Ad Clerum on Changing Culture

Do not be conformed to this world,but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

Helen, our second daughter, graduated in 1988 from Sewanee: The University of the South. She then joined us as we moved to New York City where I had been called to serve as Rector of All Angels Church. Helen started work as a secretary at a busy Patent and Trademark Law office and quickly discovered that the midtown office culture was quite different from the calm, academic world of Sewanee. This was a world that could quickly erupt into flying files and uncontrolled profanity if projects were not delivered on time, and staff relationships were often frayed. Helen managed to keep her head down and quickly established herself as a hard worker and gracious presence. I learned about this a year later from the senior partner of the firm whom she invited to her wedding. He approached me at the reception and said that he wanted to congratulate me on my daughter: “She changed our office,” he told me, and then explained:

Before Helen came, there were always lots of crude jokes and obscenities flying around –typical New York law office stuff. Helen never said anything, but she didn’t join in and somehow her disapproval showed, and things gradually changed. One other thing –we have a number of Spanish-speaking support staff in the mailroom, working as custodians, etc. Frankly, I didn’t even know their names and never bothered to speak to them, but Helen spoke to them and made an effort to get to know them and their stories. She really opened my eyes, and I’ve tried to follow her example. So, thank you for your remarkable daughter!

By now, of course, I was almost bursting with paternal pride – although in truth most of Helen’s good attributes reflect much more of her mother’s influence. But it did make me think about the ways in which Helen was able to change the culture of her work place and how we are all called to do the same in our various settings.

Let’s start with a simple definition. Culture is the “way of life” of various groups of people, from families to nations; it is the way that they do things. Different groups, small and large, have different cultures, and that can be seen in how they communicate and work with one another. It can also be seen in people’s writing, religion, music, clothes, food, and what they do for work.

Growing up in a coal mining culture in the industrial East Midlands of the UK and then moving to the privileged world of Darien, Connecticut, I quickly learned that while we may share a common language, there are many cultural differences in these two worlds. One of my earliest and funniest faux pas was when we were invited by an office colleague and his family to have lunch at the beach in Westport, Connecticut. Much to their amusement, I arrived looking properly British, wearing a business suit –I was immediately dispatched to purchase a pair of shorts and a sports shirt! And that was just the beginning of my American cultural education.

Culture is very much in the news today – and it has many important dimensions that deserve a number of Ad Clerum letters – but in this one I want to focus on church culture.

Angela and I have served a number of very different churches. We started in England, where I grew up in a small community Baptist church and Angela’s family church was a rather formal and historic Church of England parish church. Our home church in suburban Darien, Connecticut started as a friendly neighborhood congregation but quickly became an internationally known charismatic “mega” church. We then moved to a church plant in the bayous of Lafayette, Louisiana, where we discovered the delights of Cajun culture. Next came the Upper West Side of Manhattan, with its amazingly diverse culture, and then on to Truro Church in Fairfax, Virginia. At Truro we observed a number of cultural strands –the genteel world of historic Virginia, the ever-changing elite world of Washington, DC, and all of it with an overlay of the Charismatic renewal movement. It made for exciting times with lots of cultural missteps, but nothing quite prepared me for my next appointment as a missionary bishop of the Church of Nigeria. There, I was confronted not only by a very energetic, evangelistic West African church but also by the subtle and important cultural differences among the predominant tribal groupings. My visits to Nigeria were never boring or predictable, and I learned new lessons every time!

As clergy, we learn one of our important tasks is to be able to “read the culture” of the community that we are called to serve before we can take on the task of changing it. In Creature of the Word, Matt Chandler, Josh Patterson, and Eric Geiger write, “A Church culture is healthy when there is congruence and consistency between what the church says is important to her and what others know really is important to her.”

Jeff was the pastor of an independent Bible church in Lafayette, Louisiana, in the 1980s. We were both members of a small group of church planters. Jeff was a passionate and effective evangelist, the sort of man who could start up a conversation with anyone, then introduce them to the reality of God’s love in a gracious and sensitive way. If they were without a church home, he would invite them to his, but this eventually led to a crisis. Jeff took seriously his call to reach the least, the last, and the lost, and many of those he encountered were of African-American descent. When the elders of the congregation told him of their discomfort with these new members, he reminded them that they called themselves a “Great Commission” congregation.

Jeff continued to “do the work of an evangelist,” but he came to see me one Sunday evening just after the elders had met and told him to leave. His ministry was over. Jeff was shattered. He admitted that he should have seen the warning signs, but now it was too late. He was beginning to understand why denominations that provide oversight to clergy and congregations were so important. We’ve lost touch, but I do recall that Jeff went back to seminary for further study.

I will say more about the important work of reading and changing church culture in another Ad Clerum.

Your brother in Christ,
In Christ ...