Culture Creators
As a high-school and middle-school teacher, I begin my class each year with an explanation of classroom routines and procedures, of goal-setting strategies, but also (I hope) with encouragement for my students to take ownership of their place in the classroom, school, and community.

I define culture for students from the extended definition within Merriam Webster’s online dictionary which states that culture is “the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time.” This definition provides space to explain that the culture around students is shaped and created by the students themselves.  That to share everyday existence is to share space and place and time, and that the decisions of one person within the classroom affects the way every other person can engage.

I ask students to be encouraging, to build eachother up, to choose to engage and be positive, and that when that doesn’t feel possible, allow others to create that culture for them. Within the controlled environment of a classroom, I have this opportunity; the opportunity to set aside social norms and challenge students to think more deeply about how their actions and choices shape the world around them—how they are culture creators. I also have the authority in that classroom to define what it means to encourage someone, what it means to build up and engage. Throughout the school year, we keep individual actions constantly in the magnifying glass of how we interact each day, being flexible to the needs of those around us, and always working toward positive exchanges.

Church and Culture
A group of friends and I recently began discussing our understanding of how church and culture interact. This was sparked through a book discussion of Catherine McNeil’s Fearing Bravely, which challenged the place of a local church within the larger community asking us to consider, “If your church suddenly closed, would your neighborhood feel the absence?” 

In our current historical moment, in which public libraries and city services offer support to those in need, this question holds a lot of weight. This question also begs the follow-up question: How can the church be a hub for community, building and extending a culture that mirrors the love of Jesus and love of neighbor, when what that love looks like may be counter to what the surrounding community expects when the word “love” is used?

We dialogued about whether or not church should be changed by contemporary community-accepted cultures, or strive to emanate a culture which reflects the parishioners understanding of Christ’s love. This idea that church culture and community culture might be at odds, is baffling. The people within a church community—Christians and otherwise—are the creators of culture, period, and the broader community outside the walls of the church culture reflects the values of the individuals that make up the community.  We are the church, so where is the disconnect?

Culture in Categorization
Christianity is a broad label that is not represented fluidly across place and space and community. Consider that denominational, non-denominational, Protestant, evangelical, Catholic, etc. are each representations of Christianity, and their teachings around how to live vary hundreds of ways even within those labels. 

Christianity, yes, is a religion based on the teachings and life of Jesus Christ, but the interpretation of what that means in reality can be debated in every corner of our interactions within community and the world. We even disagree on how to live out the teachings of  the Greatest Commandment: Love God, love each other. But what does it mean to love? Is love disciplinary? Kind? Generous? Corrective? Thoughtful?  Yes is likely the answer. So what about when loving people disagree with one another about how to love as Christ would love? 

Our human interpretation and understanding of parables and commandments has always been lacking. Within the New International Version of the Bible, Jesus asks his disciples again and again “do you not understand” (documents in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, all), and again and again, they do not.  We are not the first to battle these questions and this struggle to align our loves, our customs, and our community culture with Christ.

Reading articles and polls around Christianity today reveals the decline in church

attendance, the decline in people claiming Christian as their religion, and an overall decline in people being sure they believe in any god at all. This decline chases after and alongside a huge movement of Christianity being aligned with “true Americans”—and this Christian nationalism that would claim a self-serving identity of a national, overly political, image, pushes many people who might once have followed Jesus, to believe that American Christians are aligned solely with the classified far right voters, leaders, and laws of this country. 

However, Christianity as religion, is more nuanced, but also simpler than that, and if we as Christians associate only with a political party or a nation or a specific right or wrong, we are missing the point entirely. Aligning with any specific man-made argument only leads to further division within any community, further misunderstandings, and ultimately bigotry and egotistical self-righteousness.

Creators, Created
It is always my hope that the high-school classroom culture-building activity will extend in the minds and lives of the students—that they would go on to understand that in life in general, they are the creators of culture. So the question of whether church and Christianity should be shaped by culture or culture shaped by Christianity and church, is a bit of a misunderstanding—a misrepresentation of the power of “culture” as something broader than the influence of a group of individuals. It’s easy to feel defeated and helpless to shape culture when we live in a world that speaks to us in a constant stream of change, of struggle and striving, of justice and injustice, through outlets that don’t align on any given definition of what those really are. 

But friends, we are created and called to be creators, and so, to the best of my ability, In my own home, in my own community, in my own church, we strive for love. I know that love doesn’t look the same to a world that shouts in binaries, while encouraging truths to become individual rather than communal, but love is patient and kind, and the plans for our lives are bigger than we will ever understand. It’s not easy to sit in the discomfort of culture vs. culture, and love vs. love, but this is where I am. I’d love to know, where are you?

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