Making this linkage as above helps generate a pointed question. And as we well know, “questions are fateful; they determine direction.”

If culture is a cultivating force, then the assertions follow:

1. we are always being discipled. The only question is what or whom is forming us.
2. we will not effectively maintain a discipleship “program” or curriculum without addressing the larger context of formation (the dominant culture)
3. an effective discipling movement must succeed at some level in generating an alternative culture.
4. The Church is intended to be a discipling movement, and therefore, is intended to be an alternative (kingdom) culture.
5. Culture is maintained by language and practices. An alternative culture must have a unique linguistic fund — a grammar of its own. It must also maintain shared covenant practices.

Later in response to the comment below I added ..
6. While we maintain a distinct grammar, we need to become adept at translation. We need to speak at least two languages: our own, and that of the popular culture.

The old latin word for priest was “pontifex,” which means “bridge.” Priests, like apostles, stand in the gap between two worlds and bring them together.

Now before going any further, you have to read this great post from Mike Breen on discipleship and mission. How do we make missional disciples? The genius of the post, in my mind, is his making the connection to culture.

SO now if you have read it, notice that he draws a continuum from organized to organic, neatly side-stepping the issue that dominated a few years back on various blogs where we had to choose between “institutional” or “spontaneous” — organized or organic. SInce all life is organized, that was always a strange dichotomy. But then very helpfully, Mike makes the point that we MUST be organized, but the point is “organic access.” Ah!

Mike next makes the point that all the great disciple making movements… “had an agreed discipling language that everyone used to shape their lives and the life of the community that embodied the teachings in scripture about life in the Kingdom of God. A few quick examples:

Jesus and the early church: Short parables about life in the Kingdom of God
Monastic missional movements: Rule of Life (think about the Benedictines with their 13 rules)
John Wesley: Twenty-one questions for his class meetings (my favorite is the last question: “Have I lied in any of the answers in the previous questions?”)

“Having an agreed discipling language is one of those small, subtle things that makes all the difference in the world because almost every cultural anthropologist will tell you that language creates culture.”

Language creates culture. Yes. And practices maintain it. (What we DO, especially as a matter of intention -looks like habit, and especially as those practices are communal and grow out of a social imaginary).

Language creates culture. Much of that linguistic creation and maintenance is through story. “Leadership involves the creation of powerful narratives,” one scholar has said. “The skilled leader is one who can both articulate and embody a complex of stories.”

Language creates culture. But God’s story is already given to us. Perhaps the intent of that given story and given language, and its very “cadences” is to create a unique culture. So part of the battle many of are fighting is for the recovery of biblical language and practices, like “five-fold” ministry. (ANd yes, this begs the question of the tension of Word and Spirit — what to do with God’s ongoing creative work and new and transitional gifts like “prophet-poet”)

And finally, a familiar one that Hirschey is fond of — Ivan Ilich — “If you want to change a culture.. tell a new story.”

3 Comments on discipleship and culture

  1. Great insights here. Thanks. One (rather long) thought to add:

    While it’s essential for a culture to cultivate its own unique language and guiding stories, the difficulty for discipling cultures arises when their cultural values end up causing them to live as “separatists” from the culture at large. When our language and relational styles are SO different from the culture we are called to reach, we begin to sound like aliens to them, and foreigners, and put an unnecessary barrier between ourselves and people who are far from Christianity. For a discipleship culture to be truly effective in Kingdom terms (i.e. the disciples are both maturing as Christ followers AND effectively advancing the Kingdom relationally in the world) it must strive to be an “embedded” culture; that is, a culture that has its own language and values, but very intentionally embeds itself into the culture it is called to love, and very consciously avoids letting its own internal lingo and moral codes become an obstacle to relationship with those who are not (yet) a part of the tribe.

    How to effectively be “in but not of” is not a new challenge for the Church, and looking throughout history, we’ve tried many different potential solutions. But the one that seems to work best for advancing the Kingdom AND building disciples is when the Church goes underground, embedding itself within the larger culture and transforming it from within. We’ve tried separatism for the last several decades (withdrawing from the dominant culture, setting ourselves apart, not interacting directly or relationally with people of very different beliefs, creating a parallel “Christian” culture as a competitive alternative to the culture at large), and it hasn’t worked well for us. We haven’t advanced the Kingdom well, we’ve become largely disconnected from the majority of the world that doesn’t believe as we do, and we’ve developed a whopper of an image problem with the very people we are trying to reach. All that to say, in order for a discipling culture to work, it has to be exquisitely intentional about how it handles its tribal language and behaviors so that the very things that define it as a unique tribe do not also alienate it from its Divine mission.

  2. len says:

    Thanks Michael! I’ve always thought that the example of the Celtic movement could serve us..

  3. That’s beautiful, Len. Thanks.