A Cultural Anthropology for Christian Mission

CulturalAnthropology-01Imagine you’re a hiker trying to make your way to the top of a 14,000-foot peak in the Rockies. You’ve got your gear, your pack, your energy bars, and a trail map, and you’re ready to conquer this beast and check it off your bucket list. But after ascending a few thousand feet, you begin to notice that the route on your map doesn’t quite match the path your feet are following. The contours shown on the page are quite different from the terrain around you. Where the map shows switchbacks and steep grades, you find only gentle slopes. And where you encounter steep inclines, the map shows barely any elevation change. And then you realize: you have the wrong map.

I’ve found this is exactly the plight of many church planters and Christian leaders who are ministering the gospel in post-Christian Western culture. They started out excited about Jesus and his mission. They wanted to engage the culture effectively. They had a “script” in our minds of how their conversations with non-Christians and skeptics would play out. And then they found… the conversations just weren’t happening. Their efforts weren’t bearing fruit. Despite all their enthusiasm, they were missionally ineffective.

And the reason is: they’re working with the wrong cultural map.

Cultural anthropology is a heady and academic-sounding phrase. But think of it simply as mapping our cultural moment – tracing the contours of the cultural & social milieu we inhabit. I’ve found that many leaders who are ineffective in mission have an inadequate grasp of cultural anthropology. They’re working with maps that are 30 or 40 years old. They’re still engaging the 1990s, not aware of how the “plausibility structure” has shifted under their feet.

Recently I taught a lecture for Porterbrook Omaha unpacking the insights of two key thinkers in this area: Charles Taylor and James K. A. Smith. These men work in the trenches of academic philosophy, but their insights are crucial for any average Christian who wants to be a good missionary. My lecture was an attempt to “put the cookies on the bottom shelf” and give an introduction to the very profound insights of these two important Christian thinkers.

The lecture audio is available on the Resources page, and I would commend it to you as an entry point into this important conversation. As you listen, you’ll learn:

  • What it means that we live in “a secular age”
  • How the plausibility structure of Western culture has changed over the past 300 years
  • Why the concept of a “worldview” isn’t quite as helpful as the concept of a “social imaginary”
  • Why New-Atheist “subtraction stories” fit the data and make sense to many people… and yet fail to offer a full account of our reality
  • Why many Christians who grew up in fundamentalist traditions feel pulled toward Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy
  • Why offering a “Christian take on things” is the best apologetic strategy

Feel free to comment on anything you find helpful or raise questions about anything that doesn’t resonate. And for a fuller account, I commend to you the primary sources – Taylor’s “A Secular Age” and Smith’s “How (Not) To Be Secular.”

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  1. Great post. Enjoyed your presentation at the Porterbrook conference.

    Question. If secular culture has ‘moved past’ explaining/understanding the world as the specified in the bible with scientific reasoning, I’m lost as to why there’s this recent movement of transgenderism. Now, ‘they’ seem to ignore science when identifying male and female through our chromosome pairs XY & XX. Apparently how you feel trumps God and reason. How would you go about having a discussion about this with a non-believer when it seems new rules are always being made up?

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