One of the most enthralling, if humbling, aspects of being human is that each of us, without any input, finds ourselves in the midst of a world we did not choose, but that obligates us at every turn. It is as though some great hand reached down into the mysterious place from which we all come, hauled us out, set us onto the shores of culture, and said, “Here, this is where you will become yourself.”

This becoming is complicated business. On the one hand—for good and ill—we are ourselves, called by God to walk our particular path in this world. On the other hand—also for good and ill—we are our culture’s: The particular path we walk maps awkwardly onto the topography of our time. And so, we find ourselves bound to self and culture and to the tension between them, wrestling, as we must, with that enduring question: How are we to live as people in the midst of the culture in which we have been placed?

In Search of a Theory

I first asked this question when I came to the University of Virginia as a Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) campus minister in the summer of 2000. My time at Covenant Seminary had been essential in preparing me for (among other things) ministry in this culture; it had led me through the various stages of cultural engagement through which we all must pass. First, I was led out of the cultural antagonism that I had inherited—the assumption that the world is hostile and somehow alien to the purposes of God—by the reminder that this is God’s world, the place where the beauty of His salvation is truly known. This realization led me to that next stage of cultural engagement—cultural appreciation. In this stage (which I hope I never leave) the world was opened up to me. Music, movies, architecture, literature, food and drink, even the soil itself—these became places of wonder where I encountered the beauty of God and His creation. But soon enough this new openness to culture was attended by several thorny questions: What is culture? What is its moral orientation? What are its claims on me and on my neighbors? And, if I’m to love the culture, what tools of discernment and habits of action are needed? With these questions I moved to the third, and in some ways most difficult stage of cultural engagement: developing a cultural understanding.  his is the movement from mere delight in culture to greater discernment of its structure and meaning.

Reading To Change the World was like being given a map of a dense forest that I’d always stumbled through before. The forest is the challenge of ministry, and of simply being a Christian, in the “late modern” world of my lifetime. Hunter gave new names to the stumps I’ve always tripped over—names like “ressentiment,” “dissolution,” and “difference”—technical terms that, once explained, were instantly recognizable in my daily experience. Now I know better what I’m up against, and I stub fewer toes.

The book also explained the weather of this strange forest. Too much Christian cultural analysis focuses on the forces “out there” that obscure God’s truth from people, while neglecting the ways we Christians add our own smog to the fog. Two broad trends that Hunter identified rang true instantly: first, our unsubstantiated confidence that “the culture” (the dominant patterns and assumptions that shape the way we all view reality) can be changed by grass-roots, one-heart-at-a-time ministry; and second—incongruously—our reduction of all public involvement to political discourse or activism. Seeing how various segments of the church tend to embrace these same errors in different ways, I was surprised to find dysfunctional affinities with all, including the right, left, and neo-Anabaptist. The book helped me see myself, not just the black hats and the white hat I thought I was wearing.

Hunter’s alternate paradigm, “faithful presence,” is harder to define and yet far more demanding. On one hand it deeply affirmed our church plant’s commitment to living together in a particular geographical place, since genuine presence takes time and exposure, time and exposure. On the other hand, faithful presence involves the stewardship of power. Hunter forced me to acknowledge the measure of power that God has entrusted to me, and to use it carefully to influence others.

Hunter is a sociologist, and he uses sociology well to critique our inadequate theologies of human change. Delightfully, however, his sketch of faithful presence is pure theology: biblical, orthodox, and compelling.

Walter Henegar is pastor of Atlanta Westside Presbyterian Church, a two-year old congregation in Atlanta, Ga.

But even with the best of guides, it was slow going. As it happened, I arrived in Charlottesville fresh out of seminary with a deep appreciation for this culture, but with only the most basic tools for understanding it: a general outline of some characteristics of our contemporary culture; a basic grasp of H.R. Neibuhr’s paradigms for relating Christ and culture (found in his book of that name); and a firm, if vague, commitment to the fact that culture was to be “transformed” by the coming of the kingdom of God.

It didn’t take long in my new life with university students to realize that my understanding of culture—in spite of the best efforts of my seminary professors—remained weak. I found that I could help students understand some of the artifacts of our culture (music, literature, etc.) but I couldn’t help them understand the nature of culture itself. I could help them discern some good and some bad in our culture, but not to think clearly about its larger moral orientation. And while I found that I could motivate them to have an impact on our culture, I didn’t understand the structure of culture or the dynamics of cultural change enough to show them how or where to begin. And so, at the beginning of my new ministry, I saw that I needed a better theory of culture and of my task within it.

“Faithful Presence”

In 2004 I read a draft of what was to become James Davison Hunter’s book To Change the World and found what I was looking for. This book—one part cultural theory, one part ecclesial lament, and one part Christian ministry manifesto—gathered and addressed many of the questions that frustrated me. Though an expansive book, its central claim is simple: “Many Christians are rightly committed to changing the culture. But their understanding of culture, and their strategies for transforming it, are largely mistaken. If we are going to labor effectively in our time, we need to adopt a new paradigm of cultural engagement.”

Over several hundred pages, and across three distinct essays that make up the book’s structure, Hunter fills out this central claim with biblical, theological, historical, and sociological insight. 

In the first essay, entitled “Christianity and World Changing,” Hunter critiques the dominant contemporary Christian paradigm for understanding culture and the nature of cultural change. Challenging the view that culture is essentially the sum total of the values and ideas of individuals and that cultural change is therefore accomplished by changing those values and ideas, Hunter urges a vision that gives more sustained attention to the role of institutions and of overlapping networks of men and women working within them. The decisive factor for cultural change, he says, is not simply the transformation of the beliefs and values (or worldviews) of ordinary people, but the long-term self-conscious cooperation of men and women working across various cultural institutions—to renew them, and thereby renew the culture itself.

In the second essay, titled “Rethinking Power,” Hunter calls the church to review the way it conceives of and appropriates power. On the one hand, he challenges those who view cultural engagement primarily in terms of acquiring and appropriating power—especially political power. In Hunter’s view, the current political emphasis among many Christians is helping, ironically, to perpetuate an essentially Nietzschean climate in which Christians, rather than seeking to love their neighbors, are instead seeking to triumph over them. On the other hand, he challenges those in the church who think of cultural presence primarily in terms of renouncing all power in order to remain pure from its worst effects. For Hunter, this is at best a naive understanding of cultural life and at worst a mission-weakening withdrawal from life in the world. In Hunter’s view, both of these—the inordinate reliance on power, and the naive repudiation of it—must be set aside in favor of a new paradigm for cultural engagement.

In the third essay, entitled “Toward a New City Commons,” Hunter gestures toward this new paradigm, a paradigm he calls “faithful presence.” His vision goes something like this: What if Christians, rather than triumphantly determining to “transform” culture, or apocalyptically seeking to protect themselves from it, sought instead to be fully and redemptively present within it? What if the Christian goal with respect to culture was neither to win, nor flee, but to love? And, remembering that culture is not just about ideas, but about institutions; and not just about individuals, but about communities; what if we created churches that self-consciously and perpetually taught men, women, and children to go into every part of our cultural life—every geographic, institutional, and ideological sphere—and labor there together for the glory of God and the flourishing of our neighbors? What if we were known not for seeking to win the culture wars, but for seeking to bring cultural shalom?

This paradigm of “faithful presence”—fashioned from many sources in our own Reformed tradition, and articulated with great beauty in Hunter’s book—won my imagination and brought into focus the vision of cultural presence that I longed to see in my own life and in the lives of those to whom I was called.

From Theory to Practice

What would be required for such a vision to take shape? That was my question when I left RUF in 2005 and became a pastor of a local congregation. How could I—how could we—labor together to be faithfully present in our community?

Saint Augustine often wrote about the “gaze of the heart”—what we might call vision. Vision is what leaders pursue when they can imagine the beauty of the Church manifesting the ways of Christ in her everyday situations. We hunger for this. The “gaze of our hearts” is captivated by such a vision. James Davison Hunter provides, in his book, a vision that excites hope. It is, most basically, a call to embody an alternative reality for the watching world—a way of life and relationship that is good, beautiful, and true—to be a sign of what Christ has done, a foretaste of what He will do and agents to make Him known.

Imagine an interdependent network of leaders equipping the saints to fulfill humanity’s created intent. This is what the New City Commons Pastor’s Network seeks to do. We want the Church to corporately image God’s goodness and loving character, as it is clearly defined in our crucified and resurrected Lord. We want to see His light and love reflected within all places throughout society.

God’s goals, motives, and standards must be ours. Our fervent desire is to help cultivate a flourishing community that reflects God’s goodness and loving character in the ways we relate to one another, to those around us, and to the rest of creation. We don’t exist for ourselves but for this high calling, which is for the benefit of the world. This is more important to us than results or apparent ministry success. Outcomes are up to God.

Aaron J. Jeffrey is the RUF campus minister serving at Georgia Tech University in Atlanta, Ga.

Over the past five years I’ve seen, if in only the smallest of ways, that learning to be faithfully present requires the following:

First, it requires theological conviction. At its best, the vision of faithful presence is not merely a pragmatic strategy for life in our times, but a consequence of deep reflection on our theological convictions. In particular it is born of the conviction that God made the world and loves it; that it is deeply stained with sin; that in Jesus Christ all things—hearts, relationships, cities—may be made new; that our Lord, by the power of the Holy Spirit, works through His church to bring that renewal; and that His church, therefore, ought to go into this wounded world and labor in hope of seeing shalom renewed. These are the foundational theological convictions of any efforts toward faithful presence. 

Secondly, it requires chastened pride. Talk of renewal can easily devolve into triumphalism, and into the tacit assumption that our work will bring renewal. The vision of faithful presence challenges this triumphalism and the pride that accompanies it. It reminds us that the Christian task is not to usher in the eschaton, but to bear witness to it by living in this world as an eschatological people. 

Thirdly, it requires renewed imagination. Much of our Christian social imagination is built around the story of the culture war: “Christians are victims; we have been wronged; the world is hostile to us; and we need to reassert ourselves and take back the culture.” Faithful presence requires a different sort of social imagination. It requires an imagination that focuses not on victimization by your neighbor, but on the power to love him. It requires an imagination that emphasizes not the ways in which we have been wronged, but the ways in which we have been forgiven and freed to forgive. It requires an imagination that desires not to take, but to give, not to triumph, but to love. And it requires an imagination that does these things with joy not because we can “bring the kingdom” but because the kingdom has been brought to us. This is what it means to live faithfully within the culture. 

Lastly, it requires a willingness to seek the flourishing of others. The self-preservation instinct runs deep in me, I’m afraid. Over the past few years I have, with shame, come to see how the first questions my heart asks tend to be about my good. And what I have seen in myself I have also seen in the church of Jesus. The vision of faithful presence calls us out of this self-absorption and into the work of creative love for our neighbors, to give ourselves to seek their good. This may require some of us, and our churches, to ask different kinds of questions about our neighbors than those we have been taught to ask.

None of these principles is particularly novel, and none is particularly complicated. But they inspire us to live out our theology, repent of our hubris, enlarge our imaginations, and come together in faithful presence to seek the flourishing of our neighbors.

From Practice to Practitioners

Over the past 10 years, as I have struggled with my questions, I have come to the conclusion that others are asking similar questions: “How can we deepen our understanding of culture? How can we overcome some of the bad paradigms for cultural engagement that mislead us? What might it mean for us more deeply to lean into a vision of faithful presence?”

In response to these questions, a pilot group of 45 pastors—most from the PCA—gathered for two days in May of this year to talk with James Davison Hunter. It was marvelous. Not only did it give these pastors the opportunity to pray, rest, eat, and engage their questions together, it also deepened our shared sense that the time is ripe to address these questions collectively, for the good of the larger church.

And so was born the New City Commons Pastor’s Forum. This ministry initiative of small gatherings and larger yearly conferences exists to encourage pastors by equipping them to think more deeply about the character of our cultural moment and the nature of faithful ministry within it.

But the great hope that this initiative carries with it is that not only pastors, but also men, women, and children in our churches would begin to see with renewed wonder the fact that this is the culture into which God has placed us, and into which He calls us to go and bear witness to His love by living lives of faithful presence.

Gregory Thompson is the senior pastor of Trinity Church in Charlottesville, Va., and a fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for advanced studies in culture. He is married to Courtney and has four children: Caroline, Margaret, Annie Mac, and Hal.

If you are interested in being a part of the New City Commons Pastor’s Forum, please contact them at nccpastors@gmail.com

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