I recently spoke in a faculty forum at Biola University on the changing cultural context ministry leaders who graduate college and seminary are entering. I did not speak from the vantage point of a scholar or educator (there were scholars and educators in the gathering) but from the vantage point of a pastor who observes pastors today entering local church ministry contexts that are different than when I first began serving. Because the cultural context has changed (I don’t believe I had one class or even one session in one class on any of these cultural realities), ministry leaders who were prepared years ago must find new ways to be prepared today.
Though today’s context is more challenging, I am hopeful and excited about the opportunities it presents. This list could be much longer, but here are four realities of our current cultural context that ministry leaders need to be prepared for.
1. The trajectory of Tocqueville
In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about his experiences evaluating life in America. He affirmed religious tradition, family values, and community involvement, but he warned that individualism, if it continued to rise, would bring damage to people and communities. In the mid-1980s, a group of professors and sociologists within the University of California system evaluated America (with Tocqueville’s hypothesis in mind) and concluded that individualism had become more aggressive and that it was the key value beneath the surface of American life. In their book, Habits of the Heart, they coined the term “expressive individualism.” We continue to see new iterations on the continued trajectory of individualism—one of the latest being the insistence that people they can decide their own gender or chose to live with gender fluidity.
Response: We must help people see the futile and miserable ending of the trajectory of individualism and invite people to embrace their identity from Christ and grow in community.
Some good news: We may be at a moment where individualism is crumbling on top of itself, as one person’s individualism is infringing on another’s individualism. We may be at the beginning point of seeing how the full trajectory of individualism is unsustainable. We need more than ourselves. We were made for more than ourselves.
2. The segmentation of the body from the soul
Nancy Pearcy in her excellent work, Love Thy Body, shows how many of the common cultural views surrounding sex, gender, and the unborn hinge on a worldview that separates the body from the person—a worldview antithetical to a Christian worldview which teaches that our body and soul are gloriously connected. Hook-up culture depends on separating sex with the body from who the person is. Abortion depends on the belief that personhood is based on autonomy or intelligence—an image of personhood apart from the scientific proof that the child in the womb is alive. The transgender movement hinges on separating gender from the physical sex of the body, from biology.
Response: We must teach a high view of the body that reminds people we are created in His Image. Our bodies are gifts from God, our bodies are called the temple of His Spirit, and one day we will be with Jesus in everlasting life with a renewed and glorified body. The Christian faith offers a high view of the body, as our Savior entered our world to rescue us in a body and reigns now in a resurrected body.
Some good news: Because the sexual revolution has failed us, there is a growing recognition that the attempts to separate soul from body are not grounded in reality. In The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, Louise Perry articulates that the belief one can enjoy sex with the body but not become emotionally attached has proven false. “Sexual disenchantment isn’t actually true and we all know it.”
3. The perception that historical Christianity is bigoted
When I began serving in local church ministry, Christians and the beliefs Christians have historically held were viewed by the broader culture as acceptable and normal—views such as marriage being designed by God to be between a man and a woman. In our American cultural context, some of those beliefs are viewed as bigoted or even oppressive.
Response: We must prepare people for a world that hates some of their beliefs and remind them that just because someone declares us to be unloving does not mean we actually are. Jesus lived a life full of grace and truth, and yet He declared that the world hated Him.
Some good news: Historically, the Church has thrived and advanced while under persecution—not while it is in a position of cultural power, but while it is serving the world as a counter-cultural movement of people filled with the grace and truth of Jesus.
4. The omni-channel reality
While the previous three are philosophical and theological, the “omni-channel” reality is practical, but it has dramatically impacted our context in the last several decades. People within the culture where a local church is located have been conditioned to “buy online and pick up in the store,” to learn at schools both physically and digitally and to toggle back and forth between online and in-person environments. When I entered ministry there was no training offered on how to think about technology (what to embrace and what to abandon, what can be a sacred tool and what can pull a ministry away from God’s best, etc.).
Response: We must prepare people to think about the implications of technology on missiology (how the gospel can spread) and ecclesiology (how the Church should function).
Some good news: Because “to the pure all things are pure,” God has used new technologies to spread His message—from the advent of the printing press, to radio, to television, and now to the Internet 1.0 (church websites and online sermons), 2.0 (social media), and, by God’s grace, whatever 3.0 will look like.
To be clear, I don’t believe the aforementioned should be the curriculum. I am deeply thankful that I was prepared to hold tightly and to help others hold tightly to “the faith delivered once and for all to the saints.” While the above is important, because it is changing, it is not nearly as important as that which remains the same.