Influencing the local culture

This is another one of those Kevin venting, thinking out loud & online posts… One thought/question/issue that I cannot get out of my head lately is why don’t churches have more influence in their communities and local culture? I’m not saying cultural influence does not happen, but I do think it is rare.  Why? I want to share some of the thoughts I’ve been journaling.  I’d also like to hear your thoughts- even if you disagree with mine.

Just to be extra clear, when I say “we” in my thoughts below, I generally mean evangelical churches and church leaders and am not excluding myself.

#1) We tend to have a “trickle-down” mentality rooted in influencing the top 5-10% of society (whatever that means). If we can get them to join our cause, then their influence will “trickle-down” to the rest of society.  This of course makes common sense.  If we can somehow convince the smartest, wealthiest, most talented, and most influential people in society to get “saved” then it’s only a matter of time until we influence and reach everyone.  I know I’ve looked at someone who seems extraordinarily gifted and thought, “imagine what God could do with that person.”  While at the same time missing what God could do with someone that may seem rather ordinary from a human perspective.

The big problem with the trickle-down mentality is it definitely appears that Jesus took a radically different approach.  Here’s a few examples:

  • God invites shepherds not political or religious leaders to Jesus’ birth.  Shepherds were religious outsiders and social outcasts.
  • Jesus’ inner circle is made up of blue collar red neck fishermen from Galilee (Peter, Andrew, James, & John), a former tax collector who had robbed and cheated his country men (Matthew), women who had little rights at the time, and even a former prostitute.  God used these people to lead the early church and even write books of the Bible.
  • The Apostle Paul, who had a great personal resume, seemed to get this when he wrote the Corinthians: Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, sot hat no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:26-29)

I’m definitely not saying God cannot or will not use the best and the brightest.  He desires to use their talents, abilities, and resources for kingdom purpose.   I am saying that we easily dismiss what an extraordinary God can do with seemingly ordinary and even less than ordinary people.  I’m personally counting on the latter.

#2) We serve the “least of these” without truly engaging and mobilizing them.  Most new churches I see, especially in the missional/incarnational movement,  are serious about serving those on the fringe of their community and the forgotten people around the world.  Whether it’s serving at a soup kitchen or digging a well in Africa, we’re all about it.  We’ve done a fairly good job of serving, but there remains a significant difference between serving “them” and “them” becoming a part of us.  One of the things that stands out to me about Jesus’ ministry is that those on the fringe are not only often the focus of the mission- they often join the mission and even become leaders in the mission.  I realize as I type that this is not an easy way to do ministry nor do I want to paint some type of false utopian picture.   Taking this approach created tension in the early church (see 1 Corinthians 11:17-22, James 2:1-7) and it will have challenges for us today.  BUT well worth it.

#3) As our churches grow we gradually move away from the city or cultural center. I think most of us would agree that culture and influence primarily flow out  of the city.  In the process  of moving away, we lose influence.  Exceptions do exist, but I see this happen far more than I’d prefer.  Here’s my personal opinions on why:

  • Meeting in an urban environment tends to be more expensive.  As the church grows, larger space is needed, difficult to find, and increases expenses more.
  • Many churches meeting in cities and cultural centers still draw significant number from the suburbs.  Eventually people want to move where they’re most comfortable.
  • “Successful” growth is easier to maintain outside the city- primarily due to more “church friendly” people and resources existing.

Obviously choosing to stay in the city/urban area/cultural center is challenging.  This means we have to realize it is very difficult to have long-term influence from the outside. This will also require thinking outside the box concerning church strategy & structure, meeting space, and how we prioritize resources.

One Big Footnote: I recently read an article from Men’s Health Magazine with a list of “America’s Most Religious Cities.”  I realize Men’s Health will never be mistaken for Gallup or the Pew Forum, but I found the results interesting.  I was not surprised by Bible Belt cities such as Birmingham, Jacksonville, or Little Rock making the top ten.  I was also not surprised that my new home city of Burlington was ranked last.  What I found surprising was that the place where I was born and raised, Atlanta, was ranked 54.  That’s in the bottom half.

I often tell people that what Manhattan is to the financial world, Atlanta is to the ministry world.  Many mega-churches (some of the largest in the US) of every evangelical flavor dot the metro landscape: North Point Community Church, First Baptist Woodstock, Church of the Apostles, and Worldchangers are just a few.  It’s also home to several influential ministry organizations: Passion, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, Catalyst, and the North Amercian Mission Board.

I’m wondering… Is Men’s Health accurate?  If so, what do their findings mean?

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9 thoughts on “Influencing the local culture

  1. Well the idea of having a group that is being served become a group that is serving is not outrageous. Those of us doing the leading and the serving need to be put in the place of being served and then appreciate the one we serve. Friendships need to be formed and love needs to be shared not just human love of a person in need but the love of that particular person. We are a private people that want to stay in our own (for a lack of a better word) “class” or move higher up in the world at large. The idea of “class” needs to be adjusted. We care for those sick and dying around the world and step over the dying right outside our door. To me it’s all marketing and advertising, if we dedicated the same amount of time resources and passion into local communities and strengthening them we the body world have more influence.

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  2. Great thoughts Kevin! Been in Dallas a few times now for my DMin and Atlanta has NOTHING on the size and number of churches there. Atlanta has amazing resources, as you’ve noted well. And I would be surprised if it’s truly in the bottom half, but maybe the more traditional churches are losing more ground than we’d like to think?

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    • I’m not sure Men’s Health is the most reliable org at crunching stats. One thought I have is that bigger churches and more churches does not always influence the spiritual climate of the community and surrounding culture… at least not they way they could or should.

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  3. Kevin,

    Looking at the way that article in Men’s Health reports the data: The Burlington rating could mean it is the LEAST religious, or that it is the 100th MOST religious. I see nothing to indicate that once the ranking gets over 50 that means we are dealing with the least religious while the top 50 are the most religious.

    Of course, I speed-read the page and might have missed something.

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    • I based it on that they put the 1-10 and 91-100 in bold. In other articles where Men’s Health gives what they call “metro-grades” they’ve explicitly said 1=most and 100=least, since they only rank 100 metro areas.

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