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Can we be Cultural Architects?6 months ago
ReSource Trustee Jerry Marshall reflects on the impact churches can make in their communities, and asks whether the current crisis is a kairos moment for the church to re-set the cultural agenda of our times. Exploring the book of Nehemiah and the example of Bethel Church in Redding, California Jerry challenges us to "fast and pray, seek direction, take risks, and work with others to transform culture in our cities, towns and villages?"
I was inspired recently by a Zoom ‘Leaders Supper’ with Kris Vallotton, a leader at Bethel Church in Redding, California. I had read his excellent books ‘Heavy Rain’ and ‘Poverty, Riches and Wealth’.
Kris said that for the first couple of days of the Covid crisis he had very high levels of anxiety: he oversees church and school finance. But the next morning he woke up early, rolled over and told his wife, “I just realised, I was born for this!”. He said, “We are here for a crisis, this is our time… we are Kairos conductors – we know the times – and we are cultural architects. In the world of uncertainty, we may not be certain of the future but we are certain of who holds the future. When people see stability in the middle of storms they’re like, ‘how do I tie off to that, how do I get close to them?’”.
Kris said all leaders should be reading the book of Nehemiah, because “it’s a very prophetic book on the reset we are facing.” It’s been good to re-read the story to try to understand what Kris meant.
The first thing Nehemiah does is to confess the sins of his forefathers as if they were his own. Then he looks at the problem, takes ownership of it, and after prayer and fasting takes a big risk. When he arrives in Jerusalem he begins to develop a strategy not for the remnant but with them. He also reframed the issue, from being about the walls to about legacy, fighting for their sons and daughters.
God didn’t cause Covid, say Kris, but has a purpose in this divine reset. So how do we as leaders respond?
A starting point is 2 Chronicles 7:14: "If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land."
Implicit in that verse is confession and repentance. It seems natural to confess my own sins but to take on board the sins of our nation or world as if they were mine doesn’t come easily. Though I do remember an overwhelming prompt to seek God’s forgiveness after watching ‘Cry Freedom’ about Steve Biko, which now feels very topical. And the toppling of slave trader Edward Colston statue in Bristol reminds us that we are beneficiaries of past injustice.
Nehemiah’s next step is to pray and fast to seek God’s direction, after which he was willing and confident to take a big risk. Perhaps inevitably, institutional church tends to be risk adverse. We are right to pay attention to safeguarding, data protection and these kind of issues. But Nehemiah – and the early church – were risk takers. Look at Acts 4: 29-31: praying for boldness rather than protection; and the meeting place shook as they were filled with the Spirit.
The next big challenge for us as we move out of lockdown is to assess the damage, not only in lives but also in livelihoods; develop a strategy; and perhaps reframe the issues. How can we work with others to bless our communities? What is the Spirit saying?
In 2008, Redding was designated one of the worst cities to live in the USA. Bethel Church was attracting 8,000 people in a city of 90,000 yet having little effect on the social statistics. So the leaders decided to tithe church income to the city, with two conditions: no press releases about their giving; and an annual meeting to inform them of specific needs. This approach overcame initial scepticism and built trust. The city commissioned a team of Bethel students to turn a “huge blackberry patch” by the river into a park. The church took on the failing city convention centre, taking a massive financial risk and overcoming vociferous opposition. Over the years, the church’s hard work, generosity and transparency changed attitudes and transformed the city.
Can we be “Cultural Architects”? We may think we don’t have the resources for this kind of impact. But even small steps can change culture. When drive-through restaurants were allowed to open post-lockdown, there were long queues. As Kris and his family came to be served, a student jumped up and paid for his meal. He was so touched, the next night he went to the restaurant and offered to pay the next $1000 of meals ordered. Tired families emerging from lockdown who finally got their meals found that their bill was paid. The next night, someone inspired by this gesture paid for $2000 of meals. These simple acts changed the depressed atmosphere and brought hope.
“We are here for a crisis, this is our time… we are cultural architects.” Will we fast and pray, seek direction, take risks, and work with others to transform culture in our cities, towns and villages?