Nick Seeking Understanding

Essays from an Edinburgh MTh

Ministry and culture January 9, 2012


The title of this essay asks that change in social culture and ministry be brought into relation and the implications of their relation be explored with respect to a third term reflective practice.

“Ministry” is too various to be adequately covered in all its manifestations so the focus will be on ordained ministry within the Reformed tradition, with its distinctive emphasis on the priesthood of all believers and ministry as a function of the whole people of God. It is not suggested that this is the only definition of ministry only that some such specification is required for a coherent response.

The complex term “changes in social culture” itself brings into conjunction three ideas: “change”, “social”, and “culture” whose relationships are complex and multi-faceted. The terms “culture” and “society” when used together will be taken to identify a “general culture” which forms the context for a set of “sub cultures” which can neither be identified with nor separated from it.

It is suggested here that the key responsibility of ordained ministry is as the custodian of the culture of the church, which regarded from the viewpoint of contemporary “general culture” is a “sub culture”, but which from within has to regard itself in a different way. It is further argued that all culture is constantly in a process of change and that, therefore ordained ministry has at its heart the guidance of social change.

In this context reflective practice for the minister is about self-consciousness regarding the special status of the culture of the church from within Christian faith and the placing of this culture in relation both to its own distinctive history and grounding in revelation and in the context of the wider cultural setting within which it lives.


Ordained Ministry in the Reformed tradition

In the Reformed tradition there is a characteristic refusal of priestly or ontological understandings of ordination in favour of a functional understanding. The minister is called to exercise particular gifts and responsibilities on behalf of the people of God. This distinguishes the Reformed both from the priestly tradition of episcopal churches with their emphasis on apostolic succession and from the Anabaptist refusal of all ordained ministry.[i]

Central to the Reformed ministry of Word and Sacrament is the church as the elected people of God in covenantal continuity with Israel. The emphasis on election and on the distinctiveness of the chosen people is not unique to the Reformed tradition but occupies an especially important position within it. Ministry is first and foremost the responsibility of the people.[ii]

Thus Reformed ministers are “called” by a congregation rather than being sent by the Church. Ministry has no validity outside the community of saints. Reformed ministry is constituted enabling the people’s ministry in and to the world. One symptom of this conception of ministry is seen in Calvin’s insistence that the church building be locked outside times of public worship.[iii]

The role of the ordained minister is on the one hand to cultivate and exercise special gifts in the preaching and teaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments and on the other to act as the mediating factor between the local congregation and the wider church. While the congregation plays a central role in Reformed ecclesiology its mainstream has always been clear that the Church is universal and exercises oversight in regard to the local church. This finds its clearest expression in the Presbyterian systems of church government but is present to some extent in most of the congregational varieties of Reformed ecclesiology.[iv]

The minister’s role is to contribute through exposition of the word and through sacramental discipline to the shaping of congregational life in conformity to the will of God.

What is culture?

Culture is here understood to be the set of symbolic and representational practices through which meaning is constructed by communities. The term culture has a complex history.

An idea of culture as a distinct set of practices and artefacts was important to romanticism and asserted a hierarchy of forms of human life and expression.[v] This use of the term, related to its origins in agriculture and horticulture saw “culture” as enabling a rise to more complete and perfect states. Culture as formative is implied  but it restricts this to a particular kind of subjectivity seen as normative for human beings as such. Over against this there developed a notion of culture within anthropology that differs in two respects. On the one hand it became more inclusive including all practices that create shared meaning; on the other it recognised a plurality of cultures, each with its set of meanings and structures, integrated within itself but different from others. While no explicit hierarchy of these cultures is necessitated by this the assumptions of modernisation implied such an ordering.[vi]

More recently a “post-modern” approach to culture has emerged which questions the assumption within anthropology of the integrated and unitary nature of “culture”. The anthropological understanding of culture as manifold and as all-pervasive is adopted but the assumption that each culture is internally integrated and that the boundaries between cultures can be clearly marked are each questioned.

The view that emerges is one of a differentiated and inter-related set of communities of meaning, the membership of which may overlap and which is each a site of contestation and negotiation. Characteristic of this post-modern discourse is an interest in culture as a field within which power is exercised and resisted. Critical to present purposes is the insight that cultures are not firmly bounded, uniform, or static. “Culture” is a set of cultures which interact in more or less intensive ways. This is understood to involve the whole range of symbolic practice, behaviours and beliefs that constitute meaning; that each individual will participate in a range of overlapping sub-cultures (e.g. of work, church, voluntary organisations, leisure activities, family and neighbourhood network) that construct identity in different, although not necessarily conflicting ways. [vii]

The entire set of sub-cultures within a particular society will be part of a “social” or “general” culture which forms the context within which they operate. There will be shared social norms defined at the level of the institutions and other formations that provide a common or shared experience across the range of sub-cultures. Examples in contemporary Britain would be the institutions of the state, for example taxation, criminal justice, state education, national health service and the benefits system, mass communication media, especially television but also print media and radio, and workplaces. In these contexts individuals’ sub-cultural identities are placed together and common norms, rules, forms of behaviour and sets of meaning negotiated or imposed. A number of recent examples have shown the criminal justice system supporting other public institutions in asserting a common culture of acceptance of homosexual practice against that formed in counter-cultural religious communities which do not tolerate such practice.


Culture and change

The anthropological understanding of culture emphasises difference between and homogeneity within cultures; each is invariant over the time as a static structure of meaning. In recent work this timeless understanding of culture has given way to one more interested in change as the result of the exercise and resistance of power. The idea of culture as a variegated and conflictual field of interaction gives rise to a tendency to see change as endemic in culture.

This is intensified by a widely shared view that the pace of cultural change is increasing and the change itself becoming more profound and far reaching. In earlier theories (or perhaps periods) of culture there was an emphasis on continuity, as culture shaping each generation of individuals to carry on ways of life inherited from the previous generation, there was a strong link between culture and tradition. Cultures as internally consistent and coherent entities or traditions formed the identities and characters of those inducted into them and change to tradition was seen as exceptional.[viii]

However such stability and continuity has always been exceptional (examples might be very isolated social groups that persisted with pre-agricultural forms of life in habitats that insulated them from contact with the wider human world). Almost all cultures have evolved along with the other (primarily technological and economic) social structures that can be conceptually distinguished from them within the overall social structure.

No culture is internally undifferentiated and change will arise through the interaction between sub-cultures and the process of development within each of them driven by their internal differentiation. All parts of the “social culture” are interacting with one another and engaged in an internal conversation about how they should develop themselves. [ix]

Culture and the church

From one perspective the universal church is a set of sub-cultures linked together by whatever makes the church church. Different church cultures are more or less immersive, filling a greater or lesser part of their members lives. This perspective is that of the anthropologist who studies church communities with to determine what their cultural structures look like, treating them as he or she would any other community with a set of shared values, beliefs and practices. This perspective is an illuminating one and has much to tell us about the nature of our churches.[x]

There is another perspective, though, which sees the church, or the gospel. as pitted against “culture”. This argues that culture, the values and norms which govern human social life, is what, or is part of what, the gospel acts to save human beings from. Culture is fallen and the gospel opposes it. This perspective, articulated for example by Karl Barth, sees the gospel as the breaking in to human life of the revelation of a divine message that is utterly foreign to it. To the extent that the church is or becomes a human culture it fails to be true to this message.[xi]

Opposing this view is the argument that the gospel must be heard within culture and for this reason it must find that within the culture with which it can connect. This is famously articulated by Barth’s contemporary Paul Tillich in his theory of “correlation” in which the questions posed by the period are answered by the gospel in their own terms. [xii]

This polarity of culture and the gospel and different articulations of the way in which they should be brought into relation to one another is often held to be central dialectic of modern theology, and various proposals have been made for a typology of modern theology organised by it. [xiii]

More recently an alternative mode of thinking about culture and gospel, influenced in various ways and to various degrees by post-modern thought, has emerged often referred to as “post-liberalism” and most closely identified with George Lindbeck. Lindbeck has proposed that rather than seeing gospel and culture as poles that have to be bought into relation we see Christianity in terms of cultural-linguistic practice. In particular he argues that the revelation we have received is a narrative rather than a set of propositions and that it cannot be recast adequately in propositional form. Further this narrative, while centrally the narrative of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, includes both the story of Israel and the story of the church. [xiv]

The participant in the life of the church does not only hear about the narrative of God’s dealings with God’s people, he or she enters into the story by absorbing and transmitting the culture of the church, which formed by the narrative embodies it. The church’s culture is the revelation of God. This does not mean that any particular instance of church culture can be identified with God, rather that it is only through entering into that culture that God can be known. This tendency to see church culture as essential to knowledge of God has lead some critics to accuse the post-liberals of a tendency towards sectarian withdrawal from the common social world, but here it is suggested that this move towards conceptualising the Christian revelation in cultural terms opens fruitful possibilities for the reflective minister in thinking about how to respond to and engage with cultural change within and beyond the church.

One caveat is necessary; it is not possible from within a Christian framework simply to think of the church as a sub culture, since this would neglect the otherness of God. It is essential to Christianity that God cannot be identified with any worldly phenomenon. Christian orthodoxy settled on an account of the relationship of God to creation that makes God transcendent. Our knowledge of God is based on God’s revelation, not on any intrinsic ability of our own to discover God. The extent of our partial or analogical knowledge of God prior to or apart from revelation is debated within orthodox Christianity but not the necessity of revelation in Christ to our achievement of the knowledge of salvation.

This implies that even if one accepts the post-liberal insight that revelation takes place in and as a sub culture the grounding of this in revelation remains. For Lindbeck this revelation is primarily narrative in form, it takes the form of the story of Christ in the context of the story of Israel, transmitted in and through the story of the church.

Reflective practice, culture, and ordained ministry in a Reformed church

If it is accepted that Christian life is centred on the formation of a Christian culture by immersion in  a community shaped by the narrative of God’s relationship with the people of God then the work of the ordained minister is, from a human perspective, cultural work. The minister, through the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments has a set of responsibilities for ensuring that the culture that is formed is in accord with the revealed will of God. The work of communicating the meaning of Scripture for the people, the traditional centre of Reformed ministry, and the proper conduct of the sacramental rites are thus understood as aspects of a more holistic task, the formation of the church as a culture which will form its people.

Further, on the understanding that culture (and tradition) is never unitary or static but always diverse and evolving, this task is always a creative and innovative one. Neither the sub culture of the church nor the cultural context within which it is placed have ever been at rest. Every generation is faced with the challenge of forming its changing culture in a way faithful to the gospel it is to embody. This is a task for the all members of the church but it falls most especially on the ordained minister, as the one whose task it is to interpret revelation on behalf of the church.

In times of accelerated cultural change this is particularly problematic. The church, unless withdrawn from the world as a self-enclosed sect, is immersed in this context of rapid and profound cultural transformation. This means that the two temptations of over-eager adaptation to norms drawn from more dominant cultural spheres (e.g. politics, or science, or humanitarian ethics) or a refusal to admit to the necessity of change in the name of an idealisation of an imagined past of purity and harmony become particularly acute. The sub culture of the church is bound to evolve rapidly in such a period and without profound faith in the capability of changing in accord with God’s will the temptations referred to will come between God and God’s people.

It is here that the ability to internalise with real profundity the way in which the tradition lives in the present is essential for the minister. This is the sense in which reflective practice is required, the ability to fuse together an understanding of the way in which God’s will becomes known to us in Scripture and in the history of the church as a cultural linguistic tradition, encompassing liturgy, theology, mission and prayer. A sense of the narrative structure of Christianity as a culture and its insertion into an evolving cultural context, allied to a sense of the place of this culture as an instrument of God not to be identified with God’s presence in the world is what will enable the minister to play his or her proper part in the evolution of the church.


This essay has argued that changes in social culture do not so much effect as constitute ministry, that influencing the way the culture of Christianity changes is the core of ministerial work. This argument bases itself on a post-liberal understanding of Christianity as a cultural linguistic phenomenon (looked at from the side of humanity) and from an understanding of culture as always and necessarily in a process of evolution.


It has further argued that Christianity  must, from within, be viewed as a special case of culture, one within which the human is transcended and the will of God revealed. This means that the minister, as a primary actor in the evolution of that culture, must self-consciously act in it as God’s agent, seeking to discern in the revelatory history of Christian culture, instantiated principally in scripture but essentially also in the history of the church what the will of God is for the direction of development of the culture of Christianity today.



Bevans, S., Models of Contextual Theology (Maryknoll, Orbis, 2002)

Browning, D., A Fundamental Practical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991)

Cady, L.E. ‘Loosening the Category that Binds: Modern “Religion” and the Promise of Cultural Studies’ in Converging on Culture ed. Brown, Daveney and Tanner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)

Daveney, S. G. ‘Theology and the Turn to Cultural Analysis’ in Converging on Culture ed. Brown, Daveney and Tanner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)

Giddens, A., The Consequences of Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 1991)

Graham, E., Walton, H., and Ward, F., Theological Reflection: Methods (London: SCM, 2005)

Healy, N., Church, World, and the Christian Life (Cambridge: CUP, 2000)

Matthis, D. ‘Introduction’ in With Calvin in the Theatre of God ed Piper and Matthis (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010) p22-3

Leith, J.H., Introduction to the Reformed Tradition (Louisville: John Knox, 1981)

Lindbeck, G., The Nature of Doctrine (London: SPCK, 1984)

Placer, W.C., ‘Postliberal Theology’ in The Modern Theologians ed. Ford (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006)

Reno, R.R., in the Ruins of the Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2002)

Rice, H.L. And Huffstutler, J.C., Reformed Worship (Louisville: Geneva, 2001)

Tracy, D Blessed Rage for Order (New York: Seabury, 1978)

Ward, P Participation and Mediation (London: SCM, 2008)

[i]    See Leith Introduction to the Reformed Tradition (Louisville: John Knox, 1981) pp70-88 for an overview of the ethos of the Reformed tradition

[ii]   Reformed Worship (Louisville: Geneva, 2001)  pp6-8 gives an overview of relation of minister and community

[iii]            Matthis, D. ‘Introduction’ in With Calvin in the Theatre of God ed Piper and Matthis (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010) p22-3

[iv]   Leith Introduction 145-171

[v]    Ward, P Participation and Mediation (London: SCM, 2008) p155

[vi]             Daveney, S. G. ‘Theology and the Turn to Cultural Analysis’ in Converging on Culture ed. Brown, Daveney and Tanner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) p4-5

[vii]  Daveney ‘Theology’ p6-7

[viii] Giddens, A., The Consequences of Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 1991) 154

[ix]  Daveney ‘Introduction’ 7

[x]   Browning, D., A Fundamental Practical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991) pp77-82

[xi]  Tracy, D Blessed Rage for Order (New York: Seabury, 1978) pp27-31

[xii]  Graham, E., Walton, H., and Ward, F., Theological Reflection: Methods (London: SCM, 2005) pp154-158

[xiii] Ward Participation and Mediation 37-39

[xiv] Placer, W.C., ‘Postliberal Theology’ in The Modern Theologians ed. Ford (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006) gives an excellent summary of postliberal thought


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