My latest book is one that was recommended to me by a friend, as one that might be helpful to start thinking about culture. The book is Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith. If I’m honest it hasn’t been an easy read. It is one that has taken me a while to get through because it is quite academic, but it has been a helpful book to read.
The author, James Smith, is primarily interested in looking at the role of Christian education in colleges and universitys in the USA, but there is much in there which is helpful for the Church leader and youth worker because we are involved in the formation of the young (and not so young) people in our care, and our primary goal is the same as that of the Christian educator: “The formation of a peculiar people – a people who desire the kingdom of God”
Below I highlight some points and quotes which have struck me reading through the book.
There is a great pressure on all of us, with different influences vying for our attention:
- We need to be attentive to all the formative work that is happening outside: in homes, malls, football stadiums, at school, etc.
- Interesting thought: to recognise the religious power and formative force of the mall we need to adopt a pattern of cultural critique and discernment that thinks even deeper than beliefs or worldviews and takes seriously the central role of formative practices.
- Our heart is a “love pump” that can never be turned off. The effect of sin is to throw it off kilter, so that it is misdirected and aimed at different things.
- Our ultimate love moves and motivates us – we are pulled by a telos that we desire. we begin to emulate, mirror and mimic the particular vision that we desire.
- A person isn’t just a container filled with beliefs but a desiring “arrow” aimed at something ultimate that in turn becomes a mirror of the sorts of person they want to become.
The book was helpful in highlighting a shift in what our thinking should be:
- Change of quesitons from: What does this have to say? to What vision of human flourishing is implicit in it? or what sort of person will I become after being immersed in this cultural liturgy?
- Even of worship the question should be, How does this inscribe a desire for the kingdom in a way that is more effective than just grasping doctrine or beliefs?
He also looks at what the church is:
- Worship is not for me – it’s not primarily meant to be an experience that “meets my felt needs,” nor should we reduce it to a pedagogy of desire; rather worship is about and for God.
- The church is not a people gathered by abstract ideas or teachings or ideals; it is a people gathered to the historical person Jesus Christ.
- The church, as a messianic people, is a people who inhabit the present with a certain lightness of being.
- The call to worship is an echo of God’s word that called humanity into being – it brings together a new creation.
- The celebration of the Eucharist is a sanctified let down because it is another week in which the kingdom has not yet fully arrived. it is a picture of the coming kingdom, where none go hungry because of poverty.
- Worship touches our pockets in the offering.
- The church isn’t called to save or conquer the world but to serve it by showing what a redeemed human community and culture look like, as modelled by the One whose cultural work led him to the cross.
Another helpful point he made was the effect of a build up of the influences around us. For example if we spend a whole day shopping in the week, and also ‘pop to the shops’ and have our brains bombarded with advertising then that has a cumulative effect on our formation – especially if we measure that with how much time we spend in worship activities – perhaps one morning at church and a youth group. He highlighted the need to Christians to be involved in daily worship – around the kitchen table, in dorm rooms, fellowship groups etc. This also has a cumulative effect to counter that of the shops.
This final quote I think sums up, quite well, what we should be doing as pastors :
“The goal of Christian education is to form radical disciples of Jesus and citizens of the baptismal city who take up the creational task of being God’s image bearers, unfolding the cultural possibilities latent in creation – but doing so as empowered by the Spirit, following the example of Jesus’ cruciform cultural labor.”
The great challenge is how we do that. Are our programs set up to do that? Are we intentional with our conversations with young people? Are we helping them to assess the culture that they are surrounded in?
I know that growing up there was very much a disconnest between church and culture, but we need to be working to help the young people to see the common grace that is in the culture around them, but also to see where the need for the gospel is. Are we involved with information or formation?