What Is Your Family’s Cultural Footprint? (Part 1)
For many of us, lifestyle preferences dictate our family’s cultural contributions and consumption. In a two-part blog series, Tamara Hill Murphy shows Christian families what their cultural footprint says about their values. She then suggests how families can be intentionally missional about the way they live and move in culture, with the goal of being in the world but not of it.
By Tamara Hill Murphy
In the book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, Andy Crouch outlines a history of Christian cultural engagement from the last couple of centuries. Other writers have offered similar rubrics, but Crouch offers a deep dive that my husband and I found helpful as we parented our four kids.
As leaders within the context of church ministry, we are equally indebted to Crouch’s insights into the various patterns of cultural engagement Christians have offered throughout modern history. Crouch describes the following patterns as collective cultural gestures: Condemning, Copying, Consuming, Critiquing, Cultivating, and Creating. In the same way that a physical movement repeated often enough becomes embedded into the way we carry our body through the world, these five cultural gestures, practiced habitually, form our attitudes and habits into cultural postures.
The Parenting Puzzle
I read Culture Making when we were in the daily tangle of parenting four teenagers. The daily decisions required of us often smashed my categories of cultural engagement. In the unexpected requests my kids excelled at making, it felt too easy to fall back into old postures of unloving engagement with the world around us. There were many days I somewhat seriously considered the value of a puritanical separation from the world—one where the only place we go is church and then right back home to read our Bibles until it was time to go to church again.
Thankfully, Andy Crouch’s metaphor of gestures and postures inspired me to a more thoughtful, gracious approach that started as a list of questions and became what I came to refer to as our family’s cultural footprint.
When I first began to share with other parents this idea of tracking a cultural footprint that moves our family beyond the church walls, our four kids ranged in age from 15 to 21. At that stage we were just beginning to see the fruit of many of the parenting decisions we’d made and, frankly, the picture wasn’t always pretty. As I write this now, five years later, we feel much the same. Depending on the week, we might tell you we’ve wrecked our kids, that once- or twice-a-week church was not nearly enough, and that we’d recommend you put your kids in a six-hours-a-day Bible class lest they turn out like the four occasional heathens that grew up in our home.
It’s entirely possible we’ve made more wrong decisions than right in stewarding our family’s cultural footprint. Mixed into that self-doubt is an even stronger conviction that I often repeat to myself like a mantra: Jesus stretches out time, redeems time to save us and our kids from the best and worst of our good intentions. On particularly head-scratching days since each of our kids have launched out into their own spheres of cultural living and cultivating, I add the ancient Jesus prayer for good measure: Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a mother and a sinner.
In this conversation on our family’s cultural footprint, the difference between gestures and postures make a world of difference. On any given day, each one of us is faced with choices that may require gestures of separation, constructive critique, or disapproval. None of those gestures describe what we intended for our family’s posture within our culture.
According to Andy Crouch, the most healthy gestures for Christians to practice are daily habits of creating and cultivating our culture. Repeated daily, we are able to lean in with a life-giving, God-and-neighbor-loving, counter-cultural-for-the-common-good sort of posture.
One of the best tools we’ve discovered in this quest to live within our culture lovingly and intentionally is the gift of specificity. In all of the conversations and teaching we’ve received on what it means to live as Christians in our culture, we’ve become convinced that abstract language hurts rather than helps our understanding. You don’t have to make lists, necessarily, to get a clear snapshot of your family’s cultural footprint, but there’s not much more telling than a list written in black and white to put flesh on our ideals.
First, start with one word. Sit back, close your eyes, and repeat the word to yourself.
Now jot down three feeling words that rose up in your gut in response to the word culture. In some cases, this will be the most telling part of the entire exercise. Those three feeling words might tell you everything you need to know about the message you’re conveying to your kids. For those of us in leadership positions, we can extend that influence to our classrooms and congregations.
Let’s get more specific.
List all the places your family has interacted with other people in the past week: school, church, work, sports leagues, clubs, and community events.
For example, when I first shared this idea, my family had, together and individually, interacted with people at church, youth group, high school, college, seminary, writer’s group, Young Life group, four different workplaces, Bible study/small group, babysitting jobs, swim practice, a high school football game, CD release party for a local band, Austin comedy clubs, and a freshman class camping trip in the Texas countryside. Your list might look a lot more streamlined than ours. Use your calendar or planner to help remind you if it feels like you’re forgetting something.
In another column, make a list of media, arts, and entertainment that you’ve engaged. Books, films, television, sporting events, recreational games, music, concerts, theater, and various art exhibits can be added to this list. Add a separate category for news and information and include news programs, local and world newspapers, journals, and other publications that are informing you on current world events.
In the next column, list the establishments you gave financial patronage this week (beyond basic expenses of food and shelter). Include everything from the drive-through coffee, thrift store sweater, box store bulk items, cable and internet consumption, to independent artist transactions and retail chain purchases—both brick and mortar and online.
Now, make a list of goods your family has created or cultivated this week. This can be defined as anything you made into a new entity using individual ingredients. It can also mean the ongoing maintenance of that creation. List meals, stories, crafts, spreadsheets, music, gardens, scarves, wood piles, stand-up comedy sets, poems, presentations, paintings and more. You get the idea.
Lastly, make a list of the people (individuals or groups, specific or general) your family influenced, served, or connected with face to face in any meaningful way. When we were working on this inventory, I included my co-workers at a digital marketing agency in downtown Austin as well as the clients I connected with by phone and email. I also included the women I led in a small prayer group each week. I even included the woman who asked my opinion about apples in the produce aisle at Central Market.
One note: While I’m the first person to champion meaningful virtual conversations, I don’t recommend including social media connections as part of the cultural footprint exercise. This seems important to keeping the inventory tangible rather than abstract. In itself, the omission might be telling.
Interpreting the Lists
What’s the point of all this list making?
Our weekly decisions, the ways we spend our precious resources of time, energy, and money will tell us much more about our posture toward culture than our words ever will. The lists hold a mirror up to our family’s cultural attitude and tell us what beliefs we actually embody. This is a helpful reality check for any individual, family, or congregation who cares about being a faithful presence within culture.
In the same way our bank statements reflect what matters to us with our resources of money, our weekly coming and going reflects what matters to us with our resource of presence. Our clubs, stores, classrooms and back yards provide the spaces for our making, doing, and being culture.
Take your lists and do a quick tally. In broad, generalized categories, consider where you are spending most of your time. What types of people form your daily community most of the time? Where are you spending your family’s precious resources—time, money, and energy? What people groups most often benefit from those resources?
Now we are ready to take an honest look at what our cultural footprint says about our family. Gather your lists and say a quick prayer for a healthy dose of humble, gospel-oriented self-awareness.
This kind of honest, gospel-oriented assessment informed and validated some life-ordering decisions my husband and I made for our family. Among other things, it meant that we placed our kids in the highly-imperfect public school system, and that we chose to live within walking distance of the school and many of the businesses we patronized. It meant that we looked at art, in all its mediums, as a family so that we could reflect, enjoy, critique, and learn together. It meant also following an intentional liturgical calendar in our corporate and private times of worship in order to help us truly number our days and grow in wisdom.
For your family, the boundaries may be drawn in different places. My best suggestions for you to consider as you reflect? Be thoughtful. Take risks. Choose humility. And for the love of God and neighbor, don’t try to make these decisions alone. Invite trusted friends into your discernment process.
We all need healthy reality checks so that in the name of being in the world but not of it, we don’t inadvertently embody the very same values our culture most needs us to counter. It’s embarrassingly easy to make cultural decisions (gestures) motivated by individual lifestyle preferences rather than by our call to steward the kingdom of Jesus. Left unchecked, we begin to live as if culture is a list of options like picking our favorite restaurant, rather than a calling to live like Jesus in the specific place and time—the culture—in which he’s placed us.
In Part 2 of this blog series, Tamara Hill Murphy will address how we can learn to be restorative culture-making, culture-blessing Christians who bless not only with our ideals and teaching, but also our daily habits.
Tamara Hill Murphy lives with her husband Brian, an Anglican priest, in Bridgeport, CT. Her writing has appeared in Think Christian, Art House America, and Englewood Review of Books. Find her at tamarahillmurphy.com or follow her on Facebook at Tamara Hill Murphy-A Sacramental Life.