Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Busy, busy busy...

As a note on method: while evangelicals - and especially fundamentalists - have had a tendency to talk about culture only when it affects our Christianity negatively. If our cultural assumptions fall in line with Biblical priorities, we don't talk about the effects of culture; we just pat ourselves on the back with pride over how great we are as the church. Thus, we fail to notice the aspects of our culture that are helpful, and begin to think of culture as the problem instead of as a neutral medium. In these posts, I make an effort to balance positives and negatives of cultural characteristics. When something we believe is part of American culture that obviously doesn't mean it's right - but it doesn't mean it's wrong, either.


The culture of the U.S. emphasizes accomplishments, work, numbers, and results. Americans value doing, and the more factual evidence we have that the action is yielding observable results, the better we feel about the actions. This results in a high value on activism and productivity. An effective evangelist, in this mindset, is one who can count a high number of people who made decisions for Christ. A pastor expects that if he does his job well, his church will grow in numbers. These expectations are met in some cases and are not entirely off-base, but quantitative measures alone do not adequately evaluate the qualitative progress that should be part of church life. Faithfulness, growth in character, building relationships, listening and observing are often not valued as highly as activities like running programs, staging events, and speaking to crowds, because the results of the former actions are less tangible.

This task-oriented view combines with America’s distinctive pragmatism to have a variety of effects. The focus on efficiency results in high output in terms of buildings, book and media output, and large-scale activities. It also results at times in viewing relationships as important primarily for the work that gets done as a result. I have found myself dramatically varying the amount of time I spend with people in my Christian community based on what we are working on together more than any other factor. We unite and put effort into our relationships because doing so is important to accomplishing a particular task. Networking and partnering with other churches and organizations views relationships as the key to greater effectiveness and results. According to doctrine, it is our union in the body of Christ that causes us to love, care for, and learn about each other. In reality, increased productivity often drives the connections we make.

Task-oriented pragmatism seems connected to a frequent lack of emphasis on aesthetics among evangelicals. Stewart and Bennett observe that “Americans focus on operational procedures rather than perceptions of the situation” (30), while other cultures spend more time talking about observations and descriptions of the people, places and situations involved. The American mindset assesses what resources and processes are most efficient for producing the greatest numerical results by communicating the facts of the gospel to the greatest possible number of people in the manner that yields the most public (i.e., recordable and countable) confessions of faith. Pouring time and resources into fine arts, architecture, and d├ęcor is usually valued only to the extent that it makes these activities effective, not for the sake of ideals like expressing truth and beauty in imaginative ways or reflecting the creative nature of God.

Pragmatism can easily lead to neglect of intellectual and historical foundations for Christianity as well. Being driven for numerical results and having an affinity for constant activity sometimes make time spent thinking, studying, and reflecting seem like a waste. While there are a number of evangelical groups that are exceptions, large swaths of American Christianity are colored with an anti-intellectual hue. As Charles Malik says, “Evangelicals are in a hurry to preach the gospel,...but ‘they have no idea of the infinite value of spending years of leisure in conversation with the greatest minds and souls of the past, and thereby ripening and sharpening and enlarging their powers of thinking.’” (Pearcey, 282) Undervaluing intellectual life in exchange for getting faster results raises questions about the true nature of the results. If church is done in a way that is disconnected from the lessons (both good and bad) of 2000 years of church history, is it really as close to the ideal as we would like to think? Are we not arrogant to think that we can interpret Scripture from a modern or postmodern American viewpoint without ever comparing it with the insights of the many good thinkers who have examined Scripture through the centuries? These are questions we must continually ask when tempted to follow the cultural impulse toward simply pushing ahead, running the risk in doing so of producing a great number of Christians with shallow knowledge and little sense of connection to a larger body.
1. Pearcey, Nancy. Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2004.
2. Stewart and Bennett. American Cultural Patterns: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Rev. Ed. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1991.

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