Serve the margins, but don't abandon the centre

There's a whole new generation of young believers rising to positions of responsibility, becoming the up-and-in. Can the doughnut gospels of Western Christianity really be their model for ministry?

May 8 th 2009

When Americans and Europeans look toward Africa, Asia and Latin America, they see Christians doing many good things—digging clean water wells and restoring justice in Haiti and Burundi and Liberia. And this is good.

But when Western Christianity is less effective closer to home, in the "centre" of culture—Hollywood and Boston and London—the Christian cultural effort begins to look like a doughnut. As a child, I loved the smell and taste of doughnuts. But as I grew older, issues of health became more important. Is a faith tradition that looks like a doughnut healthy?

Early Christianity enjoyed success by working from the centre of society outward. Faith communities embraced the "four chapter" gospel of creation, fall, redemption and restoration, one which says our job description as humans is to "make culture." According to those cultural analysts who say that cultures change from the top down, and rarely, if ever, from the bottom up—this strategy by the early church was a home run. By starting with the strategic middle of the society, the up-and-in, they were able to more deeply serve the down-and-out. Starting with elites isn't snobby; history shows that it makes sense. Though political revolutions occasionally start in the grassroots, they are almost always short lived. The early church wasn't a short-lived phenomenon, and one sociological reason is that they began in the centre.

The truth is that early Christianity wasn't a religion of mostly under-privileged, uneducated people. That myth was foisted upon us by Marx. "What is certain is that there is no room for the later romantic myth of Christians as a perpetually hounded minority. Nor is there truth to the modern myth that presents the advancement of Christianity as the rise of a religion of the under-privileged," writes historian Peter Brown in The Rise of Western Christendom (1996).

By the third century, for example, Christians were influential advisors to emperors—such as Sextus Julius Africanus, a polymath from Palestine. As Rodney Stark quotes E.A. Judge in The Rise of Christianity (1996), "Far from being a socially depressed group, the Christians were dominated by a socially pretentious section of the population of big cities." And so the Christian faith claimed over 50% of the Roman Empire within 300 years.

By the nineteenth century, however, European and American elites were dismissing Christianity as a drug for the distressed and down-and-out. Pushed to the periphery, some Western Christians reacted with "two chapter" gospels, justifying their demise. This truncated take on the original chops it to two chapters: fall and redemption. "God loves you, accept Jesus," is what they say. Dallas Willard calls these takes "gospels of the right." They assume culture is bad and conversions are good. When these gospels were unable to get to first base with cultural elites, they went overseas in missionary waves. Exporting this flawed gospel was easier than trying to sell it at home where few were buying.

Other Christians found "gospels of the right" distasteful but fell off the horse on the other side, developing "gospels of the left." These are equally truncated messages: "God loves you—do social justice." They focus on the poor and periphery of culture. "Worthy as these projects may be," Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith is quoted as saying by Nancy Pearcey in her Total Truth: Liberating Christianity From Its Cultural Captivity (2004), "none of them attempt to transform social or cultural systems, but merely to alleviate some of the harm caused by the existing system." They play well in Haiti but not in Hollywood. That's because both "current gospels, left and right, exhibit the very same type of practical irrelevance," according to Dallas Willard in his The Divine Conspiracy (1998). They lack any essential bearing upon the work and business of those in the centre of society. This is why, when Americans and Europeans look outward, the results looks very much like a doughnut—with a hole in the middle.

This presents a problem and a possible opportunity. These "two chapter" gospels explain why, on a global scale, Western Christianity is spreading south, into Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Doughnut gospels help the down-and-out in Philippine barrios. But they're disconnected from Philadelphia boardrooms. They don't change culture and institutions. A quick refresher course on the genocide in Rwanda—a country saturated with gospels of the right and left—underscores the point. We're exporting gospels that no longer play in Peoria—but we're hoping they'll change Palau. How likely is that?

But the opportunity is intriguing. There's a whole new generation of young believers rising to positions of responsibility, becoming the up-and-in. They agree with the need to serve the poor, but see just as great a need in the "centre" of society with companies like Apple, Google, Lego, Microsoft or Bloomberg. They want faith taken seriously in art institutions such as MoMA. They want to make films that win awards at Sundance, not San Antonio. (What—you missed the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival this past January? Join the crowd.) These up-and-in believers question whether Western Christianity and its doughnuts are the appropriate model for ministry. It raises two questions worth asking. If Western Christianity only makes doughnuts, can it change recipes? Or should it go out of business?

 

Dr. Michael Metzger is the Founder and President of Clapham Institute, based in Annapolis, Maryland. Its mission is solving problems by reframing them. One of the biggest problems that Metzger helps organizations solve is how to establish an infrastructure for ongoing, disruptive innovation—the lifeblood of any endeavor.

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