A Cultural Anthropology for Christian Mission

Working and ministering with the correct cultural map

Cultural anthropology is a heady and academic-sounding phrase. But think of it simply as mapping our cultural moment – tracing the contours of the cultural & social milieu we inhabit. I’ve found that many leaders who are ineffective in mission have an inadequate grasp of cultural anthropology. They’re working with maps that are 30 or 40 years old. They’re still engaging the 1990s, not aware of how the “plausibility structure” has shifted under their feet.

 

Imagine you’re a hiker trying to make your way to the top of a 14,000-foot peak in the Rockies. You’ve got your gear, your pack, your energy bars, and a trail map, and you’re ready to conquer this beast and check it off your bucket list. But after ascending a few thousand feet, you begin to notice that the route on your map doesn’t quite match the path your feet are following. The contours shown on the page are quite different from the terrain around you. Where the map shows switchbacks and steep grades, you find only gentle slopes. And where you encounter steep inclines, the map shows barely any elevation change. And then you realize: you have the wrong map.

I’ve found this is exactly the plight of many church planters and Christian leaders who are ministering the gospel in post-Christian Western culture. They started out excited about Jesus and his mission. They wanted to engage the culture effectively. They had a “script” in our minds of how their conversations with non-Christians and skeptics would play out. And then they found… the conversations just weren’t happening. Their efforts weren’t bearing fruit. Despite all their enthusiasm, they were missionally ineffective.

And the reason is: they’re working with the wrong cultural map.

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