Tag Archives: Culture

Cultural Analysis and the Dynamics of Leading Change in the Church: A Review

Jackson Watts

In his Symposium presentation “Cultural Analysis and the Dynamics of Leading Change in the Church,” Rev. Dr. Jackson Watts tackles the tough topic of implementing change in a congregation. Noting shifting demographical factors like the graying and shrinking of the evangelical church, Watts draws a correlation between these factors and an inability to change. He then seeks to wed biblical principles of change with socio-cultural concepts to assist church leaders in more effectively leading change in their churches. Such change will require “critical listening, thick description, and pastoral sensitivity” (57).

Watts points out that each church is best understood as a culture. This means that a congregation has its own “unique set of beliefs (spoken and unspoken, practices (symbolic and practical), values (inherited and derived), dispositions (conscious and subconscious), and artifacts (religious and mundane)” that define individual roles and responsibilities in the fulfillment of the institutional mission (59). This means that any change, even a small one, will have significant impact on every aspect of the church’s self-understanding. Because of this, change must always be tethered to the culture and values of the congregation.

Thus, the process for change begins with listening and loving one’s congregation. One must become a part of the culture and be a student of the history, traditions, and relationships present in a church body. All of these factors define meaning and determine value in the organization of relationships gathered together for a common goal. Only after such listening and learning, can one effectively begin the process of leading change. This is the first step of developing a “thick description” (an interpretation of the way relationships, rituals, and rhetoric interact to define a community, 61) whence a leader can cast a vision for change.

Watts then introduces the sociological concept of liminality. Liminality is a reference to a process of transition (usually of individuals but also organizations) from one set of identifiers to another. Similar to a sixteen year old getting his driver’s license, the process of liminality describes the period of the young person being unable to drive, obtaining a permit, receiving instruction, and eventually becoming a licensed driver. Even after such a change, it takes some time for the young driver (and especially his or her parents) to get accustomed to the idea. It is precisely this type of process that a church undergoes when implementing change. Change introduces ambiguity and must be understood as a process that leads to a new reality, thus impacting the culture. People become naturally uncomfortable in the liminal, in-between stage, of change.

A pastoral perspective will remember that congregants in this liminal phase are not simply “selfish, unyielding, rebellious, ignorant, unrepentant traditionalists” (63). Rather they are complex cultural creatures, spiritual beings embodied in time and space (63). This means that our attempts to lead change must always take a “total personality approach.” We must be sensitive to their needs as thinking, feeling, loving, worshiping beings. Watts then mines Forlines’ “total personality approach” of theology for important implications for the process. Such an approach to change will mean that a “one-size-fits-all approach” will never be adequate (65). Each individual and each congregation is unique.

Watts then turns to a discussion of the types of change in a congregation. He sums them up in three categories of 1) addition, 2) alteration, and 3) subtraction (65). Changes 1 and 2 can be difficult because congregations don’t perceive the need. In these cases careful consideration, description, and consensus are paramount. He notes, “as a general rule, the degree of listening, prayer, planning, communications and implementation is proportionate to the extent of the reforms to occur” (67). The final form of change, subtraction, can often be more difficult because even when congregants intellectually understand the need for change, they are often emotionally and experientially connected to previous forms and identity.

With these principles in mind, Watts offers a paradigm for leading change in the local church. Leaders must take the time to see what is going on. Leaders must then investigate why these things are the way they are. Finally, the leader is called to respond. He or she asks the question, “what should be happening?” Applying evaluative judgments to the current culture, changes must always be proposed with sensitivity to the spiritual, social, emotional, and physical needs of individual congregants and the body. Such reflection and care mirror the “ministries of Jesus, Paul, and the apostles” and exemplify the biblical principles of “wisdom, compassion, and courage” (70). May all our attempts to lead change in our congregation be characterized by this pastoral heart. The full presentation can be seen here.

Christians and Cultural Transformation

by Matthew Pinson

(the following is a blog post originally published here on the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission blog; )

I recently listened to a podcast of the White Horse Inn in which Michael Horton featured the ongoing transformation of Mackenzie University, a prestigious private university in Brazil with more than 40,000 students, into a Christian university.

Let me say at the outset that, even though I have serious questions, which I’m going to express in this piece, about Michael Horton’s two-kingdoms approach to the relation of Christianity and culture, I count him a gift to the church. When it comes to what goes on inside the church (except for obvious denominational differences), I tend to agree with him. But when it comes to how the church should relate to the secular culture, I disagree with his two-kingdoms approach, rather espousing a more positive transformational approach to cultural engagement more like that of a Wesley or a Kuyper. So don’t let these friendly critiques of Horton’s views on culture be taken as a lack of excitement about his views on other things.

Continue reading Christians and Cultural Transformation

The Gospel & Cultural Identity

by Jackson Watts

Recently I was perusing an older edition of Integrity, the theological journal which the Commission for Theological Integrity occasionally publishes (back issues available in PDF form here). I especially enjoyed reading an article written by Dr. Jeff Turnbough on culture as a missiological concept.

Turnbough remarks that in recent years he has given a lot of consideration to the biblical imagery of Christians as pilgrims, and the implications that has for our life in the world. As I was reading his discussion of this, simultaneously aware of his missionary background and the recent celebration of Memorial Day, I thought his piece provided a helpful caution about syncretism. Syncretism, from a religious perspective, is typically understood to be a problematic attempt to amalgamate different religious, cultures, or ideas, thus compromising the core substance of the original truth.

He warns,

While we must immerse ourselves in local cultures in order to communicate eternal truth effectively, we must be careful not to mix local wisdom with godly wisdom. This is probably most difficult when we stay in one culture all our lives, especially if the nation claims to be a Christian nation. We must pledge our allegiance first and foremost to God and heaven and treat our present location (as ambassadors of a heavenly kingdom) with diplomacy and respect, without betraying our loyalty to our eternal homeland. If we fall in love with a specific earthly and human sociocultural system, that love and allegiance will tend to distort and skew our perspective of eternal values. That is dangerous for the Christian pilgrim. Divided allegiances usually lead to varying forms of syncretism. Ultimately, in order to avoid this problem, we must follow the biblical exhortation to “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen; for what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18) [1].

Such words of caution have significant import for not only missionaries, but national church planters, pastors, and all Christians who are serious about communicating the Gospel wisely.

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[1] Jeff Turnbough, “Understanding Culture: From a Missiological Perspective,” in Integrity 3 (2006), 65-89.

The Hermeneutics of Evangelism: Some Additional Reflections

by W. Jackson Watts

At the recent Free Will Baptist Theological Symposium in October, I presented a paper entitled “Hearing the Gospel: Reflections on the Hermeneutics of Evangelism.” Drawing on the nuanced way we understand the idea of “hearing” (listening and obeying), I attempted to sketch out some of the ways in which human sinfulness shapes the way people hear our presentations of the Gospel. Specifically I argued,

“As discouraging as the experience of seeing people reject the Gospel can be, it may be equally unhelpful to ascribe these failures in communication to one single cause rather than a plurality of factors which shape the response of listeners….Instead of opting for simplistic reasons for failures to receive the Gospel, contemporary Christians should adopt a more biblical, multi-dimensional approach. Because the Bible demonstrates human sinfulness as a complex, multi-dimensional reality, evangelists—that is,faithful disciples—should expect to encounter varied obstacles to the reception of the Gospel. Yet they should still strive faithfully to evangelize in light of these challenges. Such an approach is true to the biblical witness and contemporary experience. Furthermore, it highlights the profoundly theological nature of evangelism.”

My paper goes on to highlight and describe some cultural features or lenses of human life, namely language, power, and personal peace, and how the Gospel is often heard (or misheard) through them. Hopefully by attending to the ways each of these function, we can unleash the Gospel’s full power in order to break through some of these barriers as the message of Christ calls all people, in all sorts of sin-stained cultural contexts, to repent and believe.

As any presenter does I suppose, I recognize certain limitations or ways in which my argument could be strengthened, expanded, or even clarified. I was thankful for the thoughtful and appreciative responses that followed my presentation. But if I revised my paper, there is a matter or two that I would expand upon or include some comment on. Here I’d like to add one additional thread to this important topic.

An Important Consideration

Much of my writing consists of an attempt to help the church strengthen its ways of thinking and living out Christian doctrine in the world. This theme in my writing appeared at the 2012 Symposium when I presented a paper on the relationship between doctrine and practice. Since then, I find myself increasingly preoccupied by this subject. Being a pastor and theology student brings me back to this again and again.

In some instances, I think the most noticeable, practical impact of this preoccupation is that I am writing on topics that essentially try to strengthen theologically the ways we’re thinking about a familiar topic. In the case of this year’s Symposium, it was the topic of evangelism. My concern was that without giving sufficient attention to the multi-dimensional nature of human sinfulness, we might under-appreciate why people sometimes reject the Gospel. While it’s certainly true that God blesses many of our evangelistic efforts even when we know little-to-nothing about some of the people we share with, sometimes our lack of familiarity with them, as well as our own cultural context, hinders us from growing more competent with the way we channel the full scope of the Gospel at them wherever we encounter people.

The one fear that I had in presenting this paper was not that people would deny the validity of the argument itself. Rather, I feared that they might not appreciate the weight of it, and thus think that while my paper offered some helpful reflections, it only made more complex a task which should be rather simple: sharing the Gospel. In the end, however, not a single comment or response so far has offered that critique. Still, I think it’s worth saying that it is possible to read my paper and notice a void concerning the work of the Holy Spirit. After all, if the Spirit is drawing, convicting, and even at work in the life of the evangelist prior to the evangelistic moment, then it might be easy to dismiss the value of us learning more about how people “hear the Gospel.” “We just need to preach the message,” some will say, “and either they’ll obey the Spirit’s leadership or they’ll reject Him.” I think a few comments are needed to address how the Holy Spirit’s work relates to my presentation.

First, I begin my reflection on the practice of evangelism with the deeply-held belief that without the Holy Spirit, no human being will be saved. This is a point at which Arminians and Calvinists agree, though they construe the nature of the Spirit’s work a bit differently. But I believe that it should be easy for Christians in different traditions to agree on this point because there is so much clear, Scriptural testimony to support it. The Spirit must first draw a man for Him to be saved.

Second, the Holy Spirit’s power to apply the preached Word is such that it doesn’t require the evangelist to possess years of education about sophisticated concepts like hamartiology (the doctrine of sin), Constantinianism, culture, or, Lord-help-us, “plausibility structures” (thank you Peter Berger). Yet we agree that the Holy Spirit, according to God’s good pleasure, works through human agents to communicate the Word using partly our own words, personalities, and backgrounds (including our education).

So while we must make every effort to not make evangelism too complex so as to discourage Christians from evangelizing (or confusing our hearers!), this concern for clarity actually support my basic argument. I think many people may not hear our Gospel presentations clearly because we’ve assumed that a one-size-fits-all approach shouldn’t be up for revision, even when we’re finding people walk away from us without having trusted Christ. Rejection of the Gospel doesn’t leave us culpable for people’s rejection; it should leave us reflective about what just happened, praying that God will teach us through every victory and every failure–even if they’re only perceived victories or failures.

Finally, a robust doctrine of the Holy Spirit is essential for understanding the multi-dimensional nature of human sinfulness, which is what causes us to try different ways of presenting the Gospel. Sometimes God wants to reach persons in ways that differ from our expectations! The God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit delights in doing things that unsettle both unbelievers and believers. He receives more glory this way, just as the stable was more glorious than any Hilton, or the cross more than any throne. I believe this shapes our evangelism because the Holy Spirit, whose power we desperately need, has a way of confronting people’s unique culturally-conditioned rebellion against God. And this doesn’t disqualify our usage of words, categories, and ways of presenting the Gospel unique to that situation. Rather, it can be a Spiritually-directed act which is happening.

In the panel discussion that concluded the Symposium, Clint Morgan highlighted the work of the Holy Spirit in evangelism. I definitely appreciated that as I personally don’t know as much as I’d like to about how He does what He does in our lives. But I recall Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn. 3:8).