enter into the stories of others. Communication may be outward, as in telling the story, or inward, through reflecting on or interpreting one’s own story or that of others. We share what we know from experience with others. They in turn interact with us, providing both validation and challenge. These representations of reality, the ones we generate and those we receive from others, are known as cultural representations.

Cultural Representations

The process of communicating the cultural representations is not an exact replication of ideas or artifacts. Rather it requires interpretation, influenced both in hearing and telling or retelling. It is a dynamic process, influenced also by our interpersonal relationships with the other participants. The important observation here is that culture is formed and reformed as part of the reality of sharing, learning, adjusting, and including all aspects of life as we understand it. The degree to which it is a collective action depends on our cultural setting. Some cultures are more individualistic (American) and others more collectivist (Chinese). It also depends on the social status of the individual within the group. Cultures vary in how they differentiate between various strata, from identifying a wide range of social roles (Korean) to those that are less differentiated and more egalitarian (Pacific Islands).

Along with the normative effects of the societal culture is the influence of choices we make as individuals. In the global village in which we all live opportunities abound: lifestyle, entertainment, relationships, and various affiliations, including one’s local church. While some relationships are given, such as family, neighbors, and work associates, we choose our friends as a matter of personal preference. The choices we make regarding our lifestyle also impact important decisions such as the location of our residence. Even though this is dramatically impacted by our socio-economic status, the reality of choice is increasingly significant.

Returning to the matter of communicating cultural representations, choice has a powerful influence on the interpretive process. Since the 1970s, urban studies have identified the power of choice in the formation of cultures, often smaller in scale so they are labelled subcultures. As a consequence of choice, these subcultures are made up of people who share many of the same characteristics from ethnicity to religious, political, and social status. Further observation also reveals the determinative nature of these subcultures. People choose to associate with others who are like themselves and over time shared attitudes and lifestyles reinforce cultural values, making it a culture of people like us. Based on our understanding of the social self, this makes sense given that narratives of individuals change over time as they interact with other people, thereby shaping the cultural representations as part of the broader narrative we know as culture.

Culture and Christian Formation

If culture is formed and transmitted primarily through the intersection of our narrative selves, then how does that impact Christian formation? One of the more significant examples for our purposes was the importance of the structures that emerged from earliest days of Wesley’s ministry, particularly the class meetings (roughly equivalent to a house church). These small groups of believers were bound by their commitment to Christ to the point that their individual story was indelibly marked not only by the gospel, but also by others in the class. Howard Snyder described the class meetings as the “cornerstone” of the structure, and particularly the practice in which, “each person reported on his or her spiritual progress, or on particular needs or problems, and received the support and prayers of others” (The Radical Wesley and Patterns for Church Renewal [Zondervan, 1980], 54). Such a disciplined group inevitably shapes cultural representations by including the most personal experiences and reflections as a regular part of the interpretive process of the individuals and the group. In our understanding of culture, the class meetings became the subcultural unit and the building block for the societies and the broader Wesleyan movement.

The result of the class-meeting approach or method is one of the enduring legacies of the Wesleyan Revival, reaching as far as the islands of the South Pacific. I witnessed this myself as a young missionary pastor working beside the Rev. Sione Kami, a Tongan missionary and bishop of the United Church of Papua New Guinea. My friend Sione would gather other ministers together from various churches and denominations for prayer and fellowship. His dedication to Christ was lived out with such zeal and discipline that our gatherings became a functional class meeting, similar to those in his congregation. He led us to a deeper expression of our faith while expanding our focus beyond our individual churches toward the city and nation outside the doors of our meeting. His influence was so widespread that his congregation built a large new campus in the heart of the capital city and named it the “Rev Sione Kami Memorial Church.”

The relationship between subcultural units and the formation of cultural representations is a critical factor in responding to the question of how culture impacts Christian formation. The natural expression of the narrative self is sharing one’s story with others in close proximity, either physical or virtual, as we are both embodied as physical beings and embedded in a particular cultural context. It follows that Christian formation, while guided by the Holy Spirit, happens in community. As evident in the creation of subcultures, values, attitudes, and lifestyles are a powerful force in the formational process. While we see this positively in class meetings, it is negatively observed in drug and gang cultures. One significant implication is that establishing and pastoring smaller committed communities is strategic in Christian formation.

The Narrative Self, Formation, and Scripture

Another vital element linking the narrative self to Christian formation is the content of the narrative or the bigger story to which we belong. This points to the role of Scripture in the formation of faithful disciples. Joel B. Green and David F. Watson edited an important resource on the role of the Bible in the Wesleyan Tradition: Wesley, Wesleyans, and Reading Bible as Scripture (Baylor University Press, 2012). As they observed in the introduction, “Scripture, along with prayer and the sacraments, is among the primary means through which God works within us” (xiii). Reading Scripture together brings the greater story of God and God’s people into the lives of the hearers making it possible to understand the bigger story, while helping them to see themselves redemptively in God’s story.

In her article, Elaine Heath suggests that, for Wesleyans, one of seven practices of reading the Bible is to “approach the text hospitably, listening to and learning from the voices of others in communities of interpretation, so that we may gain wisdom from one another” (Wesley, 225). Heath’s observation recognizes the importance of cultural representations as instructive in exploring the depth and breadth of God’s message to all peoples. No single culture or individual is able to fully grasp the breadth of the gospel, especially when we acknowledge the limitations of human interpretation. With twenty-first century sensibilities, we realize that, by listening to the voices of people who are reading the Bible as Scripture from their particular contexts, we are better able to clarify the issues that transcend individual cultures. It is not that the Bible changes depending on the readers, but that the questions are different depending on the cultural context of the reader.

To illustrate, think of the story of Joseph and his family (Gen 37-50). Typically, in the interpretation of the story as often preached in American churches, one of the key insights we find is that no matter what the circumstances, God is faithful. A text used to support this insight is Gen 50:20a, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (NRSV). An equally important insight, common in tribal societies, is that no matter how big (that is, important) Joseph became, he never forgot his family! The text to support that is Gen 50:20b, “God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (NRSV). While both are appropriate interpretations, the first fits well in a more individualistic culture and the second in a more collectivist culture. This simple example can be seen in much more complex situations as well. As Bishop Leslie Newbigin observed after years in India and the UK, “the truth is that the gospel escapes domestication, retains its proper strangeness, its power to question us, only when we are faithful to its universal supranatural, supracultural nature” (International Bulletin of Missionary Research [April 1988]).

Nature, Nurture, and Ministry

We began with the question: How do we influence culture so that it reflects our commitment to Christ? The answer lies in our understanding that our Christian formation requires both nature and nurture. Nature recognizes that as human beings we are embodied with physical characteristics that direct our responses via the cognitive capacities of our narrative self. We are capable of interpreting the world around us by constructing our individual story. Through nurture we learn to live in community, creating and transmitting cultural representations in ways that are normative to the community as well as the individual. Reflecting our commitment to Christ requires nature and nurture. For the one who accepts the call to ministry or mission, an immediate challenge is to learn the cultures of those you serve while helping to establish disciplined patterns of formation that engage God’s story with our stories. In the end culture must be renewed and created in ways that point to God’s glory.

[I explore these concepts in greater depth in Douglas McConnell, Cultural Insights for Christian Leaders: New Directions for Organizations Serving God’s Mission (Baker Academic, 2018).]

Posted Apr 03, 2019