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How to create a culture without being a colonizer
After I ordered creamed chipped beef and cemented myself as forever from Central Pennsylvania, my church planting friends from Kentucky asked me how we established such an “ethos” in Circle of Hope. How did you create culture?
It’s a great question to ask because it’s not easy to pull off. Corporations often try and fail at creating a “corporate culture.” And it’s increasingly difficult because part of our culture is radical inclusion and hospitality. We want to bring the Gospel into the present with great flexibility, and so we adapt to culture, while having a culture of our own to invite someone into. We aren’t just an amalgamation of wherever our people are coming from, however. We’re actually forming people into disciples of Jesus and so we meet them where they are, and we form one another according to our vision and mission that is inspired by the Spirit.
It takes intention and commitment
That’s a complex idea in general and it takes intentionality. Followers of Jesus submit their
passion and desire to Jesus and that is a challenging thing to do. It’s challenging because we’re tricked into thinking we are the authors of our desire, but in reality, the advertisers and marketers are. We saw how the very messages that we receive on social media are very carefully crafted by invisible overlords and an amoral algorithm. Ten years ago, this would sound like a dystopian plotline. Today? It’s reality.
We aren’t the authors of our desire and many people are after them. And so we create a culture in order for Jesus to be the author of our desire. Jesus is designing our culture and we follow him. Jesus does this very thing when we begins his ministry. The first thing he does is call forth disciples, tells them to drop everything and follow him, and convinces them to be fishers of people. He adapts. He takes part of their culture, that they are fisherman, and he uses that to advance the cause of God. It is ingenious.
Creating the alternative
In Circle of Hope, we are creating an alternative. It’s an alternative from the U.S. political economy and ethos, and also from the toxicity of American Evangelicalism (which is really Christian Fundamentalism appropriated to conform to American civil religion—now there’s a dissertation topic!). It’s an alternative from violence and coercion, from moralism and legalism. We are free to follow Jesus not because we are coerced to, or made to, or threatened if we don’t, but because Jesus moves us and changes us. We are free to follow because we love Jesus and love other people. That’s at the heart of what we are doing.
Circle of Hope has a common ethos that my friends from Kentucky noticed across our five congregations because we keep teaching and keep casting the vision. And we need to keep doing it because we are up against the aforementioned agents of change that limit our imagination. Jesus expands our imagination beyond the supposed limits that our society hoists upon us.
But this reimagining and this alternative way takes a lot of careful work to do. It is easy to fall back into what we are used to, or what is given to us. One of the most challenging aspects of the work is moving to transform the world around using mechanisms and means that are not ready available to us, intellectually or otherwise. We’re writing the script.
Your culture can be easily appropriated, be on guard.
I’ve been thinking a lot about our ancestors authentic expression of the faith that we call Anabaptism today. It is a very non-hierarchical, communitarian, love-forward, action-oriented faith. It is peaceful and noncoercive. It is pietistic, in the sense that it tries to achieve holiness without being tainted by the ways of the world (an often overstated and overwrought area that leads it to its growth edges). It is driven by theology and morals from above, but practical, applied application from below.
One of the biggest challenge we face in Anabaptism in Circle of Hope is our desire to do justice, express compassion, enact liberation without using the means and the tools of the world. Now, I’m not committed to Anabaptism anymore than other ideologies. But I am committed to making sure that I don’t simply become a utilitarian and justify reprehensible behavior for the greater good. So while I am deeply sympathetic to antifa, I can’t punch a Nazi.
We want to change the world in the style of Jesus, noncoercively, self-sacrificial, with unity and not division in mind. It's too easy to go your own way. But let’s be honest though, put into the wrong hands, and the Gospel becomes an apolitical anemic tool for maintaining the status quo. Too often, Christianity is just a cover. It’s just a label. Church is too often just a fun activity (and usually not so fun) that happens on a Sunday. It is not transformative.
Furthermore, a peace position or pacifism (one “ism” I don’t love using) leads to way too much conflict avoidance. Everyone is a pacifist when they don’t want to reconcile or they want to avoid a hard conversation. And that is literally the most visceral way it expresses itself in the land my beloved cream chipped beef.
And of course, violence is never an option for those without a flag stitched to their sleeve or a police uniform on. So pacifism can easily maintain the status quo, cause us to avoid conflict, and justify inaction against police brutality or American militarism. Throw in a Romans 13 quote and you have your state religion all biblically-justified and proof-texted for you. You’ll make a million bucks selling that to Trumpist Evangelicals.
Ideological purity doesn't make culture, it makes slaves
But on the other side of you, you have more direct action. You have interest in “statecraft” (that is making the state or the government “better” or more equitable). It is the great temptation of liberationists and progressives alike. They might trick themselves into thinking that the key to their salvation is a better America. They may want to make America great.
I don’t want to dismiss the efforts to make the world more just though. Because it needs to be more just and too often the church is not just enough. And even Circle of Hope is culpable in some of that injustice, just like any other institution of the world is. We are not perfect and things do need to get better within and without us. We have a certain strategy for doing that: in dialogue, in community, while staying mutual and united. We are moved by love, and disciple-makers, not power or force. So that approach might seem slow, but it’s much faster than simply dividing the church up or coercively accomplishing things. True transformation simply can’t happen through fear.
And that doesn’t mean we don’t honor the efforts, and the decidedly Christian efforts, of the ancestors of our faith because they weren’t in line with our “ideology.” I am committed to Jesus more than I am to any notion of Anabaptism. Last week, we celebrated the legacies of Bonhoeffer and King on our Transhistorical website. Bonhoeffer famously was involved in a plot to kill Hitler, even after a peaceful past. King, while nonviolent, use direct nonviolent coercive action to change Civil Rights in the U.S. They both died untimely deaths, and need to be honored. Unfortunately, both of their hagiographies are lacking teeth. King is too often white-washed, and the Eric Metaxas, the Bonhoeffer hagiographist, is a popular Trump supporter (apparently learning nothing from the man he wrote on). Despite the culture’s effort to tamp down their efforts, people with the alternative ideology could simply say their techniques, and ultimately their ends, were not good enough.
I’m not saved because my approach to transformation is pure. Ideologically purity won't save you and too often leads to extremism. But left without any conviction, and our faith becomes assimilated to our culture indistinguishably.
I’m not looking for a pure “Anabaptist ethic” in the aforementioned heroes of our faith. No, I’m inspired by them! And I’m inspired to do similar things, even if my strategy and approach are a little bit different. We aren’t looking for perfect ideologues around here, but we are looking for people are creative enough to imagine the future expression and extension of the Kingdom of God and are committed to using newly imagined and re-imagined tools. How we do what we do matters. The culture and ethos of our church matters. Our means don’t have to be perfect, but we can’t make them pointless. They are spiritually-discerned and I’m not ready to sacrifice how God is leading us to more “effectively” transform the world according to how the market and the state lead me.