Mainline Churches and Producing Culture

A couple of weeks ago, some posts in my Twitter feed started talking about a vacation bible school curriculum from Group Publishing called Roar! The reason that people on my Twitter feed were talking about it was that it had a couple of deeply problematic lessons. In one, the kids were asked to pretend to be slaves while an adult leader treated them like slaves. In the other, the kids were asked to make up names for themselves using an African “click language” (like Xhosa). My Twitter feed was full of mainline and progressive Christians struggling with a basic part of being a leader in a mainline or progressive church: we buy our curricula from largely evangelical companies, we can’t review them before we open them, and we end up having to comb through them to correct things that may offend other cultures or disagree with our theologies.

It’s unfortunate, it’s exhausting, and it’s expensive.

My congregation no longer has a vacation bible school. But I’ve experienced the same thing elsewhere. A year or so ago, we subscribed to Faithlife Proclaim for our worship presentations (the slides that we project on the screen in the front of the sanctuary during worship). It is mostly very good. It’s easy to create slides, it’s easy to run, in includes the NRSV in its Bible collection, and so on. But it can also be frustrating. For example when searching for slide themes, there are almost 50 results for Memorial Day and 21 for Pentecost. Similarly, there are slides for National Day of Prayer and See You at the Pole, but there’s nothing for Pride. In general, it reflects American evangelicalism.

What things like vacation bible school curricula and worship presentation software (and Bible study curricula and daily devotionals and small group guides and so on) do is produce culture. Yes, they explicitly tell people what being Christian is, how to interpret the Bible, and so on. But they also do the same work in the background. And that background work is much more powerful. I can stand at the pulpit and tell people that we are Christians before we are anything else; but if the hymns are patriotic and the slides show the American flag, the lesson that will win is the lesson that we are Americans before we are Christians.

The symbols that we use, and how we use them, matter. They usually matter far more than the words we choose. And there’s a problem when mainline and progressive churches let more conservative denominations choose what symbols we are using and how we are deploying them.

I know that there are a million prescriptions for things that the mainline church needs to do. I also think that at least one of the things that the mainline church needs to do is focus on producing culture. And while I know that we do some of that, we could do a lot more, a lot more often, at a high quality. From Bible studies and vacation bible school curricula to media packages for worship presentations and social media. And, of course, we need to help our congregations (and our clergy) learn how to use them.

We want to produce disciples of Jesus Christ, and that means producing a culture of discipleship. That is critical work of the church, and it is worth investing in.

Right now, there is a movement in churches and nonprofits arguing that charity is toxic, that helping hurts, and that the entire nonprofit sector needs to be reformed to truly lift people out of poverty. These charity skeptics are telling Christians that traditional charity deepens dependency, fosters a sense of entitlement, and erodes the work ethic of people who receive it. Charity skepticism is increasingly popular; and it is almost certainly wrong.

Now available from Wipf and Stock’s Cascade Books imprint, Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church) weaves together research and scholarship on topics as diverse as biblical scholarship, Christian history, economics, and behavioral psychology to tell a different story. In this story, charity is the heart of Christianity and one of the most effective ways that we can help people who are living in poverty. Charity—giving to people experiencing poverty without any expectation of return or reformation—can save the world and help make God’s vision for the church a reality.

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