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Missionaries in a Changing Culture
by Tom Goodman
May 30, 2013

The rise and fall in the use of certain words in our culture impacts our work as disciple-makers and church leaders.

In a New York Times piece, David Brooks referenced studies done with a Google database of 5.2 million books published between 1500 and 2008.  Type a search word into the database, and you can find out how frequently different words were used at different periods.  Brooks says that studies of word usage across the last 50 years has revealed changing priorities in our culture.

For example, in one study of books published between 1960 and 2008, the use of "personalized," "self," "standout," "unique," "I come first" and "I can do it myself" were used more and more frequently.  Words and phrases like "community," "collective," "tribe," "share," "united," "band together" and "common good" faded.

In another study, of 50 words associated with moral virtue, 74 percent declined in usage as the 20th century wound down.  Words like "bravery" and "fortitude" fell by 66 percent.  Usage of "thankfulness" and "appreciation" dropped by 49 percent.  Words like "modesty" and "humbleness" dropped by 52 percent.  References to "kindness" and "helpfulness" dropped by 56 percent.

Another study found that the word "preferences" was barely used until about 1930, and then it took off in popularity.  Likewise, terms like "faith," "wisdom," "ought," "evil" and "prudence" declined in books from the last 50 years, while there was a sharp rise in what Brooks called "social science terms" -- words like "subjectivity," "normative," "psychology" and "information."

Brooks looked at the studies to diagnose the health of our American experiment.  I want to look at the studies for challenges and opportunities we face as American church leaders in the 21st century.

First, don't be surprised when some Christians virtues resonate with our culture while others are resisted by our culture.  It has always been so, but what is accepted and rejected will change across time.  The scriptures say if you are consistently teaching and living the ethic of Jesus, people will think well of you (Matthew 5:16) and despise you (2 Timothy 3:12).  There is no inconsistency in the biblical teaching here.  As Tim Keller has often pointed out, Christianity will get you praised and rejected by different things according to what culture you're in.  So, lifting up the value of forgiveness may get praised in New York City and rejected in the Middle East, while Christian sexual ethics will get praised in the Middle East and rejected in New York City.  If that's true when the cultures are different across continents, it's also true when the cultures are different across time.

Second, I think it's harder for believers to be good witnesses in their own rapidly changing culture than for believers to be good witnesses in a cross-cultural setting.  When you prepare to go to another country, you prepare yourself for a life very different than the one you were raised in.  And, once in the new country you're called to serve, everything reminds you that you are a foreign ambassador: the language, the food, the dress, the customs.  But when the culture changes right under your feet, it's harder.  You're still driving the same streets.  Your neighbors still reference the same cultural touchstones (sitcoms, music, memorable national events).  Your kids pursue the same Scout ranks.  When they graduate from high school they attend the same college as you once did -- or at least the school has the same name as the one on your diploma.  But, as the studies in word usage show, you are a missionary to a culture foreign to what you knew in childhood.  Instead of adjusting to that reality the way foreign missionaries do, too often Christians become nostalgic, bitter, and defensive.

Third, if certain concepts have fallen out of use, you have to take extra time and patience to show their value.  Instead of becoming bitter and defensive over our culture's rejection of some parts of the Christian ethic, the better way is to show the abiding relevance of these currently unpopular parts.  Yes, the broader culture has grown bored or suspicious of virtues like generosity, or sacrifice for the common good, or humility, or sexual constraint.  But it's still possible to persuade our friends that following Christ into such a way of life is valuable.  What it requires is patience... and dialogue... and respectful explanation... and modeling joyful discipleship.

Fourth, leverage the popular concepts that we can applaud.  As you can see from the studies Brooks cited, our culture doesn't reject every Christian virtue.  For example, self-control (at least in service to industriousness) is valued in our culture.  Likewise, race-blind fellowship in work and friendships is prized in contemporary society.  The Christian message is that the work of Christ on the cross has dismantled the walls between people (Ephesians 2:14).  Though it is not the part of our message that any of us have practiced perfectly we can still say to our culture, "We're glad this is important to you.  We value this, too."  We should be glad to see what the theologians call "common grace" wherever it shows up.  When good and valuable things are practiced by non-believers, it is one evidence of God's merciful preservation of the world.  But applauding such things can gain us a hearing to talk about saving grace, too.

The rise and fall of certain words and phrases makes for fascinating study of cultural shifts.  But what we do with such studies will determine how effective we'll be with Christ's Great Commission.


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