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.
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.