April, 15th 2007

Church Transformation and Culture Change

Last month I was in the Toronto area for several events. I was connecting with some very creative leaders in Toronto and Hamilton whom you’ll hear about in future editions of the podcast. I also joined members of the Anglican dioceses from across Canada to share with them some ideas about church transformation – a subject high on the agenda of many denominational systems these days.

In Hamilton, just down the road from Toronto, I met with Pernell Goodyear at a street front church called Freeway. Pernell is a member of the Salvation Army in Canada who heeded the call of God to plant a community in an area of downtown Hamilton we would call ‘inner city”. They have moved back into the neighborhood. Their coffee shop on the main street is a place of welcome and hospitality in this community. We’ll report on this in the next podcast.

One of my goals while in Toronto was to interview Darryl Dash. Darryl is creatively pastoring a well established Baptist church in the west end of Toronto and is a member of the Canada-based group of younger leaders called Resonate who connect with one another on the web to support, encourage and share stories of God’s emergent life. Darryl is also a reporter-at-large for Christian Week. The interview took a twist and Darryl ended up interviewing me. In this week’s podcast you’ll hear the conversation between Darryl and I ranging from trends within the Canadian church, how cultures change and how local churches innovate change.

A few days after meeting with Darryl I spent another day and a half with some sixty or so Anglican diocesan leaders from across Canada. They had come together to engage the question of church transformation. I so enjoyed being with these good people. Despite a lot of the bad press about Anglicans these days, I was impressed by both the deep desire for transformation as well as the wisdom and experience gathered in that room. It was a delight to meet some who are fellow travelers on this journey and look forward to connecting with them to find ways of building an ongoing conversation. I was reminded again, I trust my Anglican friends will understand what I’m saying here, of how God’s future breaks out in places we easily write off as without much hope.

As I was being introduced at this Anglican event with all my notes prepared, I heard the leader telling people I was going to speak about trends affecting the church today. That wasn’t a part of the presentation I held in my hand so I quickly scribbled a list of 5-6 points with which to begin the conversation. I talked about the ways in which this interest in church transformation was an indication of crisis and opportunity for churches but that too often these leaders still opt for techniques and programs that are simply baptized with missional language. They don’t understand the depth of culture change that is required with church systems. I could tell from people’s responses that this was connecting with their own experiences. But the question just below the surface was about finding some practical ways of addressing these issues.

As our conversations developed over that day and a half it struck me that in both the interview with Darryl and in this meeting a similar set of underlying questions were present. They seemed to fall into four areas:

  1. What’s happening in the culture?
  2. How does culture change take place?
  3. How do you innovate mission-shaped change in an existing local church (the ‘transformation’ question) and
  4. What does this mean for leaders?

As I listened again to the interview with Darryl and reflected on the conversations with these Anglican friends this seemed to be the trajectory of the conversations.

These four questions are actually deeply connected. The answer to the ‘How’ of culture change is tied up with the question of the ‘How’ of local church transformation. I realize that the ways in which Christian life and leadership have been formed in North America often means that church transformation has been radically disconnected from the issues of culture change. In fact, today, it is increasingly the case that church folk want to develop churches that will insulate them from the huge amounts of culture change going on all around them in the rest of their life. Here we encounter the fact/value and public/private split Lesslie Newbigin so ably describes in his writing.

We have been led to believe that culture change is too big and that only the ‘experts’ can speak on such important matters. No one would think to consult ordinary people around the really important cultural and social questions.

Because we are meant to rely on the ‘experts’, church transformation gets reduced, once again, to making the church successful as the vendor of private religious goods and services. It gets trivialized as a means of turning things around and building up congregations. All too often it’s about the growth of a private, personal religious and church life that becomes a haven in a strange, threatening world. But the truth of the matter is that church transformation and culture change are very much interconnected in God’s economy. I want to explore this a little in the following paragraphs.

A couple of years ago Graham Ward wrote a book called Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice. Ward is an Anglican priest and the Professor of Contextual Theology and Ethics at the University of Manchester in the UK. He is one of the leading figures in the Radical Orthodoxy movement. Ward provides important insights into the questions of missional transformation and culture change in this challenging and fairly technical book. At the risk of massive oversimplification (and this is massive oversimplification) here are some of things he’s saying. Cultures don’t change because of elites, professionals or experts. Cultures change as ordinary Christian communities, rooted and shaped in local contexts and particular traditions, begin to live into practices of Christian life. In those practices they engage in actions and interaction with others that are local in nature but shaped within the larger tradition of Christian life.

If Christian communities in local contexts could actually live out of the practices of Christian life, they would begin to impact the public space in which all of us live. We live in a cultural context hungry and fertile for what Christian narrative, imagination and practice can provide. Christian communities, small local churches in all forms, have the gift of a narrative that can engage in relationships of mutuality and conversation with all the other diverse narratives out there. In so doing Christians can transform culture.

Now this doesn’t mean any of us have a map or plan for what that transformation might look like. As odd as this may seem, we are bands of God’s people in local places learning as we go how to live out of our narrative in the midst of others. It is as we do this, worshiping, working, relating with others, that we discover the ways God is about transforming the culture. Church transformation (the new mantra to now lie alongside new church development and church health) is a big deal! It’s not really about fixing anxiety, putting the church back together, making it work or… It really is about being a people who, through the practices of Christian life test and experiment ways of being faithful communities. When we do this in the midst of honest relationships and conversations with others it is amazing what the Spirit does in the culture. This is what I see happening in small ways among folk who call themselves by a whole lot of different names: emergent, Resonate, Presbyterian, Methodist, Disciples, Anglicans and the list goes on.


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This is the kind of article that really inspires me. Many churches I've seen across the country are really aiming towards (trying to transform into) a newer, may I say, more contemporarily relevant culture, but when these things are done from a previous generation's knowledge/experience base, without incorporating the younger generations in the formation of what this looks like, I think there are essential characteristics that are often missing. I think when we find young people...high school, college kids who have really pressed into what God has for them and what that looks like compared with what they know and have already experienced to join with the established leaders, and here I even include some of the younger leaders in their late 20's and 30's I think we will see a blessed change in our local cultural context. If these young people are able to break out and actually envision a new, different church experience that REQUIRES much of each person involved-from a young age...That is where this cultural change really begins to be multigenerational in reality and until then, it is only focused for multiple generations. (Please forgive me if this sounds unappreciative of the incredible efforts of many of our current cultural leaders, but I think the difference between our words and focus changing and our cultural reality actually changing, lies in how deep we go into multigenerational leadership and inclusion.)


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Recent Journal Comments:

Church Transformation and Culture Change
Posted by Drew Strayer
06/06/2007 9:35 AM

This is the kind of article that really inspires me. Many churches I've seen ac...

Church Transformation and Culture Change
Posted by Mark Priddy
04/20/2007 4:19 PM

The new Roxburgh Journal is now up....









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