Lee A. Carter
The Christian faith is animated by its compelling vision of the Kingdom of God, the enduring hope of a cosmos that thrives under the ever-expanding reign of God (Matt. 13:31-32). The seed of Christian world missions was planted in the beginning when God created people “in his own image” (Gen. 1:27, New International Version). He crowned them with the creative capacity to graciously rule over the world and to cultivate its horizons of possibility (Crouch, 2009). While the ensuing story of Scripture tells the tragedy of sin and death disfiguring the beauty and wonder of the God’s human image bearers, God’s original intent for the humans was never vacated but was revived in Jesus Christ. Christian world missions emerged from the death and resurrection of Jesus which “revealed both the tragic alienation of the world from its Creator and the glorious hope of its reconciliation and recreation” (Ramachandra, 1996, p. 224). In the Gospel, God’s mission to redeem the cosmos through his reconciled image-bearers, now empowered by his Holy Spirit, will continue until its completion at the return of Christ (McConnell, 2018).
The global scope of the Gospel begs the question of how God’s mission can succeed amidst a plurality of cultures, each with distinct worldviews, values, and questions of ultimate realities. Is the proclamation that Jesus is Lord, originating from a first century Jewish context (Acts 2:36), presumptuous in its exclusivity and superiority over other cultural worldviews? Given the increasing pace of globalization and technology that makes the world a much smaller place, can such a mission remain relevant to ever-shifting cultural, political, economic, religious, and social contexts? According to Andrew Walls (1996), Christianity is a process of ongoing dialogue with the cultures, both contemporary and historic, in which it finds itself. That dialogue creates diverse expressions of Christian worship, work, and community across the generations and the cultures of the world Jesus seeks to redeem. Indeed, the history of Christian world missions has revealed its innovative prowess to create new cultural horizons for God’s Kingdom through its engagement and integration within cultures (Ramachandra, 1996).
Innovation can thrive at the very frontiers where cultures interact and exchange their rich treasures of knowledge and worldviews (Ramachandra, 1996). While Christian mission has tragically been implicated historically in cultural dominance, subjugation, and oppression at those frontiers, the mandate for mission into the future is that of dialogue, friendship, deep listening, and learning. Because the calling Christian mission springs from Jesus Christ himself (Matt. 28:16-20), it can only be a life-giving, creative social movement when pursued in a Christological spirit of cruciformity as it encounters “the other” who is embedded within local networks of social and material relationships (Ramachandra, 1996).
Innovation is the “intentional introduction and application within a role, group or organization of ideas, processes, products or procedures…designed to significantly benefit the individual, the group, organization or wider society” (West & Farr, 1990, p. 9). In his first letter, the apostle Peter addressed Christians that he described as “God’s elect, strangers in the world” (1 Pet. 1:1). These people lived where their fledgling faith confronted new, pluralistic cultural contexts unlike that of the monocultural Jewish context from where Christianity originally emerged. If they were to remain faithful to their calling in Christ, they needed to reimagine their identity and mission, not as a geopolitical nation, but as a nation of “elect exiles of the Dispersion” (1 Pet. 1:1), a people from different places and cultures (Steuernagel, 2016).
Peter’s pastoral intention in 1 Peter 2:4-12 was to encourage his readers to remain faithful to their confession of Christ and their subsequent way of life in Christ that often put them in disrepute with their neighbors (de Silva, 2004). He wanted them to form a new community whose cultural engagement stimulated the innovation necessary to expand the cultural horizons of the Kingdom of God to the entire cosmos (Robbins, 1996). He explains that the people of God must affirm their overarching, super-cultural identity in Jesus so that the Gospel can find its expressions within specific cultural contexts yet transcend those contexts to generate flourishing Kingdom outposts that witness to all the cosmos of the good reign of God.
Restored Kinship Restores Mission
Peter’s pastoral heart for these “strangers in the world” (1 Pet. 1:1) was to restore their honor as they faced the insults and shame that their neighbors heaped upon them for their persistent commitment to Jesus (de Silva, 2004). Among first century honor-shame cultures of the Mediterranean world, kinship groups preeminently defined a person’s identity and social standing. The Christians fell into the disrepute and social sanctioning from the kinship groups to which they once belonged before their conversion to Christ (Malina, 2001). Peter countered this social pressure by affirming what was, in reality, a privileged position as “…a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God…” (1 Pet. 2:9). He applied to these aliens and exiles an identity that formerly belonged exclusively to the nation of Israel (Steuernagel, 2016). His strategy was to bestow on them the honor of belonging to Christ and a new kinship group of Christ’s people (de Silva, 2004).
Restoration of honor also restores mission. Indeed, as Steuernagel (2016) affirms, mission does not exist without identity. Peter’s letter “[reminded the Christians] of the heart of their faith – Jesus Christ, calling them to faithfulness, recalling them to brotherhood and challenging them to mission, because they are the elected people of God” (Steuernagel, 2016, p. 202). Peter used the imagery of a house as a cultural artifact to tie their identity inextricably to their mission: “…you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood…” (1 Pet. 2:5). Peter hoped that the imagery of spiritual house, built upon the cornerstone of Jesus Christ who defined its lines and angles, would rise to be a force of cultural engagement within the societies where they lived (Hobbie, 1993; Wheeler, 2016). Jesus was now the head of their new kinship group, and their lives must so honor him by reflecting his image in their local contexts. So, he instructed them, “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Pet. 2:12).
Priesthood as the Construct for Cultural Engagement
The imagery of a spiritual house that Peter employs points to the temple in Jerusalem in which the people of God encountered their covenant God in worship as he dwelled among them there. Peter explained to them that, because they are the temple of God, they are set apart from their surrounding cultural environment, not as aliens and strangers, but as a holy and renewed priesthood of the God of whom they were to witness to their surrounding culture (Wheeler, 2016; 1 Peter 2:5,9). According to Dyrness (2004), priesthood captures the essence of humanity’s purpose. As God’s image-bearers, humanity “[unifies] the creation and offers it back to God” (Dyrness, 2004, p. 21). Image-bearers inhabit a sacred space that is the nexus of the holy priesthood that transcends culture (1 Pet. 2:9) and the encultured, embodied realities they face day-to-day (1 Pet. 2:12). Because they are redeemed image-bearers of God through Jesus Christ, Christians participate in their communities in such a way that creates new cultural horizons in the trajectory of the Kingdom of God (Steuernagel, 2016).
Priesthood carries significant implications for innovative leadership in organizations, regardless of whether or not Christians work in organizations that espouse a specifically Christian ethos. Because God imprinted his image on organizational leaders, they will be compelled to innovate, to take what exists and reshape it into something new and better (Crouch, 2009). Organizational life, just like human life, consists of mutual relationships embedded within particular cultures (Ramachandra, 1996). These cultures consist of the values, practices, and rituals that embody the organization’s identity and aim it toward its ultimate vision of the “good life” (Smith, 2009, p. 86). Leaders that want to move the organization toward its goals must maintain the creative tension between the organization’s super-cultural identity and its expressions within local cultural contexts.
Super-Cultural Identity and Cultural Expression
Peter’s letter confirms that cultural engagement that fosters innovation occurs at the frontiers where a super-cultural identity interacts and engages with local cultural systems. First, Peter reminded his readers that their identity is first and foremost in Jesus Christ, above all other social, political, or cultural identities their surrounding society is pressuring them to espouse. Despite that they were “aliens and strangers in the world,” they had an identity that transcended the cultures in which they lived (1 Pet. 2:9-11). Missional leaders moving into an uncertain future must stay focused on their enduring identity in Christ and the purposes to which he calls them (Tibbs, 1999). In their research on visionary companies, Collins and Porras (2002) found that successful companies fuel progress toward a destination by preserving their core ideology: the core values and purposes that define their identities and missions. The organization’s identity shapes its orientation and channels its innovation toward a singular destination embraced by its vision (Smith, 2009).
Second, cultural innovation emerges from locally situated small groups of people who perceive the need for change. That belief is often provoked by their local culture’s confrontation with new values of the organization’s super-cultural identity (Crouch, 2009; Malina, 2001). Lingenfelter (2008) describes these small groups as “covenant communities” who, in commitment to one another and their common mission, make sense of their rapidly changing environments through relationship and dialogue so that they can craft together their mutual task at hand. The group welcomes to the table the richness of each team members’ different perspectives, skills, cultural worldviews, and other resources. And they invite one another to share those resources and build upon them to create new ideas, meanings, and cultural artifacts that extend what is possible for their common task. Essentially, they create a new culture together, a culture that is based on their common identity (Drath, 2001; Crouch, 2009). Through this dynamic, they build momentum in cultural engagement that spreads to, influences, and shapes the larger culture toward their vision of a truly good and flourishing life. All cultural innovation begins with the personal relationships and commitments of small groups of people that have the capacity to sustain the necessary focus and energy that creates new cultural goods and expands cultural horizons (Crouch, 2009).
Innovation that moves the Christian mission toward its vision of the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom begins in the creative tension between our super-cultural identity in Jesus Christ and the specific contexts where that identity must be encultured and embodied. Cultural change can only happen when people who are immersed in the culture perceive the need for change and, through relationship and dialogue with others, engage the culture with the Gospel (Drath 2001). They challenge existing and implicit cultural worldviews and live out as a community of priests their identity in Jesus. New cultural goods emerge as they begin to influence the larger culture through their life together that embodies their new cultural values (Drath, 2001). True innovation that moves the project of God’s Kingdom forward in this dark and weary cosmos occurs as God’s holy priesthood faithfully embodies the Gospel as a reflection of their Lord Jesus Christ in their specific contexts. To God be the glory forever!
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