As David Stroud will often say, the gospel should promote spiritual, social and cultural renewal.
All Christians support spiritual renewal: seeing people born again and spiritually awakened. Most are on board with social renewal: working against the causes and effects of poverty and social injustice. However, David and his wife Philippa’s efforts are most focused on encouraging Christians to pursue the more controversial of the three: cultural renewal.
On Saturday 17th November at St Mary’s Church in Marylebone, London, the Everything Conference trumpeted this message loud and clear.
What is cultural renewal?
Part of the problem people have with cultural renewal is that it is a somewhat slippery phrase. Culture itself is difficult enough to pin down, and when we combine it with the rather open-ended idea of ‘renewal’, we can be left with important questions like “which bits of culture need renewing?” or “what would a renewed culture look like?”
For us as Christians, these questions can multiply exponentially: How much should we expect to renew a culture that is in many ways under the direct power of spiritual forces? (1 John 5:19) How can we differentiate between biblical ideas of renewal and political visions of the future? Should we even bother putting our resources into a world that is, in some sense at least, passing away? (1 John 2:17). Etc, etc.
We could argue ad nauseum on these questions, but the Everything Conference is not designed to enter into such disputes. What David and Philippa and their team do each year is simply bombard us with example after example of Christians who are very clearly renewing the cultures they find themselves in, and doing so in effective, winsome and undeniably Christ like ways. The Sputnik team enjoyed it last year, and personally, I found this year’s conference even more helpful and inspiring.
Quite a line-up!
Michael Ramsden of the Zacharias Trust provided the backbone of teaching for the day in four TED-style talks giving some incisive cultural critique and outlining some appropriate Christian responses.
Around these perceptive observations, we then got to hear from a whole host of people who were putting this into practice.
So Elizabeth Oldfield, director of the Theos Thinktank, talked about how we can all be bridge builders with people who think differently to us. Ici Butcher spoke about the children she and her husband have fostered and adopted. Award winning chocolatier, Will Torrent, spoke of the importance of serving others, doing things excellently and being wise and ethical consumers. Alexander Maclean opened up about his fantastic work helping prisoners on death row in Uganda to get law degrees with the African Prisons Project. And Mark Maciver, otherwise known as SliderCuts, shared about how, as a barber in East London, he looks to act as a counsellor to his clients, who are made up of celebrities, gang members and everyone in between.
And I haven’t even mentioned the artists yet!
The arts were represented by comedian and writer, Paul Kerensa, film director, Stuart Hazeldine and street artist, Lakwena Maciver. Paul Kerensa is an excellent example of a Christian at the heart of the entertainment industry, whether writing for Miranda, Not Going Out or Top Gear or as a regular contributor to Pause For Thought on Chris Evans’ Radio 2 breakfast show. Stuart Hazeldine is most well known for directing Exam and more recently the film adaptation of The Shack – and warned us that waiting around for God to speak to us can simply be a spiritual excuse for doing nothing, encouraging us instead to keep our hearts good and push on in our projects and plans. (Sage advice.)
If you’ve been following this blog, you may well be familiar with Lakwena, who we featured as our artist of the week in September. She shared her desire to tell a better story through her work. It was fascinating to hear her speak about how her mother, who was an active campaigner and protestor against media excesses, had birthed in her a desire to have a voice, which itself showed itself through her striking, hope-filled street murals.
Refreshment for the soul, peace for the mind
I hope that gives a picture of the mind-boggling range of contributors at the conference. If you got a bit lost in the last few paragraphs, consider what it was like to have that crammed into 5 hours of interviews and presentations!
However, while I am yet to process much of the information I heard and really dwell on what I can learn from each of these pioneers and role models, there were a few things that instantly hit me from the day and for which I am truly grateful.
It was genuinely refreshing to my soul to be exposed to so many Christians who are applying their faith in Jesus, to do people good and show love to the people around them. We live in a society where the church is under the microscope, from within and without, and my Twitter feed and news apps are more than happy to expose the mistakes and foolishness of Jesus followers daily. Much of this criticism is valid and necessary, but I don’t know about you, I find this barrage of critique and calling out exhausting and dispiriting, as someone who believes that the church of Jesus Christ is the hope of the world.
With that in mind, I left the day encouraged to be given fresh reminders and evidence that the good news of Jesus really is good news. Not just to those inside the church, but also to those outside it. There was nothing imperialistic or colonial about the contributors (which is not always the case when Christians talk of renewing culture) – they simply loved Jesus, and were responding with an entirely appropriate generosity to the people around them in whatever field they were working in. Whether that was to their family, their friends or the faceless (but still infinitely valuable) inhabitants of the wider culture.
It was genuinely refreshing to my soul to be exposed to so many Christians who are applying their faith in Jesus, showing love to the people around them.
And this connects with the second thing I took away from the day. I am not sure that I am entirely on board with every aspect of ‘cultural renewal’ as it is sometimes laid out, but at this Everything Conference I saw it at its best. I think that we need to keep asking difficult questions about the extent to which the church should expect to shape the culture around it and the manner in which we seek to do that, but I was personally challenged that I can overthink this stuff sometimes.
Jesus calls us to love our neighbours. Some of us do that by being friendly to our work colleagues or doing good to strangers or serving the marginalised in society. Others do it by making excellent chocolate or empowering wrongly imprisoned women or making colourful, eye-catching street art. Ultimately, it’s the same thing, and it’s the thing that should be number one on the agenda of all those who follow Jesus.
Of course we have a responsibility to introduce people to Jesus, as the one who can do them the most good of all, but the Bible’s quite happy to intersperse instructions about ‘making disciples’ (Mt 28:19) with ‘living properly among unbelievers’ (1 Peter 2:12), and just we are called to be ‘Christ’s ambassadors’ (2 Corinthians 5:20), we are also called to be salt, light and yeast in the world we inhabit. In other words, just as Everything contends, the gospel should promote spiritual, social and cultural renewal.
Whether you were at the conference or not, I’d encourage you to take that calling seriously, and make art in that mode, as a generous, loving overflow of all that God has done for you.
Book in for next year’s conference here – if it’s anything like this one, you won’t be disappointed.
Jonny Mellor is a rapper, a writer, and the director of Sputnik.