Christians and cultural transformation – by Peter Corney



By The Rev. Peter Corney OAM (June 2020)



The current “Black Lives Matter” protests, particularly as demonstrated in the US media, jolted me into a fresh consideration of the Christians role in social and cultural transformation. While in deep sympathy with the core concern of the protest and the majority of the protestors, it was disturbing to see the level of violence and disorder and the reactions of Donald Trump. For those of us who witnessed the civil rights demonstrations in the 60’s under the leadership of the Rev. Martin Luther King and other Christian leaders with their insistence on non-violent action, the comparison was a disturbing commentary on the present changes in our culture, its moral leadership and the source of its ethical motivation.

I was reminded of lines from W B Yeats poem “The Second Coming”, written in 1919 at the end of WW1 and the outbreak of the great flue pandemic. The seeds of Europe’s social, political and economic fragmentation in the 1930’s and 40’s were sowed at this time. The bitter harvest of those seeds was the Great Depression, Fascism and the destruction wrought by WW2.     

 Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere 

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.


The following are my thoughts and reflections on our need to renew our vision of the Christian responsibility for Social Transformation

 At the beginning of His public ministry Jesus announced:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because He has anointed me             

to preach good news to the poor

He has sent me to proclaim freedom  for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to release the oppressed

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke 4:18-19.

 As followers of Jesus many Christians understand this announcement to contain the imperative to proclaim the Gospel in both word and deed, to pursue both evangelism and social justice. Another way of expressing this is to see our mission as including the task of Social Transformation. [See Kenneth Bailey’s commentary.  [i] ]

 If we accept that the task of Social Transformation empowered by the Gospel is integral to the mission Jesus has entrusted to us we need to also understand that it is a complex and challenging one.

 In developing countries Christian missions and development workers have discovered that the process involves at least six elements:

  1. The spiritual and moral transformation of individual people by the Gospel.
  2. The transformation of people’s world view by education and worship.
  3. The transformation of community and social relations.
  4. The transformation of local leadership and economic and political structures.
  5. The transformation of education and health.
  6. The transformation of a community’s physical and technical resources (capacity building) that enables major changes to be made.

All these things are interconnected, one impacts on the other.

A question we need to ask ourselves is: “Does this model apply to Christian communities in the cities of developed countries like Australia?” The need remains as critical in many parts of the ‘developed world’ as the ‘undeveloped.’ All societies are in constant need of reformation and transformation by the Gospel and the values of the Kingdom of God. It would not take long to compile a list of areas in Australian society in need of transformation right now!

 For example if we think about the present problem of homelessness for a significant number of people in Melbourne and the failure of state governments to provide sufficient social housing for particular groups of needy people in our communities. Could a Christian social transformation model be applied to this need by local churches and particularly new church plants?

One of the reasons we tend to deflect or avoid a response to this in our minds is because we think of the institutions that already exist to meet needs like this, often initiated by the Church in the past, and presently supported by or provided by the State. But in many cases they are currently very inadequate, social housing is an acute example but only one of many.

In the case of social housing several approaches might be applicable:

  1. Political pressure at local council level and state and federal political level.
  2. The purchase and provision by churches of houses or units set aside for this purpose and on – going support by local churches for their management or arranging to connect with existing Church welfare agencies.
  3. Certain church families providing short term accommodation in their homes or on their properties by building a small flat or unit.
  4. A new Church plant could be built around a particular social need.

Equipping and envisioning Church members well to take part as constructive initiators and facilitators in the processes of transformation is challenging and a very important first step and requires careful education, training and reorientation of expectations.

Most clergy and pastors are trained in theology and pastoral skills but rarely in social and cultural awareness or community development and social transformation skills. This leads us to an attractional model of ministry centered around our physical buildings, services and events. This model is not working very well in our current culture. So my first point is to say how important and strategic I think this venture is.

In the recent past there have been some experiments in “missional church planting” and the house church movement. Currently the so called “Underground Church” is an interesting model. (See the “Underground People” on Vimeo) :

After many years in pastoral ministry one of the things that has become very clear to me is that unless you keep your foot on the pedal as a leader and teacher there are three things that drift off the local churches agenda. They are:

  1. Evangelism
  2. Justice
  3. Critical engagement with the culture. (By this I mean whether our discipleship is seduced and modified by the cultures norms or whether our discipleship challenges those norms and we seek to live differently and so influence our culture.)

What happens is that our focus has a tendency to drift inwards, probably because we are so practiced at self interest! Our piety becomes introverted and singular, concerned only with our own relationship with God. Of course in the end this is a false trail for two reasons: first, because the Bible allows no such singular focus. We are to “love God with all our heart soul, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.” And loving my neighbor means I will want to introduce them to Jesus, if they are hungry I will want to feed them and if they are in need I will want to help with practical compassion, if they are being treated unjustly I will want to see justice flow for them. The second reason self-interested piety is a false trail is because our anxiety about our relationship can subtly lead us away from trust in God’s grace to us in Christ and the Cross. This false trail is deeply ironic because this singular focus also leads to the erosion of the very thing I have become so preoccupied with – my personal relationship with God. This is a false trail because love and obedience are inextricably linked in the NT. The words of 1John 2:3-6 make this very clear.

                       ‘We know that we have come to know him

                        if we obey his commands. Those who say,

                         “I know him,” but do not do what he commands

                        are liars, and the truth is not in them.

                        But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly

                        made complete in that person. This is how we

            `           know we are in him: whoever claims to live in him

                        must walk as Jesus did.’

 There is of course an opposite trap to this introverted spirituality, it is one that those of us with a passion for social justice sometimes fall into – working for justice in God’s world without keeping God’s love alive in our hearts. This pathway leads to ‘spiritual anorexia’, cynicism and a negative, despairing attitude to the state of our culture and a loss of hope. We become part of the problem!

Some historical observations about Christianity’s relationship with culture is helpful as we consider these things. I have borrowed and adapted categories first developed by H. Richard Niebuhr as he reflected on this. [ii]

Six relationships can be observed historically:

  1. Christianity under the culture. Eg: Persecution under the Roman Empire in the first three centuries; Byzantine Christianity oppressed by Islam under the Ottomans’; the Church under Communism in Laos or China today.
  2. 2. Christianity against the culture. Eg: Where the Church is actively opposed to the dominant culture, as in the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany with Bonheoffer and Niemoller, or The Solidarity movement backed by the Catholic Church and opposed to Communism in Poland in the 1980’s.
  3. Christianity over the culture. Eg: Where the Church dominates and controls the culture, exerting power over it as in the Holy Roman Empire from the Middle Ages till the 15th C., or Geneva under Calvin.
  4. Christianity withdrawn from the culture. Eg: Where the Church disengages and withdraws into ghettos or closed communities like the Anna Baptists in the 16th C or the Amish in North America or the Exclusive Brethren and some forms of Evangelical pietism today. The motive may be either fear of contamination from the culture or a desire to create the Kingdom on earth in an ideal community.
  5. Christianity absorbed by the culture. Eg: Where the Church is seduced by the dominant cultures values and conforms to them, adapting its values and beliefs to fit the culture. The contemporary Western Church reveals many examples of this like: Liberal theology, adapting the Gospel to the current world view or plausibility structure. Prosperity gospel teaching, or ordinary Christians adopting the same materialism and consumerism of those around them. Racism and tribalism – Apartheid in South Africa, tribal conflict in East Africa, and the culture of violence and confrontation in Northern Ireland are all tragic examples from the recent past.
  6. Christianity transforming the culture. Eg: Where Christianity acts like salt and light in the culture, reshaping its values and affecting public policy like the influence of the 18th and 19th C. English Christian social reformers. Not long ago we celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of the work of Wilberforce and the Christian movement for the abolition of the slave trade.

But it is not as well understood that Wilberforce and his friends in the Clapham circle created 69      different societies for the reformation of English society and the spread of the Gospel. Western countries like Australia, Canada, North America, New Zealand and many of the Commonwealth countries are the inheritors of their far reaching work of social transformation. The scope of their concerns took in education, factory reform, child labor reforms, health, workplace safety, prison reform. They were even involved in the passing of special laws for “the protection of native peoples” in the British colonies, (which sadly colonists did not always follow.) They began The Bible Society, CMS, The Mission to India, the RSPCA, the list goes on. It was a remarkable achievement.

My final comment is an artistic reflection on our disturbed times.

In Ridley Scott’s iconic film Blade Runner we find ourselves in Los Angeles in the future.  The setting is bleak; “….ecological disaster, urban overcrowding, a visual and aural landscape saturated with advertising, a polyglot population immersed in a Babel of competing cultures, decadence and squalid homelessness.” [iii]  But juxtaposed with this social decay is brilliant technological achievement. High above the teeming filthy streets live the wealthy few in luxurious gated skyscrapers.

In one of the early scenes we find ourselves in the head office of a high tech corporation who are the creators of Cyborgs – advanced robots who are almost indistinguishable from humans. But some of the Cyborgs have gone feral and hunting them down is the core of the films plot. A ‘Blade Runner’ is a bounty hunter of rogue Cyborgs.

As we view the interior of the luxurious penthouse office we see an Owl perched on a stand. Then the Owl takes flight, passing in front of the vast plate glass windows behind which a brilliant orange sun is setting.

The symbolism is deliberate. The Owl has always been seen as a symbol of wisdom. In Roman mythology he accompanies the Goddess Minerva, Goddess of wisdom. But it was the German Philosopher Hegel who famously wrote “…the Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk…,” by which he meant, that philosophy only comes to understand an historical condition as it is passing away. [iv]

This image right at the beginning of Blade Runner is telling us that the films bleak vision of the future is what the sunset of our epoch will look like – the twilight of Modernity and Post Modernity. [v]

The question posed is: As the Owl spreads its wings and the sun sets on Western Culture is our wisdom about the cause of its decay clear and sharp enough to enable us to transform it from decay to renewal?  Has the West fallen so far from the values and world view that delivered us the best that Western culture has produced that we can’t recover?

In these times we need something more powerful than the wisdom of Minerva – we need the Wisdom of God to help us transform decay into new life!

As we regularly pray the Lord’s Prayer “..may your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven..” let us pray that God will move and inspire us his people to once again bring the transforming truth and values of the Kingdom of God into our culture and society in both word and deed as we faithfully wait for the final consummation of His Kingdom and the renewal of all things.

End Notes

[i] Kenneth Bailey “Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes – Cultural studies in the Gospels” IVP 2008, pp147-169.

[ii] H. Richard Niebuhr “Christ and Culture” first published in 1951 (Torch Books 1956.)

[iii] Clayton. J. (1996) “Concealed circuits: Frankenstein’s Monster, the Medusa and the Cyborg.” In Raritan Quarterly Review No 15 Vol. 4 (Spring) pp63-69.

[iv] G.W.F Hegel (1996) From the Preface to the “Philosophy of Right” (1821) Prometheus Books, New York.

[v] Or Hyper modernity.

  • Richard Foster

    Thanks Peter, some good food for thought and broader consideration. I must admit when I consider the expoectations of the western church these days I feel increasingly drawn to the words of Amos in Ch 5:21-24.