college travels

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Some thoughts on Culture in conversation with Walt Mueller

I've just finished reading Walt Mueller's book on youth culture (Engaging the Soul of Youth Culture: Bridging Teen Worldviews and Christian Truth. IVP, 2006) and have found it a stimulating and engaging read.

My favourite quote is on p.20, which isn't actually from Mueller but from Tyler Durden:
Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. We're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off.

For those who missed the sub-cultural reference you probably ought to read Mueller's book… and you ought to go out and hire the DVD of Fight Club before you read any further!

My other favourite quote seems to sum up Mueller's thesis:
If the church doesn't listen, the church can't understand. When young people realize they aren't understood, church becomes a place where they don't belong. Then, as they try other places in their efforts to satisfy the spiritual hunger, the unmet groans for redemption (Rom 8:22) grow louder and more intense with the passing of time. As part of the creation subjected to "frustration" because of sin, the lost and unredeemed suffer "emptiness, futility, purposelessness, and transitoriness." (p.25).

There are three sections to the book – I'd suggest a quick skim over section one where he gives an outline of postmodernism. It's strange to say this about a book that's only three years old, but the discussion is noticeably dated. But that's just what this world is like these days – the culture moves so quickly that rather than waiting for an expert to publish a snapshot of what the culture looks like, far more useful is to learn the skills to read and discern culture for ourselves. And that's what sections two and three are about.

There are lots of helpful ideas in this book – I'll pick out a few of the most helpful ones here, raise a big question about ministry that seems to arise from this, and then give a longer summary below.

Mueller gives a fairly familiar outline of the three steps of cultural engagement: listen, understand, and then give 'an explanation of the gospel that takes into account, understands and uses the familiar language, categories and concepts unique to their culture' (p.110).

I found useful the distinction from Patti Lane between subjective and objective culture. Objective culture refers to the observable parts of a culture (the artefacts, language, customs etc) that are on view to the world. Subjective culture refers to the hidden, internal parts of a culture that drive or motivates the visible, objective culture (p.116). Later on in the book Mueller gives a long list of questions to think about in order to get a handle on objective culture (p.218-219), and then some more questions to get a handle on what these cultural observations actually mean (p.221-224).

This of course is not an easy task – and I learnt a word for the biggest trap for 40 year old Bible college lecturers trying to interpret contemporary youth culture: misattribution (p.116… be careful that you read and pronounce it properly!).

Misattribution is 'the tendency to assume or assign our own meanings and motives to someone's behavior' (p.116-17). The classic, 'you listen to this song with some very depressing lyrics, you must therefore be depressed'; when instead the young person is thinking that the girl he likes likes this song and he will do anything to get her to notice him.

Mueller is good at lists. Which does make it easy to summarise. We get three ways that Christians interact with culture (accommodation, alientation, infiltration & transformation); three marks of a 21st century messenger: three motivations (gratitude, responsibility, concern); four core commitments (committed to be a student of the word, to be a person of prayer, to live and embody an integrated faith, and to be a student of culture); fourteen core characteristics (that I'll list below); and finally seven steps to implement the same ministry strategy that Paul used on his visit to Athens (Acts 17… again, wait till later).

My big question is this: Mueller names what he describes as 'incarnational ministry' (p.190), and he contrasts this with an approach to culture he names as 'accommodation' (p.136 'the church on a leash'). Now, for regular readers of my ravings you'll know that I'm not much of a fan of what's labelled 'incarnational ministry' and instead I've proposed an approach to cross-cultural mission (particularly with young people) under the label, 'accommodation' – So, is Mueller arguing the opposite?

Well no, actually I think he's saying just what I want to say, we're just using the same words in different ways.

When Mueller is describing the 'infiltrate and transform' approach to culture as 'incarnational' I don't hear him saying that we ought to 'become' a member of that culture we're trying to reach. I don't hear him saying we ought to be content with forming friendships with young people on their own terms. I don't hear him saying that we ought not have an intention of sharing the gospel with young people in the hope that they might come to life in Christ. In fact the stories he tells of his own interaction with teenagers show him still being very much the middle-aged man dressed in 'khaki pants, button-down shirt, tie and navy blue blazer' (p.111).

For me this isn't incarnational, at least not what I hear most people who use the word incarnational to mean. Walt Mueller doesn't 'become' a goth in order to enter into a deep and significant relationship with Bekah; Jesus becomes human, fully human, not just as a communication tool, but to be our substitute. God has always accommodated his voice to our weakness, putting aside his rights in order to be able to talk to us in words that we can understand and engage with. This for me is a ministry of accommodation – me engaging with you in a way that leaves at the door anything of me that will get in the way of a relationship with you; it is not a ministry of incarnation – where I become like you in all things, so that I'm able to stand in your place.

But will Mueller object to my use of 'accommodation'; well he doesn't need to, because we're using the word to mean different things. For Mueller, accommodation to the culture means to conform completely to the culture – which to me is what incarnation means; when I'm using accommodation I'm referring to adjusting our communication to remove any stumbling block of offence or communication barrier.

Is it just semantics? Not at all – we ought not call the cultural engagement that Mueller is advocating (and I'm supporting) 'incarnational' for two reasons. First, because this is not what Jesus did in the incarnation (he did more than just listen, understand and communicate, he became one of us); and second, because this is not what others mean when they use the term (incarnational ministry has come to mean a relational identification that replaces gospel communication with cultural identification).

At least that's my two cents.

And now for the extended summary… well perhaps in the next post…

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  • I agree with the Stanton definition and practise of the accomadational approach.

    To what extent do we see this practised in Sydney evangelical youth ministry?

    Have the leadership of those churches (weather it be the senoir minister or elders/congregation) lined more with Meuler in their strategic planning and employing?

    A good follow up blog would be "to what extent is accomadational youth ministry (re:Stanton) present in Sydney evangelical churches?" or even "how popular is Meuller's accomadational approach to Sydney evangelical senoir ministers?

    By Anonymous Mr C Holding, at 6:12 pm  

  • So Mr C Holding, are you saying that most Sydney churches have conformed completely to our culture? I would have thought that most of our churches have alienated themselves from the culture.

    One of the big features of studying at YWC in the early days was an attempt at developing skills in cultural exegesis alongside our biblical exegesis. sadly that focus seems to have waned over the years (personally, I blame the Principal!).

    Hopefully 2010 will see a refocussing on this key task of ministry and mission.

    By Blogger Graham Stanton, at 7:16 pm  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger Graham Stanton, at 7:16 pm  

  • I agree many Sydney churches have alienated themselves from culture alongside this I believe many Sydney YOUTH MINISTRIES have conformed to the culture.

    To attract youth you employ a dynamic young youth worker that listens to coldplay, paramore and clean versions of jay-z songs.

    How do you get youth to stop going to parties and come to church you hold a party every week and call it youth group.

    Jesus and the Bible is taught but in a way that makes Jesus look like Bono and the Bible like a Dr Phil book.

    Could this be reactionary to the church's alienation of itself? Hmmm that would be a good blog!

    I reckon the YWC principal is pretty good! That old dean never used Twitter or MacBooks

    By Anonymous Mr C Holding, at 9:36 pm  

  • I agree, Mr C Holding (if that is your real name) that most of us either alienate or conform (both unhelpfully). I'd agree, also, that the conformity is largely an exaggerated response to the alienation.

    The hard part is as to whether a youth ministry can have the right balance if the local church it is a part of is not equally doing the same. On one level, it's a simple yes. But you can't really do it effective long-term if you can't integrate the youth into the wider church (because of their alienation). You just become a parachurch.

    Deano - is the book worth a read, or is your summary here enough for me to digest :)

    By Blogger Luke, at 12:01 pm  

  • Luke - you're right that a youth ministry will need to be effectively integrated into the wider church, both for the health of the youth ministry, and of the church as a whole, and of the families within the church. Another reminder that youth ministers need to work closely with the senior minister of the church.

    The book is worth reading. I know I said there was going to be a summary posted here some time, but that time might not be soon!

    By Blogger Graham Stanton, at 10:13 am  

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