Disciple-Making as Culture-Building

Dustin+ Messer

When describing the ministry of All Saints Dallas, +Philip Jones, is fond of saying: “We’re building a culture of radical inclusivity and profound transformation.”

You see, individuals are no doubt transformed by God; but the Spirit uses embodied things like institutions and cultures to shape His people. Therefore, if we want to be disciple-makers, we have to be culture-builders.

This can’t be taken for granted. Until very recently, academics who studied character formation assumed that character is inherently personal, something native to the individual. The job of society, in such a view, is simply to encourage the process of “self-actualization.”

Last year, University of Virginia professors James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson edited a massive study that showed, quite decisively, that character is in fact formed within a particular sociological context. The upshot of their research is this:

Inevitably, the moral life is every bit as institutional as it is individual; every bit as cultural as it is subjective; and every bit an inheritance of the past as it is bound by emotional, intellectual, and behavioral exigencies of the present … When social institutions—whether the family, peer relationships youth organizations, the internet, religious congregations, entertainment, or popular culture—cluster together, they form a larger ecosystem of powerful cultural influences. None of these is morally neutral. Indeed, all social institutions rest upon distinctive ideals, beliefs, obligations, prohibitions, and commitments—many implicit and some explicit—and these are rooted in, and reinforced by, well-established social practices. Taken together, these form a moral ecology.

Desires, beliefs, habits—all the things that shape a person’s character—are nurtured in specific contexts, specific cultures, what Hunter and Olson call “moral ecologies.” Therefore, any virtue-shaping endeavor—i.e. discipleship—has to reckon with such ecologies.

Of course, the echo-system to which Scripture compares discipleship is that of agriculture. Think of the parable of the sower, where Jesus compares hearts to various kinds of soil. Or think of Paul talking of “reaping the harvest” of good works.

Now, it would be easy to write these allusions off as nothing more than the quirks of the Scriptures’ preindustrial literary context, but we’d do so to our own peril. Indeed, as Eugene Peterson so often reminded us, the earth’s rich soil still produces the operative metaphor for ministry.

For that reason, a 1892 essay on gardening provides a helpful roadmap in our quest to more faithfully fulfill our vocation of disciple-making. In it, F. W. Burbidge argues that gardeners too often neglect the larger echo-system of their gardens and treat each plant as a discrete unit:

One of the earliest and hardest lessons for a gardener to learn is to rid his mind of prejudice in plant culture. As a rule, we want plants to grow where we like rather than where the plant likes, and sometimes the man and the plant are not agreed on the point, for the question of position, of moisture, and of shelter is one the plant naturally knows and feels more of than the man, and though the plant cannot speak, its evidence to knowing eyes is unmistakable.

So, if you’re having trouble with your tomatoes, perhaps you need to relocate the potatoes—which, like the tomatoes, attract the corn earworm—and plant in their place some basil, which repels those harmful bugs. According to Burbidge, becoming an expert in this sort of ecological architecture is part and parcel of the gardener’s job. By paying attention to the agricultural context, we encourage our plants to flourish where they are.

The connection, I hope, is obvious: Disciple-makers, like gardeners, too often ignore their culture, wishing they were planting in a different climate than the one in which they actually find themselves. They answer questions no one is asking while teaching virtues that, while true, are completely un-scandalous to the modern ear.

For example, Scripture teaches that individual consciences should be respected. Scripture also teaches that we’re subject to authority. Broadly speaking, Westerners will readily accept the former and resist the latter, while Easterners will grant the latter but balk at the former. The cultural context shapes the way disciples hear the message of the gospel.

Therefore, if you want to be a disciple-maker, you should be a culturemaker, an ecologist of virtue. Just as a gardener needs to know to plant marigolds near the cucumbers to shoo away the insects, disciple-makers need to know to plant reverence where the bugs of casualness are wreaking havoc, or humility where the weeds of expressive individualism threaten to choke out life.

Just as a gardener needs to understand the advantages and disadvantages of a given climate, so too should disciple-makers study a culture well enough as to be able to challenge the idols of the day and affirm where the culture is true, good and beautiful.

If we want our hospitality to be radically inclusive and our discipleship to be profoundly transformative, we have to pay careful attention to the counter-culture we’re building.

And we do all of this the way every gardener does their work: planting and watering in the sure hope that God will give the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6).

The Rev. Dr. Dustin Messer serves as a priest at All Saints Dallas in downtown Dallas, TX. Additionally, Dustin is a regular contributor to The Gospel Coalition and teaches in the department of religious and theological studies at The King's College in New York, NY. A graduate of Boyce College and Covenant Theological Seminary, Dustin earned a doctorate in ethics at La Salle University and went on to complete a fellowship at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Along with his work in local parish ministry, Dustin has served in positions of leadership for a number renewal organizations within the broader Anglican church, including the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) and the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion (EFAC). Dustin is married to his college sweetheart, Whitney, and they have one daughter, Pennilyn Grace.