June/July 2019 - Vol. 104

shadow of the cross and people walking

An Enculturated People
“What is the number one obstacle to building Christian community?”
by Bob Tedesco

Worldwide Movements
It seems that almost everywhere around the world groups are working to build Christian community. There are worldwide and national movements as well as small, local groups trying to recover something lost:  relationships...with God and neighbor. The efforts invariably lead to the question, “What are the blocks to building Christian community?” Over forty years of experience with our particular network of communities (Sword of the Spirit) has led me to the question, “What is the number one obstacle to building Christian community?” My answer: “Enculturation”. 

The definition of enculturation has some variations over academic disciplines, but for this discussion I mean: absorbing or acquiring the values and behaviors of the culture that we live in. All of us do this somewhat, but there is a degree to which we are changed; where our decisions, our recreation and even our schedules are more determined by the world around us than by the Christian life we have chosen. I think the key factor is that we absorb or acquire the world’s values which are frequently opposed to the values of the Kingdom of God. 

When worldly success is more important than the Christian life, we’ve got a problem. When education is more important than Christian mission, we’ve got a problem. When Christian parents will not raise the values of the Kingdom of God far above the values of the world, we’ve really got a problem. Now, I’m not against worldly success, good jobs, and good education, but the eternal values and consequences of the Kingdom of God far surpass most earthly activities and pursuits in importance. Much of Christianity is involved in living out this reality!

Several years back I put together a hard-bound picture-book of my engineering career: projects, designs, inventions, etc. It was purposely designed to get my grandchildren to say, “Oh, look what Pappy did!” as they turned the pages. And then at the end I let them know that it doesn’t begin to compare to how I value my work battling for souls. I would lay down my entire professional career to help a person to give his life to Christ. I hoped that my grandchildren could begin to see that eternal consequences and salvation far outweigh earthly accomplishments; and while we’re working on education and careers, we should also be firmly invested in the Kingdom of God. A man who is a friend of Jesus, counted as his disciple...what can be smarter than that? Who can be more successful than that?

Community Teaching
Over the years we have taught against becoming a “worldly people”. Our basic initiations courses have taught about the biblical obstacles of the world, the flesh, and the devil; and we’ve coupled these with the need for the repair of wrongdoing. “The world” refers not to the bounty of creation, but to the anti-god focus in the culture: philosophies, values, and mores that do not support godly living. These collective obstacles have a real malignant synergy about them which creates quite a few challenges for the new or young Christian. 

When we warn against becoming a “worldly” people, most people envision a hedonistic “party animal” when desires are out of control. We might have a spring-break image in our minds. These courses are usually presented to newer Christians so we might think that more mature Christians are less susceptible to becoming worldly. That might very well be a deadly error. In fact, it’s many of the good things of the world that can lead to faulty personal discipleship or faulty parenting. Sports are good, an active life is good, a well-paying job is good, education is good, success is good. But when any of these things take on more importance than our Christian calling we have become an enculturated person. We tend to think that most of our desires are godly; and some of them are. But, when my plans become more important than God’s we have a colossal error.

Most of us have heard the frog in the pot of water on a stove does not notice that the temperature of the water is rising until it is too late and he is unable to jump to freedom. Some of these earthly values are that way. The desire for success slowly becomes more and more important to us until we seem unable to escape and now it controls us: our decisions, our relationships, and all of our energies. 

Some things in the world are good and worth absorbing. All are worthy of caution and many are capable of destroying our lives. 

In the early years of our network of communities, a common pattern for developing a talk would be to identify some aspect(s) of the world or culture, apply some scriptures that address these aspects, followed by practical advice. We have become more multi-faceted in our approaches to outlines, but this article is following that common template. 

The Common, Repeatable Cycle
There is a recurring cycle presented in scripture: blessings – freedom – good life; comfortable – lazy – malaise; guard down – vulnerable – enculturated; called-out – disciplined – punished; misery – repentance – restored. Or more simply: with God, enculturated, punished, repentant, and restored. This historical cycle is so common that you have to see it as a force to be reckoned with. 

Old Testament Scriptures

  1. Joshua 23: 6-8   Therefore be very steadfast to keep and do all that is written in the book of the law of  Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left, that you may not be mixed with these nations left here among you, or make mention of the names of their gods, or swear by them, or serve them, or bow down yourselves to them, but cleave to the Lord your God as you have done to this day. 
  2. Deuteronomy 12:30  Take heed that you not be ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, “How did these nations serve their gods?” – that I also may do likewise.
  3. 2 Kings 17: 14-15b  But they would not listen, but were stubborn, as their fathers had been...and they  followed the nations that were round about them, concerning whom the Lord had commanded them that they should not do like them.
  4. 2 Kings 17:33-34, 40-41  So they feared the Lord but also served their own gods, after the manner of the nations from among whom they had been carried away. To this day they do according to the former manner...However, they would not listen, but they did according to their former manner. So these nations feared the Lord, and also served their graven images; their children likewise, and their children’s children – as their fathers did, so they do to this day. 
  5. Deuteronomy 18:9 When you come into the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to  follow the abominable practices of those nations.
  6. Haggai 1:4 “Is it a time for you to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruin?”
  7. Haggai 1:9 You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? Says the Lord of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while you busy  yourselves each with his own house. 
New Testament Scriptures
  1. 2 Corinthians 5:20  so we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
  2. 2 Corinthians 6:16b-18  For we are the temple of the living God, as God said, “I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”
  3. Matthew 6:21  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
  4. Mattthew 5:14  “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp  and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. 
We are ambassadors for Christ. An ambassador brings his culture to a foreign land. His embassy is a microcosm of the nation he represents. He (or she) is not there to absorb the culture around him but to represent his homeland and its government. The values, culture, and lifestyle of his home nation is represented to the foreign land. He has no lasting home there and he knows it. He is on assignment.

“Come out from among them,” seems harsh. “Be separate from them,” seems elitist. But these statements are true; they are the end game...the way things will end up at the end of the day. The promise is even greater, “...then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”

Our treasure and our heart... is success more important than the kingdom of God? Is our children’s success more important than the kingdom of God? Have we let them know that Jesus and his kingdom is more important than success and education? In the world, education and money are thought to be the solution to just about everything. If there’s a problem “throw money at it.” Or maybe a course will solve it. Yet we know the solution: Christ-centered living is in fact the solution to just about everything. 

Evangelism and discipleship can bring such life if we just made it our “go to” contribution to society’s needs. My wife, Bobbie, just survived a bout of heart failure, and while discussing the great benefits she had received from the medical treatment, she said, “And my recovery was due in no small part to the many people around the world who were praying for me.” (She has a lot of friends!) The doctor questioned, “Do you believe that?” We both said, “Yes!” He said, “Good! I believe that too!” It seemed good that the Lord and the body of Christ got some of the credit since the battle for her life had been fought spiritually as well as physically and medically. It was a good example of the best of our culture and the best of the Kingdom cooperating to save a life. (Actually, the best of medicine is from the Lord. I doubt that the devil is teaching anyone to save lives.)

“A city set on a hill...” “a lamp on a stand...” they are both distinct; they both stand out. Communities of Christians living a Christian way of life are like snapshots of the kingdom of God, and our families are like “wallet-size” pictures of a better way. We should not try to blend in as much as we try to show forth the life of God. That brings hope; that brings conversion.

The Ancient Pattern and Daily Life
Enculturation finds its way into family, parenting, work, church, and even individual or personal disciplines. Some denominations are losing blocks of people as they tolerate and even defend scripturally immoral practices. They have been enculturated. I worked for a company once that lied to the customer about completion dates for prototypes and project goals. The work environment had become riddled with, “anything for a sale.” I wouldn’t do it, but my boss found it easy. Down the road, when the customer had become enraged, he was fired. 

One of the main effects of the pattern of Christian community life is when our parents model their goals and expectations for their children in the same fashion as the world. Important decisions like the choice of college or courtship approaches can undo years of strong parenting.

So, How Are We Doing? Are We Immune from This Ancient Pattern?
Are the younger generations most affected? We can see some of their enculturation by observing the differences between the younger generations and the older. The roles of husband and wife are different; the roles of men and women, parenting models; life styles and values. Some of the differences are good, some are not. The need to be there each time little Johnny blows a note out of his trumpet is not so good. 

In trying to personally assess our own enculturation, we could ask the question, “Am I still other-centered and willing to serve?” If we are willing to serve and can place other’s needs before our own, that’s a good sign. Another revealing question is, “Is ushering in the Kingdom of God a driving force in my life?” Or is it a side interest?

A Few Practical Steps in Response to Enculturation

  1. If you’re in a community, remember the covenant, read the covenant...at home and in small groups.
  2. A covenant decision is a decision not to schedule things when our small group or the larger community gathers. Decide to protect those time slots.
  3. Review your relationship “center of gravity.” This is intentional community; we have given our lives to God and a specific set of people.
  4. Discipleship involves a time commitment, a financial commitment, a relational commitment...renew or rededicate as needed.
  5. Decide again to look different, be different. In the song, House of God, we ask to be made living lights, set upon the hill. 
  6. Decide again to be trainable, correctible, and even willing to receive a rebuke!  In the world people can no longer handle correction; everyone gets insulted at the suggestion that he (or she) could be doing something wrong. The US Navy SEAL creed says, “My training is never complete.” That’s actually truer of a disciple of Jesus!
  7. Work to overcome obstacles that keep you from special offerings of community teaching: retreats, conferences, and regional conferences. Plan and save (one year ahead). 
  8. Pray and consecrate our lives to the Lord to be free from the influences of the world, the flesh and the devil.
In all of this the Lord knows our strengths, our weaknesses, our influences and our failures. He is able to use it all, transform it all and cause our lives to have purpose in his Kingdom. His plan is truly amazing, surprising, and redeeming...and we can take great comfort in that. 

> See other articles by Bob Tedesco

Bob Tedesco is past President of the North American Region of the Sword of the Spirit. He is a founder of the People of God community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, and has been one of its key leaders for the past 42 years. 
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