Jeff Haanen

Category

Culture

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CultureWork

The World’s Best Outreach Strategy

 

How are we going to reach out to our culture?

It’s a common question in church world. Do we have a fall festival? Sponsor a 5k? Chili cook off? Day of service at the homeless shelter? Mission trip?

The idea seems to be this: We’re here…in church. They’re out there…in culture. We need to “reach out” to them. Hence, the myriad of “outreach” ministries in most American churches.

But the truth is that won’t don’t need to “reach out” to culture at all. We are already “out” there every single day.It’s called work! And not only are we – the laity – inculture, but we actually create culture every day.

A few weeks ago, I saw this firsthand. My first meeting for the day was at a Starbucks in downtown Denver. I met with Eric, who shared with me his  story. For his first job after college, he climbed cell phone towers. After more than a few frozen climbs in the air, he decided he needed a change. He thought for a while. Perhaps he would become a public school teacher – or maybe he should go to seminary. After a stint as a park ranger he applied for and got a job with an engineering firm, designing the physical structures that support electricity stations. It was job I had literally never thought about – and strained to understand! – before that morning.

At 9am I met with Grant. He shared with me his journey as a recently promoted accountant at a big four accounting firm. He spoke of both the enjoyment of helping companies show clear financial pictures of their firm, and the frustration of filing piles of documents for the SEC since the Enron scandal. We ended on mulling over his plan to pitch a work/life balance program to his HR department, noting that young accountants – who often work long, long hours – need this balance in the worst way.

I then had lunch with Abraham, a doctor at Denver Health in their psychiatry department. Abraham is an unbelievably brilliant and faithful catholic. He told me about attending medical school and in the process he got a masters in theology from Duke. He’s now a doctor and leads their psychiatry department, where he endeavors to live out his faith in a very secular field.

From there, I headed out for more coffee, this time with Mike, a brilliant musician. He now plays tympani for the Colorado Symphony. He shared of the incredibly difficult path of becoming a professional musician and how we once auditioned at a prestigious symphony in Canada where the conductor basically sabotaged his chances of being selected.

Then I met with Bradley, a fresh-out-of-college middle school English and History teacher. Sparkling with enthusiasm and in a masters program, he was just happy to be in his career.

And then I met with Susie, the bi-vocational pastor of Platt Park Church. We spoke about church, and her two other jobs: as a small business owner of a painting and wine business in Denver, and as rental property managers.

Keynote Address - Oct 28 Vision Event (Images).019

As I was driving away from that appointment, and I thought about  meeting with an engineer, accountant, doctor, teacher, musician, pastor and small business owner, I had a profound aha! moment. Work is where culture is made. 

I spent a day listening not just to their human stories – of triumph, failure, hope, disappointment, and meaning – but to a microcosm of human civilization in 21st century America. Here, I thought, is culture! And here it is made by human beings every single day.

Andy Crouch and Ken Myers have a pithy definition of culture: it’s what we make of the world – in both senses of the word. It’s both the meaning we make and thethings we make. So, for example, on I225 on my way to Colorado Community Church (my home church), there is a beautiful new overpass bridge that will connect the new light rail system. Why create such a huge, costly yet beautiful piece of transportation in the sky? It’s because we value connectedness and ease of access. That is, wemake something (a bridge) because of a value (connectedness). The engineers, contractors, and laborers who made that bridge created a piece of Colorado culture.

So what? Every single weekday any one local church is scattered throughout the city – and creating products and services driven by certain values. This is culture making. And the irony is that so many Christians wish they could be in church or working for a Christian nonprofit which is seen as “meaningful” work! The edifice of the modern world is made through their decisions! And yet we often fail to see the opportunity to not just be “in” culture but to actually shape culture through our work as engineers, accountants, doctors, teachers, musicians, or small business owners.

The question is not if we’ll be involved in culture, but how?  Will we do it thoughtfully or thoughtlessly? Intentionally or under the tyranny of the urgent? To advance common good or our only our own good? Engaged emotionally or disengaged and bored? Caring for weak and marginalized in society or using them to get ahead? In line with God’s kingdom or the kingdom of the world?

When we ignore work, we ignore the part of culture we actually touch every day. But if we engage work, we engage culture. Here’s where the world is made – for better or for worse.

This post first appeared on www.denverinstitute.org

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CulturePolitics

Interview with Michael Lindsay

 

As I sat down for lunch at The Broadmoor, a historic, five-star resort in Colorado Springs, it quickly became clear I was among the elite. White linen table clothes, waiters in black ties, and a view of the rolling green golf course nestled at the foot of the Rockies. I was glad, then, when Michael Lindsay, the President of Gordon College, joined me. His wide smile, gracious disposition and articulate brilliance exuded confidence and calmed my middle class nerves. He had been among the powerful before.

In 2008, Lindsay published his Pulitzer-nominated Faith in the Halls of Power, an unprecedented look at influential evangelicals from Washington DC to Wall Street. His latest book, View from the Top (Wiley, 2014), is the result of a 10 year study of “Platinum Leaders,” 550 elite politicians, CEOs and nonprofit executives who hold many of the most significant positions of leadership in the world. Over lunch we had the chance to discuss the White House Fellows, a liberal arts view of life, the power of elite networks, influence through institutions, the perspective of top-level leaders, and why he wants more Christians in positions of power.

Michael Lindsay and Jeff Haanen

An edited version of this interview was published recently in Christianity Today. Here is the uncut, unedited version of the June 2, 2014 interview in its entirety. It includes all the original details and my candid responses to Michael’s findings in View From the Top. 

It’s longer than your typical blog post, but Michael offers a deeply insightful look into the highest levels of global leadership. It was a conversation I won’t soon forget.

Let’s talk about institutions. I think most Americans are very skeptical of large institutions, but the leaders you found in View from the Top are drawn to institutional leadership. Why?

It’s the locus of power in our culture.  I started out thinking that individuals would have a lot of say. The way in which I went about my data was focusing on individuals. I got about two-thirds of the way through and I thought, “These people sit at the top of institutions. And that’s were there’s power. That’s how things get done.” You can see that within the private sector. You can see it in nonprofits. And you can certainly see it in government. It became a way in which I could understand what was taking place. Institutions matter significantly.

It’s interesting. The current generation of college students have a love-hate relationship with institutions. They hate bureaucracy, and they hate the machinations of big organizations. But they are real builders. They believe in starting things, and they want to build them up to make a real difference.

So, one of the hopes of the books is to help them to see [that] if you really want to make a difference long-term, you have to be connected to an institution.

One of your chapters is entitled, “Act Institutionally, Think Personally,” but I think many personality-driven churches and para-church organizations are really quite the opposite. We think about the celebrity at the head but rarely think about the institution itself. What can evangelicals do to change that bias?

Here’s one way to process this. Max Weber describes it as the routinization of charisma. Weber has this theory about different forms of authority.

Traditional authority, which is what the Queen of England has. You inherit it from your parents. Rational-legal authority, which is the authority President Obama has, which is, you’re on top of a major bureaucracy and that’s how you get things done. And charismatic authority. This is the authority that Billy Graham had, for a while. It’s the authority that Jesus had for a while. It’s the authority that gathers and collects around an outstanding individual, a persona.

But in order for that person to have lasting impact, Weber says, it has to be routinized. It has to be transferred from the authority of a charismatic individual, and has to be transferred into a rational-legal bureaucracy. So, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is a great example of the routinization of charisma. After Billy Graham is gone, you’re going to still have his ministry continue. Chuck Colson died two years ago. Much of the work of Charles Colson is continuing on in Prison Fellowship even though the founder is no longer there.

So, while it is true that evangelicalism does prize the personality, and there is a cult of celebrity in the church, what we are witnessing is evangelicals coming to appreciate the importance and the primacy of institutions.

Let’s think about leadership. You found almost all the leaders in View From the Top had a “leadership catalyst” experience. For many of them, it was a program called the White House Fellows. You’ve studied other leadership programs. What was the key to the White House Fellows that set it apart from the rest?

They did four things very, very well. I studied this deeply because I care about developing leaders at Gordon. One, it uses a cohort approach. Most of the research today will show that leadership development works the best in group settings. Leadership is as much caught as it is taught. So that’s very important.

Second, they were given substantive work assignments. If you have a program for leadership development, but there’s no real work assignment, it lacks the teeth, it lacks responsibility and accountability and the feedback loop that’s really important. So you don’t really know if you’ve done it or not.

Third is the importance of a broadening education. So, you have to expose emerging leaders to senior leaders. They have to be able to rub shoulders, get to know them up close. And those senior leaders also have to be willing to speak honestly and off the record. So it’s really important that you not just bring in talking heads but that you also find people who can be real.

The fourth element that the White House Fellows program does well, that other effective leadership development programs do well, is public recognition. So you have to be able to say, “These are really special people.” And we’re singling them out to say that they are worth our investment of time and energy.

Those are four things I’ve found that make a huge difference.

Is that what the Presidential Fellows program at Gordon College looks like?

Yes, the Gordon Presidential Fellows program is exactly modeled on that. So, we take a competitive group of students that come from all different majors, all different backgrounds, and we choose a cohort of 10 students. They have the chance to work directly with one cabinet officer. I require them to literally sit in the office of the cabinet officer. Each cabinet office has a little conference table in their office. That’s where the student works. The idea is that they will pick up on things, even when they’re doing their own work.

So, the students I work with will hear me interview people, talk with donors on the telephone, think about strategy. All kinds of things. And then we’ll have a chance to debrief. And then I have lunch with my fellows usually on Saturdays. And so that’s an intentional strategy.

We bring to campus about ten guest speakers per year. And so we ask the speakers to meet with the Presidential Fellows over breakfast or lunch. And then we do give them public recognition. We often take them on travel with me or with the college. We single them out. They meet with the trustee. It’s clearly our top leadership cohort on campus.

Tell me about the difference you see between the evangelicals you interviewed in Faith in the Halls of Power and those in View From the Top. Did you see a difference between evangelicals and their non-believing counterparts?

So, 70% of the people in View From the Top are Christian.

Seventy percent?

Now, they are not all practicing Christians, and they’re not all serious about their faith. Faith in the Halls of Power drew a larger constituency of serious Christians. So if I compare the 70% of Christians in View from the Top with those who are not, then in general, Christians who I interviewed tended to be more grounded. They tended to be more oriented toward relationships in the workplace. They tended to be less frazzled with disappointment or failure occurs. Now, that’s not to say that’s true for everyone. I’m speaking in broad generalities.

In your book, you mentioned these leaders have a “liberal arts” view of life. How do average folks cultivate this generalist perspective in their work – a teacher, a mid-level manager. What does that look like for us?

It’s all about how we live our lives. It’s how we build certain practices in our lives. So, I find that you have to be intentional to develop that liberal arts approach to life. It doesn’t occur naturally because we tend to be in pretty homogenous groups. We tend to get the news from the circles of people that agree with us. We tend to not challenge ourselves.

So, the people in View From the Top, part of the reason they got to the top is that they had cultivated this liberal arts approach when they were 20. It’s generally not something you do when you’re 70. It’s something you develop.

Is this a reading diet? People you spend time with?

Yes, it’s about reading. Where do you get your information from? Do you have a regular practice of checking news sources that don’t align with your own philosophy? So, I tell my students one of the best things they can do is get a subscription to Christianity Today and The Economist. The Economist is really important. It’s different – you’re getting a more European-centered view of the world, not American centered. So, you’re able to get a broader vantage point.

I tell my liberal students they need to watch Fox News once a week. And I tell my conservative students they need to watch MSNBC once a week. You have to get to a place where you have a wider diet of input.

It also means cultivating a habit of attending lectures, being exposed to experiences that are different than their own vantage point.

One of the persons who most impressed me was this guy named John Mendelsohn who just stepped down as the head of the MD Anderson Cancer Center. He was a world class cancer researcher. Really a top flight scientist. When I was doing the interview, he was reading a book on the history of opera. What does the history of opera have anything to do with leading the world’s leading cancer center?

It’s so rare to find people like that.

But it’s not among these people! They develop a lifestyle that has that kind of breadth. They’re great conversationalists. They make connections. Now not everybody is reading about the history of opera. But they’re intentionally building practices in their life that give them a wide variety of experiences.

This is why the preaching of Tim Keller is so popular among these individuals. Because he’s so widely read. If you haven’t read classical literature since college, you can get snippets of it in Tim Keller’s preaching. And so, how do you get those kind of experiences? Those are the kind of things I’m interested in.

Tell me about the “leapfrog method.” In 2003-2004 you started interviewing prominent evangelical leaders, and in ten years, you were able to meet some of the most powerful leaders in the world. Tell me about how you were able to open up these networks over time.

In social science, the two methods for selecting informants in a study of elites is the reputational method, where somebody recommends an individual, or the positional method, which is to say, “I’m only going to talk to CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies and that’s it.”

The kind of research I was interested in doing was a little more textured than the pure positional method would allow. I was interested in the kind of data I’d get if I interviewed a former President of the United States or a former Cabinet Secretary who’s no longer in office. I was less interested in “What do you think about President Obama?” and more interested in how you get things done. So, you didn’t have to be an office holder for that to work. I decided I wanted to do a combination of those two approaches.

In middle of doing that, I realized I needed a networks-based approach. To get access to the really top level folks, you need somebody to say, “Hey, this guy is okay.” What I did at the early part of the process was I set up appointments with 100 early informants who then made recommendations of those at a much higher level. So, Rich Mouw, the President of Fuller Seminary, says, look, you need to go see Ralph Winter, who’s a Hollywood producer – very successful. I never would have gotten to Ralph if I would not have first talked with Rich.

So, the leapfrog method allowed me to jump over a number of different hurdles which allowed me to get there. But then I modified it slightly as I had some measure of success reaching people. I no longer needed somebody to help recommend someone. I needed a council of advisors who could help me say, “There are all these CEOs you could go interview, but you really need to go and figure out who’s most strategic,” and give me some help. So I built a board of advisors.

Networks. This is obviously a big reason why people got to the top. But I could see people misconstruing this and think, “The way I get to the top is to know the right people and that way I can climb the ladder.” It feels like people, then, become almost instrumental. They have value only because we can use them. I wonder, how do we avoid this temptation as people of Christian faith?

I’m absolutely persuaded that for evangelicals to have influence, they must be in the room when decisions are made. You must. And I can point to countless examples of how individuals at a particular moment are in the room and are able to change history.

One example I think I used in the book is Condoleezza Rice’s story. She was in the room when the decision about PEPFAR [President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] was made. Condoleezza Rice was serving as National Security Advisor. There were two big camps. The compassionate conservative crowd, which is some of the evangelical network: Michael Gerson, Karen Hughes, that kind of crowd. Then there was the Neo-Con crowd: Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney. Condoleezza Rice was one of the few individuals who straddled both of those worlds.

There had been a conversation that had been going for about a year, where the President’s compassionate conservative agenda is being put to the test. What if the US government made an amazing commitment to address the AIDS pandemic is Sub-saharan Africa by making an allocation of $15 billion of US aid to extend the life of AIDS patients?

There were having the final meeting. It was called the principals meeting with about 15 folks in the oval office. So they turn to Condoleezza Rice to give her speech. Basically they’re asking, “Is this a good use of money just to extend lives for $15 billion?” She tells the story of how her mother, who battled cancer, was able to have her life extended for about 15 years from the moment she was diagnosed until the moment she died. During that time, Condoleezza Rice went to high school, went to the University of Denver, decided to change her passion from being a concert pianist to being an expert in the Soviet Union, earned a degree from Notre Dame, got a teaching job, and was well on her way at Stanford University. And Rice said, “It changed my life that my mother was able to be involved in that 15 years. If we can do that for an entire continent, and don’t do it, it’s a moral failure.”  That one moment swayed human history in a significant way.

In order for evangelicals to have influence on key decisions that affect millions of people, you have to be in the room. Elite networks matter.

The difference, however, is that the gospel compels us to not live our lives to curry the favor of those in authority. Jesus is clearly not spending his ministry trying to get the Roman authorities to believe his position. And yet, not once does he curse the Roman authorities. The harshest thing he says about Rome is “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.” That is certainly not a condemnation, and his disciples were begging him to condemn Rome. Just begging him, and he never does.

Why? Jesus recognizes that a lot of good can come when people committed to God are in positions of responsibility. What we have missed in the evangelical community over the last ten years is an insight that a social thinker named J.P. Nettl has advocated. He says social movements are akin to stalactite rock formations, which come from the top down, and stalagmite rock formations, which come from the bottom up. The column is most powerful, he says, when those formations meet. If we want cultural change, we have to attend to both grassroots movements as well as top down efforts.

What would that look like for evangelicals? What would it look like to build the top-down structure, since we’ve historically worked with the poor and weak? Does this mean seeking more positions of authority?

Think about the mobilization of concern we’ve seen for international justice in the last 15 years. It’s a wonderful example of how an organization like IJM has engaged policy makers, folks at very high levels. So, Gary Haugen speaks literally at Davos. That is where the world’s power elite exist. Gary is not repudiating it. Gary’s actually speaking there. He wants to be a part of it. It makes a real difference. At the same time, Gary is trying to get college students, who are really far from Davos, interested in international justice. They’re doing things in the local churches.

That’s a great example of how you can engage both top-down and bottom-up and can actually work a coordinated effort that can make a lasting impact.

Let’s change the pace a bit. I think many Americans see leaders at the top and they seem incredibly disconnected from the rest of us. True or not? If so, what should change?

It’s both true and false. It’s true in that there is a plurality, not a majority, who lead gilded lives, far removed from the everyday concerns of ordinary people.

But the people who are in these positions don’t stay there their whole lives. They don’t even stay there for 10 years. They move out. So the people who are in very powerful positions in the White House are at most in those powerful positions for 10 years. They don’t have a life that is so disconnected from everyday experiences forever.

So they have opportunities to reconnect. But when they’re in the top seat?

When they’re in the top seat, it’s very hard. It’s hard to know what’s happening in your organization much less what’s going on outside your organization.

You see our current political discourse, and I would say it’s become nearly sport for both conservatives and liberals to cast “the elite” onto the rocks. 

Even though they’re both the elite!

Yeah, ironic. What would you say to that mentality, that pent up frustration against elites that I think permeates much of our public discourse? What would you say to those who are just watching the news, and joining in to say, “Yes, it’s their fault”?

The moment of the greatest cultural angst against elites occurred in the wake of the financial meltdown, where certain industries, like finance, seemed to be above the fray, and not really experiencing the country’s challenges. I will say, it is difficult when you are making an unbelievable amount of money to stay grounded. It’s really hard.

The people that really impressed me were the people who had willingly given up compensation they had come into because it was a way that they practiced generosity. But it was also a way in which they could bridle ambition, consumerism, and all the things I think we need to be attentive to for those who have power and privilege.

So it is unjustified that these few thousand people who have an enormous amount of influence on our culture and on the world? It is unjustified that there be such a frustration? Does the average guy voting really have any influence on, for example, the making of policy? 

There’s a guy named Robert Michels who studied what everybody believed was the most democratic of all forms of social organization: socialist political parties in early 20th century in Europe. If anybody is going to have an egalitarian ethos, where nobody is above anybody else, it’s this group. He went into that expecting to find justification for this belief.

His most famous concept is the Iron Law of Oligarchy, which is to say, at the moment a group begins to organize, an oligarchy forms. In order to get things done, you are always going to have a small group of people with disproportionate privilege and power. It is how we work together in public life.

The reason I care deeply about having more serious Christians in positions of responsibility is because there are very few world views that preach a gospel of self-sacrifice, and none that are built around the very concept of self-sacrifice, like the Christian gospel.

The antidote to the pernicious effects of power is giving up power. It is sacrifice. Why, then, would we not want more people who believe in that, and that say these are their values? Why would we not want more people like that setting the example in the upper reaches of society?

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Culture

Three Lessons for Evangelical Leaders

Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics won Christianity Today’s 2013 “Best Book of the Year” award in “Christianity and Culture” for a reason. Check out this stunning quote, pasted on the back of the Fall 2013 Issue of Comment Magazine:

“This turn boded ill for Evangelicalism’s long-term future, because although the ‘para’ groups were immensely successful at religious mobilization, they weren’t as effective at sustaining commitment across a life span or across generations.

“They were institutions for an anti-institutional faith, you might say, which meant that they were organized around personalities and causes and rarely created the sense of comprehensive, intergenerational community…You couldn’t spend your whole life in Campus Crusade for Christ, or raise your daughters as a Promise Keeper, or count on groups like the Moral Majority of the Christian Coalition to sustain your belief system beyond the next election cycle.

“For that kind of staying power, you needed a confessional tradition, a church, an institution capable of outlasting its charismatic founders.”

As one who’s now launching another one of those ‘para-church groups,’ this quote  struck a chord. Some immediate takeaways for me – and maybe for you if you’re a part of Evangelicalism:

(1) Build inter-generational (and intercultural) partnership into your organization. The powerful para-church movements of the 20th century were great at reaching college students, political interest groups, or middle-aged men, but not at building deep partnerships between generations and cultures. Woe to us if we don’t intentionally create teams of leaders who are different from us! Double the woe if we serve our narrow market niche and consign ourselves to yet another “tribe” in social media land – while ignoring the rich diversity of Christ’s body.

(2) Quit building movements and organizations around charismatic leaders. I don’t think this is the intention of ministry leaders, but it’s what happens when we’re not more institutionally-minded. It happens when we build great conferences, praise great speakers, and publish great books, but neglect the time-consuming work of crafting policies, habits and practices that are intended to outlive their founder. Please, serve the vision, serve the organization, serve the ideal – but let our leaders become servants who become less while others become greater.

(3) Love the church. Go to church. Serve the church. Attend the church. Give to the church. Pray for the church. Quit criticizing the church. Join a church. And remember, when companies, non-profits, and even states pass away and are long forgotten, the Church will still be there. And oh yeah, if you’re in business or a non-profit, listen to the leaders of the church.  The stewards of the mysteries of Christ may just surprise you.

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Culture

Six Tragedies of Modern Public Life

It can be rather easy to lose one’s way. This afternoon I was working on the “shape” of our vocation groups for Denver Institute, and I almost got completely lost in the details. Tonight, I sat down at my desk, opened my notebook, and read some personal notes from 2012. I found notes on “six tragedies of modern public life” that led to the advent of this new organization.

Six Tragedies of Modern Public Life

  1. Work is isolating. Long hours, artificial online relationships, and high demands are not the only reasons for isolation. Many are caught spending their days in a deeply dualistic mindset, serving God on Sunday and other gods Monday-Saturday. Isolated from other co-sojourners and even isolated from some kind of overarching reason for work apart from mere survival, it’s no wonder Thoreau said, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.”
  2. Cities are almost wholly organized on secular assumptions. The Enlightenment notion that what can be proven scientifically belongs in public, and morals and religion belong in private, still prevails. To bring your Christian faith to bear on just understanding your field alone is often seen as inappropriate. Just flip on the evening news or read the newspaper, and you’ll see how desperately true this is.O Of course, this doesn’t mean everyone’s an atheist. Far from it. The gods are everywhere; some are just less accepted than others.
  3. Faith has been systematically privatized. Francis Schaeffer saw it when he explained the “upper story” of facts (science, public) and the lower story of values (religion & humanities, private). Bonhoeffer saw it from a prison cell and lamented “God is being pushed further and further out of our life, losing ground.” Lesslie Newbigin saw it when he returned from India in the late 1970s, and saw a civilization in Britain that had lost all sense of public purpose. Today, social analysts like Charles Murray, author of Coming Apart, can even see the widespread loss of traditional values among the working class. “Religion” is an ever narrowing category.
  4. Public witness to the Christian faith has been almost completely dominated by politics in the past 50 years. James Davison Hunter saw this with adroit clarity in To Change the World; I personally keep my distance from both the Christian Right and Left, both whom I believe have been co-opted by worldly ideologies on some issues, and align with God’s purposes on others. Nonetheless, the notion that seeking political power can change culture has worn itself out, yet those in the public world who hear the word “evangelical” cannot think of us as anything other than a voting bloc.
  5. Many churches have willingly retreated into the private sphere. We indeed should care about personal morality – what we do in the home and in private. But so many can see no systemic powers at work that shape human life. If Jesus is Lord of the universe, and his gospel is public truth for all to see, then should it not be brought to bear on all areas of life? Perhaps, as David Van Drunen points out, this job belongs to the organic church (the church scattered throughout the week), and not the institutional church (the place you go on Sundays). But nonetheless, do systems, structures and institutions not matter for living faithfully for Christ today? If they do matter, then who is intentionally equipping those to make public witness to the gospel through where they actually live “in public” each day – at work?
  6. There’s no genuine pluralism. Most would disagree with me on this. After all, we live in a highly pluralistic society made up from people of every religion and ethnic background. But religious reasons for taking certain actions have been nearly eradicated from our shared vocabulary. Just imagine the blow back a politician would get today (in most districts) if she quoted a Bible verse as justification for voting for a bill? Just imagine what would happen if a Christian teacher in a public school taught that just as there are two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom in every water molecule, so, as verifiable history, Jesus has been resurrected from the dead? Those are grounds for a pink slip…and evidence that some views are accepted in public, and some systematically condemned.

As I was jotting notes in late 2012, I did not stop with just these tragedies. I also wrote five overarching goals for an organization that could address these problems. These five goals are the topic of my next blog post.

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Culture

Cities, Burbs, and Metro Regions

A few days ago I received an email from my good friend Dave Strunk. He referred me to an “excoriating” review of Why Cities Matter written by blogger Keith Miller.  Since I recently reviewed the book for Christianity Today, and Mr. Miller and I rather different focal points for our reviews, let me respond to his critique.

Argument: Mr. Miller points out a central weaknesses of Why Cities Matter: the slippery definition of the word “city.” In Keller’s introduction to the book, Miller deduces that Keller uses the word “city” to mean at least three things:

1. “The Top 100 City”—a metro area at least as populous as Wichita, Kansas;

2. “The Not-Rural Farmland City”—everything with a greater density than homestead farming;

3. “The Urban Center City”—places like Manhattan.”

He draws this conclusion from Keller’s use of a Gallup pole and a UN statistic claiming “180,000 people move into cities each day.” Um and Buzzard switch between these slippery definitions throughout the book, at times referring to a major urban center like Los Angeles, and at other times referring implicitly to small towns that are not rural.

Response: Good critique. Miller is right to point out “sloppiness” here. There needs to be a standard way for evangelicals (and others) to talk about “cities.” It may be a pipe dream to think we could agree on such a thing, but the authors should at least lay out their own view and stay consistent.

Argument: Um and Buzzard are extremely liberal with the word “city” in the biblical review. Jesus was born in the “city”, say Um and Buzzard, but Miller points out Bethlehem had a population of 300-1000 at the time Jesus was born. He also critiques their claim that the Garden of Eden “may well have had buildings,” among other exegetically fanciful moves to find “cities” throughout the Bible.

Response: Again, this critique is also fairly well founded. In an earlier draft of my review, I pointed out that Um and Buzzard seem to substitute the word “city” for nearly any kind of human community, from Bethlehem to Babylon to the Church. Comparing the modern city to ancient settlements of nearly all sizes is problematic – to the point of needing correcting. Again, well said.

I would argue, however, that the Bible does have significant things to say about urban centers – particularly large ones. From Babel to Babylon, and Eden to the New Jerusalem, it’s no coincidence that cities take on either heavenly or hellish characteristics in the biblical narrative. Precise definitions are needed, surely. But a gloss of his own over the importance of cities in the Bible does us no favors either. Dense groups of people are uniquely important in the Bible as today.

Argument: One of Miller’s final critiques is that Buzzard defines Silicon Valley as a “city.” He points out that it is actually a suburban sprawl, and that Buzzard’s own church moved from an urban center in downtown San Jose to an area that looks a lot like a suburb in Santa Clara.

 Response: If the critique here is primarily of defining Silicon Valley as a “city” – that is mixed use space and “denseness” and “proximity”, an idea that Um and Buzzard borrow from Keller – then good. Buzzard is perhaps too in love with the idea of “cities” and wants to live in one even if he’s not in one.

But I’m inclined to push back against Mr. Miller. If city can also mean “center of regional influence,” then Silicon Valley certainly qualifies. It’s hard to imagine a more culturally influential suburb than the tech hub of the world (Um and Buzzard are right here).  And perhaps this leads us to a closer definition of what we mean by city.  After all, the plainest definition of “city” is: “a large or important town.” By that standard, which is more of a “city”: San Jose or Silicon Valley?

Final Thoughts: Mr. Miller’s critique of their sloppy use of the word “city” is right on, both as applied to the ancient world and the modern world.  We need to draw the line better.

But, unfortunately, Mr. Miller skipped over nearly all the valuable pieces. First, cities are growing, both in size and clout. As Richard Florida points out, the lines between suburbs and cities may be dissolving, but “mega-regions” are growing, attract a disproportionate number of talented, creative people, and churn out far more economic output than in past generations.

Second, Um and Buzzard have valuable things to say on both how the characteristics of cities as well as how they work; concepts, for example, like “connective diversity” and “clustered diversity” are helpful for non-urbanologists trying to understand urban areas.

Third, their ministry applications are helpful. They counsel readers to try to understand a city’s storyline through five questions. We may squabble over the definition of a city, but “large or important towns” certainly take on unique characters over time. I’m from the Denver area, and its focus on outdoors and adventure is crucial to understand for pastors. Cities have “gods”, and they must be understood if they are to be confronted. It’s hard to say that where I live, Littleton, exerts anywhere near the influence of Denver.

If it makes Mr. Miller feel better, perhaps we can substitute the word “city” for “metro area” and be rid of the whole argument.

But don’t listen to me. I live in a suburb. But then again, Mr. Miller lives in Hillsdale, Michigan: population 8,278.

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CultureTechnology

Questioning the local gods

 

I wonder if each city has its own god.

The idea was rather common in the ancient world. Many first century Jews believed demons ruled entire cities. Pagans too believed in local deities. In Ephesus, the mother goddess Artemis ruled supreme. When she was challenged, it was seen as a challenge to the well-being of the city (Acts 19:26-28).

But local gods reigning over a city? Surely we’ve grown out of such myths, haven’t we?

Two weeks ago it snowed in Denver. The forecasters predicted 8-12 inches (which turned out to be a drastically generous estimation). High winds, close to no visibility. Stores were closing; churches canceled services. Stay home. It’s the obvious choice. But many Denverites did the opposite. SUVs were warmed up, skiis and snowboards were strapped to the top rack, and true Coloradoans braved the weather to shred some fresh powder, blizzard and all. The mountains called. And we answered – dutifully, faithfully, bravely.

It’s no secret that Denver is a city defined by the Rocky Mountains. Our culture has been defined by the outdoors. Everybody does triathlons here. Even me. Biking, camping, skiiing, running. I even have friends who do the “Tough Mudder” – a romp through the mud to show your Spartan spirit. Our 300 days of sun a year shape more than our interests. They shape our very being.

Several friends and I speculate about the culture of Colorado. What is ultimate to these people? The earth? That would be Boulder. The individual? We certainly are a state of cowboys. But what, or who, really reigns here? The purple mountains majesty, of course. We live for recreation – for the weekend.

How does this influence our view of work? Everybody moves to New York to work. But nobody moves to Denver to work; they move here to play. Yes, put in your hours, but ultimately its about finding a villa, a latte, and a black diamond run with some fresh snow.

But how can we determine if something good (ie God’s creation) has become something ultimate? The best definition of a god I’ve found comes from philosopher Neil Postman. In his book The End of Education, he points out how easily teachers are swayed by the “god of Technology.”

“At some point it becomes far from asinine to speak of the god of Technology – in the sense that people believe technology works, that they rely on it, that it makes promises, that they are bereft when denied access to it , that they are delighted when they are in its presence, that for most people it works in mysterious ways, that they condemn people who speak against it, that they stand in awe of it, and that, in the born-again mode, they will alter their lifestyles, their schedules, their habits and their relationships to accommodate it. If this is not a form of religious belief, what is?”

Postman is not only writing for Silicon Valley here. In Denver, to what extent do we rely on nature, stand in awe of it, condemn those who speak against it, marvel in its presence, and alter our “lifestyles, schedules, habits and relationships to accommodate it?” When church planters come to Denver, they learn quickly that they start services on Sunday night, not Sunday morning, because that’s when Denverites return from the mountains.

Questioning loyalty to the local gods is awfully unpopular. Easier to work around them. Far easier yet to believe that we’ve grown out of silly, ancient myths of gods ruling over entire cities.

Discussion question: What are the gods of your city?

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Culture

Daddy, what if there were no stores?

 

That was the question my 4-year-old daughter recently asked on the way home from church. Such random questions weren’t rare for her. As we cruised down South Santa Fe, perhaps the streetlights hit the German Auto Parts Dealer at the right angle, or perhaps she was concerned about the Old Saint Nicholas Christmas store that was closed for the season. Either way, it was an interesting question.

“Well, Sierra, just imagine. If there were no stores we wouldn’t have this car we are driving in. We wouldn’t be driving on roads, these streetlights wouldn’t be on, and we wouldn’t even have these clothes on our backs – maybe we’d be naked! We wouldn’t have any food in the grocery stores, our house would eventually fall apart, and we wouldn’t have any warm baths.”

“And daddy, there wouldn’t be any doctors!” she replied. This was of great concern to her, because playing doctor with her 2-year-old sister was her favorite game. “Nope, no doctors,” I said. “Wouldn’t that be terrible.”

My daughter’s question reminded me of a question asked by Lester DeKoster, the author of Work: The Meaning of Your Life.

“Imagine that everyone quits working, right now! What happens? Civilized life quickly melts away. Food vanishes from the store shelves, gas pumps dry up, streets are no longer patrolled, and fires burn themselves out. Communication and transportation services end and utilities go dead. Those who survive at all are soon huddled around campfires, sleeping in tents, and clothed in rags.”

So what’s the difference between civilized life and barbarism?

“The difference between barbarism and culture is, simply, work. One of the mystifying facts of history is why certain people create progressive cultures while others lag behind. Whatever the explanation, the power lays in work.”

Simply put, work is about creating human civilization.  Few go into the office on Monday and think that way, but the skyscrapers of Dubai and the sewage systems of Paris wouldn’t exist without work. Nor would this Mac I’m typing on right now. Work is the source of all the things that most intimately affect human life: organizations, products, and services. And apparently that fact is not lost on 4-year-olds. Work might be a burden sometimes. But can you imagine a world without work?

Why should Christians care about integrating their faith and their work? Perhaps a better question: does God care about civilization?

And the LORD said, “Should I not care about the great city of Nineveh, which has more than 120,000 people who cannot distinguish between their right and their left, as well as many animals?” (Jonah 4:11).

Discussion question: What would happen if, overnight, your business or organization closed? What would be lost? Who would it matter to?

(Photo: I Am Legend, Annie Wu)

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CultureTheology

Work and the Destiny of the World

 

Our view of the destiny of the world should deeply influence how we understand work.

In the renewed Jerusalem, there is a river flowing from “the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city,” (Rev. 22:2).  And on both sides of river is “the tree of life, bearing crops of fruit.” The tree of life, from which humanity was exiled after the Fall in Genesis, is now at the heart of the city.  The culmination of history includes both the divine (throne, river, and tree of life) and the human (the city). The great hope of the Christian faith is for a renewed human city, a day in which God will reign over human life, including our cultural production that comes from work.

This biblical vision of the future is radical, especially when we compared to other worldviews:

  • The traditional fundamentalist vision is that this world will be burned up in judgment and believers will live with God in a disembodied state in heaven.  The idea here is of a wholly other-worldly eternal state with little to no connection with this world. Yet the Bible states that “the kings of the earth will bring their splendor” into the heavenly city (Rev. 21:24), including their finest work (like the camels of Midian, the ships of Tarshish, and fir trees of Lebanon – see Isaiah 60). In God’s grace, he brings actual human culture, though purified by fire, into a renewed earthly city. There will be real overlap between our work here and its redeemed state in the new Jerusalem.
  • The liberal vision is of establishing God’s kingdom here and now through social and political action. Outlined masterfully in Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion, in the 1960s and 1970s accomodationists, both liberal Protestants and Catholics, emptied traditional theology of its other worldly elements and equated social justice and politics with God’s kingdom. However, the historic Christian faith teaches the heavenly city comes down out of heaven as a gift from God (Rev. 21:2). It cannot be built, nor can we transform this world into God’s kingdom. Each generation equates some social program with God’s kingdom – and in so doing is eventually disappointed as the reality of sin disappoints all our utopian ventures.
  • The secular vision is perhaps the most depressing. The generally accepted public philosophy of secular materialists sees a distant future in which humans will be long forgotten, the sun will continue its expansion and eventually burn up the earth. The great tension in the secular mind is how to balance the view of the scientific materialists with the myth of progress, still espoused by lovers of technology, despite the horrific events of the 20th century (and the stark suffering of places like Syria). Businesses and even government entities rally behind “mission statements” even though their universe has no mission other than extinction.
  • The Eastern vision of the future is cyclical. Humanity is caught in a never ending cycle of life, death and reincarnation. The world, as well as human culture, has no real ultimate purpose. This view leads to such desperation that Buddhism was born, and it’s great hope was placed in attaining nirvana – freedom from the wheel of samara and the ultimate extinguishing of each person’s light (the definition of nirvana). The statue of the Buddha, with his eyes turned inward, is the paradigm of this worldview. Free yourself from suffering through meditation –  let your light burn out in the darkness.

Each of these visions of the destiny of the world ultimately influences our view of work:

  • Fundamentalist eschatology devalues work. Why build a house or start a business when all that matters is saving souls? This view leads to a stark division between spiritual work and secular work – a view all too common in conservative American churches.
  • The liberal view overvalues work. It equates human triumphs with God’s own kingdom, and both denies the reality of sin that has infected work, and tends to make human achievement an idol. This slippery slope of accommodation also tends to lead to empty churches, as people start question why they should attend a this-worldly congregation that is essentially no different from the rest of culture.
  • The secular view is so dark, people tend to look other places to find meaning in work, such as prestige, innovation, power, or wealth. Work here becomes a slave-driver as people put unrealistic expectations on creation rather than the Creator, and can slip into hopelessness.
  • Eastern religions have a similarly dim view of work. Not only is there no human city in the future, but each person must try to earn good karma on his or her own. Work may provide an income, but it is not connected with any objective goal for human history.  History, just like work, has no culmination. It’s an inescapable cycle.

The biblical view is that the heavenly Jerusalem is a gift, and it cannot be earned or built by men. Yet, in God’s grace, he includes elements of our work and cultural production in God’s new world.

If we truly embrace this view, we’ll be work with both tremendous hope as well as deep humility. Because God is making all things new, we won’t join the fundamentalists who undervalue the nature of God’s good creation, nor will we join the secularists who look into the future and only see a dark universe. Nor will we will join liberals who believe God’s kingdom can be built through only political action. (Nor will we join those who attempt to “transform culture” through their work and cultural engagement. Jesus clearly gives us a picture of the world growing in both good and evil as The Day approaches [Matt. 13:24-30]. For those who espouse of view that Christians should “transform culture”: can you point to a single culture in all of history that has been transformed by the gospel?)

The key way to view our work today – whether it be selling ads or teaching second graders – is as a sign, or a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven.  Christians are called to be representatives of a new world, who are yet living in this age, and to tell the good news through both words and actions. The key creative task is this: how can I take my work and make it a banner that points people to the hope of a renewed heaven and earth?

Perhaps the key image here is not the developer who paves over the earthly city, nor hermit who retreats from the city’s confines, but instead the farmer, who plants the seeds of new life through the work of his hands. And perhaps some of those seeds will grow into strong trees, whose leaves will be for the healing of nations (Rev. 22:2).

Discussion question: What is your view of the destiny of the world? How do you think it influences your work?

(Photo: The Farmer)

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CultureTheology

Forming Social Imaginaries

 

What is the role of pastors and theologians in bringing about cultural and social change?

Theologian Miroslav Volf, in his classic book Exclusion and Embrace, believes there is an important distinction between the role of pastors and the role of Christian laity, especially when trying to apply the gospel to our social world.

“Attending to social arrangements is essential. But it is Christian economists, political scientists, social philosophers, etc. in cooperation with theologians, rather than theologians themselves, that out to address this issue because they are best equipped to do so….

“When not acting as helpmates of economists, political scientists, social philosophers, etc.—and it is part of their responsibility to act this way—theologians should concentrate less on social arrangements and more on fostering the kind of social agents capable of envisioning and creating just, truthful, and peaceful societies.”

His point is well made: the gospel does influence how we see culture and society, but the ones best suited for making statements about politics or economics (or, by way of extension, technology, education, and business) are Christian laity. Theologians are accurately described as “helpmates” of economists and politicians, and should not cross the line in trying to trade vocations. Instead, theologians should focus on shaping “social agents capable of envisioning and creating just, truthful, and peaceful societies.”

At bare minimum, this means two things for pastors:

(1) Pastors have a responsibility to disciple those in their congregations who serve in the public sphere. Our public activity, namely, our work, is a matter of Christian discipleship. Work is not neutral – it is loaded with temptations, idols and opportunity for kingdom service. To never speak to the issues that affect the majority of our waking hours is irresponsible.

(2) Pastors should not confuse their distinct calling as a minister of the gospel and so try to become politicians, economists, or even philosophy professors.  This is not a call to be aloof from the matters of the world. Far from it. It is a call be faithful to telling the story of the life, death, resurrection and Second Coming of the Son of God, and to walk alongside laity and shape their imaginations so thoroughly that the gospel will transform parishioners who can therefore shape society through their work.

Takeaway: if you’re a pastor, go and visit somebody at work and so hear about their high priestly ministry (1 Peter 2:9). If you’re not a pastor, go and invite your pastor to lunch and start “envisioning and creating just, truthful and peaceful societies.”

(Photo: Conversation at the Coffee Shop, Steve Hammond)

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