Are You a Culture Shaper

Last month Becca McBride asked Are You a Culture Maker? This month she asks: Are you a culture shaper? 

A student recently asked me two questions about my class dynamics.  First, she wanted to know why, in a class on the global politics of human rights, we were spending a third of the class discussing the question of where rights come from.  Shouldn’t my class start from the existing international framework for protecting human rights and leave questions of origins to philosophy or theology classes?  Second, she wanted to know why I spend so much time in my class talking about things that are not distinctly political science.  For example, why share inspirational thoughts or encourage my students to share these things with each other?  Why, for instance, do I have a practice of encouraging my students to take charge of a devotional period in class to share the thoughts that captivate their hearts?  How in the world does that help us understand the substance of political science?

Both questions conveyed commonly held assumptions about the classroom.  We assume that the classroom is a place to learn intellectual virtues in order to answer questions like how should I think about political science, or how do I solve puzzles in the political world, or perhaps even what information do I need to memorize in order to pass the test for this class?  As students we match each activity with a goal, and means with an end that must be accomplished to move onto the next stage of academic development.  Why would I explicitly use my classroom as an opportunity to instill moral virtues in my students?  Why do I intentionally marry the substantive expertise I am trying to convey to students with explicit values and attitudes that I believe should be modelled for my students?

As leaders, creating a collaborative environment that instills both intellectual and moral virtues requires that we intentionally shape the culture of the groups we are leading.  Culture can be intentionally shaped, cultivated, and commissioned to have a transformative impact on the group you are leading. 

But is shaping culture a distinctly Christian enterprise?  To answer this question, we need to examine both the goals of shaping culture and the means of shaping culture to understand if they hold particular relevance to our calling as Christians.

Why Do We Shape Culture?

First, what are the goals of shaping culture, and are these goals particularly relevant to our calling as Christians?  We can think in terms of two particular goals.  First, as leaders we shape culture so we can move beyond conveying information to influencing the way our group sees the world.  Anyone can become a substantive expert, and learn the methods of sharing that substantive expertise.  But to lead in a way that captures the heart of your group members and subtly shapes the way they see the world to have a lasting impact on their development is a skill not easily learned. 

As Christians, we have special tools for understanding what it looks like to lead in this way.  First, we have the example of Jesus’s leadership with his disciples.  He framed the ideal type of leadership as shaping his disciples hearts so that His influence would outlast his physical presence in their lives.  Second, we have personal experience with how a change of heart can shape our behavior beyond rational cost and benefit calculations. 

The second goal of shaping culture is to make the hidden visible—to expose destructive power structures and patterns of injustice that privilege some over others.  In a group, these structures and patterns consist of hidden dynamics that render some group members insiders and others outsiders.  For example, my classrooms are incredibly diverse with a large proportion of international students (sometimes up to 50%).  As a scholar trained in the United States, my classrooms can unintentionally privilege domestic students over international students.  Domestic students know the culture, the norms of the classroom, and the typical expectations of our educational system.  My international students, in addition to having to process the classroom material in their second, third, or fourth language, are also uncertain about the cultural norms and expectations of North American classrooms.  To the extent that I create a third culture in my classes that is distinct from any one cultural perspective, I eliminate the dynamic that privileges some students over others.  I even find that the simple act of voicing the fact that such a dynamic exists frees all my students to care for each other in new ways. 

Paul instructs his followers to “Walk as children of light…and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.  Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Ephesians 5:8b-11).  As Christians we should have a profound interest in exposing hidden structures in our groups, because they ensure that all group members can flourish.  As a leader, exposing hidden structures is a gracious act that builds a more hospitable environment for all members. It is wise to create an inclusive environment within groups that will foster more productive group activity. This hospitality is actually part of our calling as Christians because it is rooted in our theological understanding of the nature of our own faith story—Christ broke down the wall separating insiders and outsiders, and destroyed the hostility between the two (Ephesians 2:11-22).  We have a calling to reinforce that value within the groups we lead.

How Do We Shape Culture? 

Beyond the goals of shaping culture, Christians should also have a special interest in the way we shape culture.  If the culture of a group is the inner values and attitudes that guide a group, we must subtly articulate those values and faithfully reinforce them through language, symbols, and stories.  From a very young “Christian” age, we are socialized into an environment where our language, symbols, and stories are used to reinforce the values of our communities.  We think carefully about the words we use, because our words have the power to shape others’ understanding of the Gospel.  We engage in Christian practices like communion and baptism on a regular basis and we surround ourselves with symbols of our faith.  Moreover, we are trained to use our own stories as a means of influencing the minds and hearts of those around us.  These are precisely the tools we use to reinforce the culture of the groups we are leading.

If Christians have a special interest in shaping culture, and have special tools they can access to do so, does this interest or method differ depending on the group you are leading?  More specifically, do we only employ Christian means or seek Christian ends when we are leading groups that are distinctly Christian in nature?  Our mandate to be agents of renewal is not limited to environment, but rather spans all spheres to encompass all of creation.  The key difference in leading a group that is distinctly Christian in nature versus leading a group that is secular in nature is related not to the goals or the means of shaping culture, but rather to the manner in which we influence.  When Jesus commissioned his disciples, he was open about the fact that he was sending them out into an environment that would be hostile to their mission.  He cautioned them to be as "shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).  The environment in which we lead might alter the language, symbols, and stories we share, but the potential for a transformative impact when we intentionally shape, cultivate, and commission culture remains the same. 

So how are your shaping the culture in the group you lead? 

 -Becca McBride is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Her research focuses on investigating how politics influence states’ efforts to control intercountry adoption, and how advocacy organizations influence state policy on adoption.  She has a PhD in Political Science from Vanderbilt University and an MA in Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies from Georgetown University.