Part of my ministry involves helping churches reach their full potential. That has meant interacting with a lot of very different churches. The first thing I try to work out at the start of these encounters is the culture of the church. Different churches may have different cultures.
Culture is the natural way people live and relate within a particular context. The Business Dictionary puts it this way:
‘It is a pattern of responses discovered, developed, or invented during the group’s history. These responses are considered the correct way to perceive, feel, think, and act, and are passed on to the new members through immersion and teaching. Culture determines what is acceptable or unacceptable, important or unimportant, right or wrong, workable or unworkable. It encompasses all learned and shared assumptions, beliefs, knowledge, norms, and values, as well as attitudes, behaviour, dress, and language’.
In the book They’re a Weird Mob, John O’Grady said the following of Australians:
‘There is no better way of life in the world than that of the Australian. I firmly believe this. The grumbling, growling, cursing, profane, laughing, beer drinking, abusive, loyal-to-his-mates Australian is one of the few free men left on this earth. He fears no one, crawls to no one, bludgers on no one, and acknowledges no master. Learn his way. Learn his language. Get yourself accepted as one of him; and you will enter a world that you never dreamed existed. And once you have entered it, you will never leave it’.
A tough physical environment produced a tough people. This is a classic description of culture set in the period, post-war Australia, when we were still an embryonic, pioneering nation, largely consisting of people of white Anglo-Saxon or European heritage, with limited acknowledgement of indigenous Australians and suspicion in relation to those of other cultures. Although remnants of this are still embedded in the Australian culture, the culture would be described quite differently by today’s sociologist.
Most of what a church believes about discipleship and how it is outworked is affected by cultural beliefs. Catholic and Orthodox churches are still influenced by the culture of the Medieval Era. Many Protestant churches are influenced by the culture of the Reformation era and the popular contemporary churches are influenced by the culture of 20th century American Evangelicalism which is based on the concepts of the Modern era.
We will only have space to look at the Modern era which began as an historical period around the mid-eighteenth century and technically finished in the late 20th Century, even though its influence still affects much of what we do and believe today. If you wan to read more about the other periods you can find them in ‘Making Disciples in a Postmodern Era-Reviewing and Contextualising Historical Discipleship’
This cultural era brought changes in thinking, social interaction and economics in nations all around the world. A wide variety of terms are used to describe society, social life and the driving force behind this era. Some of these are:
- Rationalisation – the world can be understood and managed through a reasonable and logical system of objectively accessible theories and data
- Individualism – growing stress on individuals as opposed to other structures such as family, clan, village, church
- Urbanisation – the move of people, cultural centres, and political influence to large cities
- Subjectivism – the turn inward for definitions and evaluations of truth and meaning
- Reductionism – the belief that something can be understood by studying the parts that make it up
- Democratisation – political systems characterised by free elections, independent judiciaries, rule of law, and respect of human rights
- Therapeutic motivations – the understanding that the human self is a product of evolutionary desires and that the self should be assisted in achieving those desires as opposed to projects of ethical improvement or pursuits of public virtue
Because most of us are very entrenched in a specific era, we consider what we think and do to be the correct way and do not realise where the ideas and beliefs come from. Even when we say we are ‘New Testament Christians’ we often do that with little understanding of the 1st century from a cultural perspective (the background of both the Jews and the Gentiles) which set the scene for the growth of the Jesus movement.
This may not be a big problem if nothing changes but unfortunately for the church, we are moving out of the Modern era into the Post-modern era.
Post-modern thinking has been with us for a period of time but for the sake of clarity, I’m suggesting that the more intense effects of Post-modernism on the Western value system and on Christianity appeared around the end of the 20th Century. They coincided with the growing disillusionment with the Modern Era, especially the version perpetuated in the west throughout the 20th Century. The children of this new era have been raised in a world that is wrestling with the emergence of the global economy, the tension between notions of progress and the environmental consequences, and the nature of war and terror.
A quote from Daniel Palmer (Senior Lecturer, Art History & Theory Program, Monash University) may help explain this era:
‘Take Matt Groening’s The Simpsons. The very structure of the television show quotes the classic era of the family sitcom: while the misadventures of its cartoon characters ridicule all forms of institutionalised authority – patriarchal, political, religious and so on’.
As difficult as it may seem, we have to revisit the life of Jesus, the authority of the church and the key foundations of our Christian faith in order to distil the elements necessary for discipling in our post-modern and post-Christendom era. We need to think again about the why and how of discipleship and how to make contemporary discipleship more effective.