January 6, 2009

Excerpt from Andy Crouch’s Culture Making

From the chapter “Gestures and Postures,” Andy Crouch clarifies how the Gospel writers worked to contextualize their message about Jesus Christ to the culture.

How have Christians related to the vast and complex enterprise of culture?  The answers are as varied as the times and places where Christians have lived. When Christians arrive in a new cultural setting, whether a village in the highlands of Thailand or a Thai fusion restaurant in the East Village, they encounter an already-rich heritage of world making.  One of the remarkable things about culture, as we observed in chapter four, is that it is never thin or incomplete.  Culture is always full.  Human beings need culture too much—language, food, clothing, stories, art, meaning—to endure its absence.  So from its first years taking root in Palestine to its astonishing dispersion into nations around the world, Christian faith has always had to contend with well-developed and, usually, stable and satisfying cultural systems.

What have Christians made of the world? Consider the four Gospels of the Bible, each one a cultural product designed to introduce the good news in a culturally relevant way.

Matthew begins his Gospel this way:  “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Mt 1:1).  His story finds its place in the meaning-making system of Jewish symbolism and textual interpretation.  Matthew’s Jesus correlates closely with major figures of Jewish history—Moses on the mountain, David the King—recapitulating familiar stories and fulfilling long-held expectations.

Mark, while just as aware of Jesus’ Jewish heritage, seems much more engaged with the cultural heritage of Rome.  He begins:  “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1). The Greek word euangelion, here translated “good news” but commonly translated “gospel” (making Mark the only Gospel writer to actually call his work a “gospel”), referred to an official proclamation of good news, in particular the Roman practice of sending out heralds to declare victory of Rome’s foes.  But this euangelion is about a very different kind of victory, one that is paradoxically won at the very moment of apparent defeat by Rome itself.  Mark’s story, in distinction to Matthew’s, is not about fulfilled expectations but confounded ones.

Luke, meanwhile, takes on the mantle of a Greek historian, beginning his stately and rhythmic account with the epistolary preface that Greek readers expected, addressing his reader, “most excellent Theophilus” (Luke 1:3).  He is careful to note that he has consulted a wide variety of sources and pays close attention, in both his Gospel and its sequel, Acts, to details of medicine, business, politics and geography.

John takes up the Jewish philosophical tradition of a thinker like Philo, blending in the first sentence of his Gospel the Hebrew creation story (“In the beginning…”) with the rarified vocabulary of Greek metaphysics (“…was the logos”).

And in the end each Gospel writer also adopts a different attitude toward the prevailing culture.  Luke is broadly positive toward the righteous Gentiles who were probably his primary audience.  He traces the apostle Paul’s journey to Rome, the center of the dominant culture, with evident hope that this journey would spread the gospel to the ends of the earth.  Matthew, Mark and John each seem less certain that the cultures they engage will be welcome homes for the message they are bringing.  The world that “God so loved” in John 3:16 is by John 15:18 the world that “hated me before it hated you.”  The Jewish tradition that Matthew so reveres is also the source of the Pharisaism that his Jesus excoriates.  The euangelion of Mark is upside-down good news, in which the King goes willingly to defeat rather than bravely to victory, overturning the expectations of friend and foe alike.

So already in the four initial, inspired retellings of the story of Jesus, we start to see divergent approaches to culture.

January 1, 2009

Relevant Questions for 2009

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An Auxano team member is reading through C.S. Lewis in 2009. She sent me an excerpt from the Screwtape Letters where Screwtape (a demon) is speaking.  He says that God wants us to ask and answer simple, relevant questions. Therefore the strategy of the evil one is to ask irrelevant questions that keep our "minds buzzing in a vacuum."

The Enemy…  loves  platitudes.  Of a proposed course of action He wants men, so far as can see, to ask very simple questions; is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible?  Now if we keep men asking, 'Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way history is going?'  they will neglect the relevant questions. And the questions they do ask are, of course, unanswerable; for they do not know the future, and what the future will be depends very largely on just those choices they now invoke the future to help them make. As a result while their minds are buzzing in this vacuum, we have the better chance to slip in and bend them to the action we have decided on."

My question is, "What questions are you asking as you enter 2009?" Are they relevant? 

Here are some good questions posed by Dave Ferguson in his recent post, "6 Questions that Create a New Future"

December 26, 2008

Life Elevated

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I just finished a week with the kids in Park City, Utah- an annual getaway for inspiration, excitement and reflection. This year we were snowed-in an extra day due to Christmas eve blizzard with over 2 feet of snow.  The extra snow raised the bar on our family adventure! Here is my son Jacob on a run called Hidden Splendor.

It's interesting how the state of Utah wants to nourish my emotional connection to the place that has become a regular retreat. They do it through branding and marketing which culminates in the tagline, "Life Elevated." Every tagline makes a promise- think of the multiple facets of tis one- from the thrill of extreme sports to better quality snow to higher social status. in this case, their promise always delivers (OK, being from Houston makes it easier to deliver on the promise.) Their clever campaign in 2008 has snowflake dressed athletes in the clouds "trying out" in order to make the cut to fall in Utah- every snowflake's dream come true. Picture 4Picture 5

I encourage every church to think through their brand promise and external messaging in a similar way. What's your church or ministry's promise to people who have yet to experience it? 
December 19, 2008

Changing Metrics

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Developing metrics is an essential aspect to the work of a vision consultant.  At Auxano, we embed the starting point for good metrics into the Vision Frame. This side of the frame we define as either the Mission Measure or "Missional Life-marks." (This bilingual approach in talking about vision is important to working with leaders of different generations.) The mission measure pushes the church's focus out of the expected ABCs of metrics- Attendance, Buildings and Cash.  I often say if a circus has good ABCs, what makes your church different? Technically defined Mission measures are the characteristics or attributes in the life of an individual that reflect the accomplishment of the the mission.  How does your church articulate this portrait of a disciple?

If you have not tapped into Leadership Network's resources, here is a great article on the topic: Changing Metrics
December 15, 2008

Bad Times Draw Bigger Crowds

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My friend William Vanderbloemen at Faith Search Partners just sent over this NYT article on church attendance in difficult economic times.  

When it comes to stewardship and generosity so many church's rely on the plug and play programs, which obviously can be very helpful.  My question is, "How to you articulate the Missional Life-mark of stewardship or generosity as a continual standard for discipleship and maturity?" What language do you use based on your church's unique culture that transcends whatever program you may inject at any given time?
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