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Cultural Elites | The Next Unreached People Group
There are a number of New York-based ventures taking the aforementioned culture-loving tack, and I’ve had the great privilege to know most of them. It bears underscoring that, generally, merely being in a place like New York is to take that tack. So Redeemer Presbyterian Church, where Tim Keller has preached and modeled it, deserves first mention. Not only has Redeemer served – since 1988 – as a magnet for thousands of New York professionals turned-off by other approaches, it has also spawned innumerable other similarly culture-loving efforts, such as the Geneva School, a pre-K through Eighth private Christian school that makes it possible for called and committed Christians to raise families in Manhattan, something of singular importance.
Another institution that courageously established itself in Manhattan – in the iconic Empire State building, no less – is the King’s College, a four-year school whose mission is to attract and educate cultural leaders with a biblical worldview. The synergy between King’s and other Christian institutions in Manhattan begins to approach something like the Clapham network, though of course on a very different scale. But part of what Clapham made possible for those who were a part of it was a sense of belonging to something where one’s beliefs were encouraged rather than attacked or scorned or dismissed. All of these ventures, individually, but especially in concert, do much the same thing, and without some of the attributes of Clapham – a healthy ecumenicism, for one thing – that simply wouldn’t be possible.
One venture I am particularly close to is the New Canaan Society, which began in 1995 as a small men’s group in a New York suburb. Its founder, Jim Lane, knew there had to be more meaning to life than what he had experienced as a partner at Goldman Sachs – and more to God than the standard guilt-trippy men’s accountability groups that met in church basements and featured Entenmann’s, Yuban, and Cremora. In a few years, NCS has spawned chapters around the country, and our last annual retreat drew 600 men. We believe that by speaking the language of the culture – which includes not being “religious” in away that is off-putting, but being honest and transparent; and by having a
of fun and laughs – we have struck a nerve. Businessmen who longed for what Jim longed for have come out of the boardroom woodwork, and are still coming.
Finally, a venture close to my heart is Socrates in the City, a speakers series I founded in 2000 that engages Manhattan elites on the “big questions”– what we call “life, God, and other small topics.” Socrates said the “unexamined life is not worth living,” so why not create an evening of “Conversations on the Examined Life” where Manhattanites could enjoy themselves and hear some of the best minds of our time? Over the last seven years we’ve heard from a murderer’s row of intellects, including world-renowned physicist Sir John Polkinghorne on “Can a Scientist Pray?”; Boston College Philosophy Professor Peter Kreeft on “How Can a Good God Allow Suffering?”; and Os Guinness on the dangers of globalization, and how different worldviews approach the subject of evil. Other speakers have included N.T. Wright, former
editor David Aikman, NYU Psychology Professor Paul Vitz, former ABC science correspondent Michael Guillen,
editor Father Richard John Neuhaus, and Baroness Caroline Cox.
SITC goes out of its way to create an atmosphere that is fun, engaging, and attractive. We hold our events in gorgeous rooms in Manhattan’s private clubs, and begin with a wine and hors d’oeuvres reception and piano music. And, lest the intellectualism tend to stuffiness, our august speakers are garrulously and inanely introduced by the author of this essay, who on one occasion quoted the lyrics to the Smokey and the Bandit theme song, and on another compared our speaker Chuck Colson with the singer Chaka Khan, who was not our speaker.
Though most of our speakers come from a biblical worldview, we honor different points of view, and want to create a comfortable place for people trying to think more deeply about the big questions. We don’t push Christianity, and certainly don’t conclude with comment cards asking people to “make a decision”. To do that would be to destroy the trust we have built up with the people who come to our events. We want to respect them, to let them have a safe atmosphere to question and think without fearing an uncomfortably “religious” atmosphere. I’ve called Socrates in the City a “soup kitchen for the mind”, because soup kitchens aren’t a means to an end. Loving and serving others is itself the Gospel, and we are commanded to do it. I hope that by bringing a higher level of cultural conversation to New York City, in a small but significant way, we are blessing the city and the culture and those within it – these elites who have education and wealth and power and influence, but many of whom have never seen or heard this wonderful Gospel that some of us have had the infinite privilege to have seen and heard and accepted. By sharing it with these in a way that humbly attempts to communicate in a language they might understand – and by risking their scorn – we hope to honor the One who risked our scorn when he humbled Himself to communicate it to us. This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is no other. Amen.
A major premise of this essay is that cultural elites significantly influence society as a whole. Do you agree? Why or why not?
What are your opinions on top-down culture shifts vs. bottom-up grassroots movements? What are the differences in the two strategies? What examples can you think of that prove the effectiveness of each? How might both strategies work together to effect significant change?
Being “in the world but not of the world” may be the most difficult assignment we have as Christians. What principles, ideas, and examples do you take from the life of William Wilberforce and the Clapham Circle that you could integrate into your life? What is the biggest struggle you personally have with being “in the world, but not of the world”?
Have you ever considered the importance of cultural influence as an important strategy in the long-term vision of serving the poorest communities of your city? Do you think that is a need in your community?
If you were going to try to recreate a Clapham circle in your community, who would you invite to “make goodness fashionable?” Are you friends with those people or would you need to begin some new relationships? How would you do this?
To continue this discussion with a group, invite some friends over to watch the movie
. Use these questions to provoke conversation as well as action.
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