On the Limits of Creating Culture: Reflections on the 2016 Portland Q Commons

By John Lussier

“The only way to change culture is to create culture,” says Gabe Lyons, quoting Andy Crouch.

Lyons was the MC for the Q Commons event I recently attended. Crouch was one of the presenters there. Q Commons is a TED talk-esque conference hosted around the world. It’s a mix of “live” video feed and local speakers, hosted at various venues (Portland was at Imago Dei Community Church this year, where New Wine, New Wineskins will also be hosting an event "You Vote What You Love: Being Peacemakers in the Cultural Wars.").

Q Commons is the smaller, local, version of the centralized Q Conference. Again, think a Christian version of TED talks. You’ve got the big conferences, and then the local ones. It’s a great idea overall, the larger conference gets you big name speakers and an enormous venue. The smaller events keep things local, consistent and (presumably) cheap. Q is pretty smart to emulate TED talks here. Another thing Q emulates from TED? Their presentation format: just like TED, Q speakers have a limited amount of time to present, and are literally up against the clock— a prominent countdown times faces towards them warning of their time limit.

The desire to create culture spurred Gabe Lyons to create Q Ideas. “Christians are called to redeem entire cultures, not just individuals,” Lyons told us, quoting Chuck Colson. Q’s goal is to educate Christians about this concept of redeeming both persons and cultures through the creative engagement of the Church with various issues.

Q is especially interested in engaging the hot topic issues of our day, and forecasting about the future. Lyons noted how speakers aren’t chosen first.  Instead, topics are. Only then are the best speakers brought in to address these issues. The lineup for this Q Commons event was impressive. From the live-feed we heard from David Kinniman on new research from the Barna Group on society’s views of religion, Crouch spoke on leading in a skeptical culture, and participated in an interesting panel on the future of “neighboring”. Locally we heard professor Dyan Watson read from a letter to her son on race; Tony Lamb on the history of Portland and racism; and Sara Stanković on sex trafficking. After the event the local speakers stuck around for an extended Q&A.

Oh, and the Q in Q Commons? It stands for Questions. Q is seeking to ask the questions that will help the Church in the creation and redemption of culture. Each week on the Q website a new question is asked and various resources are put forward to answer it. This weeks? “How Are Women Shaping The Future Of The Church?” answered by an interview between Gabe Lyons, his wife Rebekah Lyons, and blogger and founder of the IF: Gathering, Jennie Allen.

Now that you’ve got a feeling for Q I want to give you a few of my takeaways.

First, let’s talk about Q’s desire to redeem culture by creating it: At the heart of New Wine, New Wineskins is cultural engagement. We use that phrase a lot. I’ve often had people ask me, “What do you mean by ‘cultural engagement’? Engaging sounds like a battle.” Is that what we mean by cultural engagement at NWNWS? Are we battling with culture? I mean, not literally, but figuratively? And what do we mean by culture?

Several years ago I read H. Richard Niebuhr’s book Christ and Culture. In it Niebuhr set forward several typologies on how Christ (and the Church) might relate to culture. Does Christ stand against culture, or sit with it, or look down on it, or seek to transform it from within?  Or, finally, is he in paradox with it? Later I read a critique of Niebuhr’s book from the Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder. At the core of Yoder’s response was the notion that Christ, the Church, and culture(s) are complex realities, that always exist in relationship with one another, but this relationship can and should change from moment to moment. Elements of culture will need to be resisted by the Church, others reinforced, others ignored, and others utilized but redeemed for a better goal. There is no one right way to engage culture, and culture is not a homogenous block of life!

Q’s goal of participating in the redemption of culture through creating is a good one, but it’s not the only way to relate to culture. Creating new initiatives and groups to fight sex trafficking, or gentrification, or help with adoption are all good and wonderful things that I can see Christ working through. But I’m afraid at times that Q’s culturally creative notions might make quiet, hard, perhaps even boring work, or the gesture of joining in with something already going on, look extremely unglamorous. Part of engaging culture might look very uncreative: living quietly, working at what seems an inconsequential job, loving our neighbors when we meet them.

The shiny and neat tends to get a lot of coverage at Q, not the quiet and boring. I also don’t see a lot of loud and crass work there. I wonder how the culturally creative Q might receive protestors like the Berrigan brothers. Would their protest of nuclear armaments with hammer blows and symbolically spilled blood be praised, or shown off stage? This emphasis on culture creation tends to center on the creation of culture that wider American society loves: capitalist, innovative, shiny, happy, clean, and hip.

This tendency towards the creative and hip also forces the folks at Q organize their conferences around hot topics. Lyons noted that from the start of our Q commons event. While I think addressing issues is an important endeavor Christians must make, I’m worried about who this cuts out. If a topic isn’t controversial and being widely discussed, it probably isn’t going to be talked about at Q. Sex trafficking, racism, and gentrification in Portland are very important topics, being heavily discussed right now. And they need to be! But if we’re constantly focusing on the hot topics of our day, we’re limited to talking about issues that are easily made into narratives, and have some kind of controversy or shock to them.

When we focus on issues, we often miss out on the people involved in them. We substitute a name, face, place, and stories, for an idea, image, feeling, and story simplified by bright lights and head mics. Q’s inclusion of local speakers helped fight this tendency, but not much. These speakers were not asked to talk about their story, but instead a problem to be solved. Tony Lamb spoke on the history of race in Oregon, but didn’t get much time to talk about his work with the Rosewood Initiative and community development in East Portland. It was easy to be shocked and upset about Portland’s history of racism and its relationship with gentrification. That’s what the table I was with talked about the rest of the night. Not once did we discuss Tony’s work or how we could connect with the Rosewood Initiative (or community development groups closer to us). The format of Q, a limited amount of time on an issue of the day, pulled Tony’s work to the background. Q’s emulation of the TED talk format doesn’t seem to be creating the kind of culture we want.

Let’s not end on a negative. First we deconstruct and then we reconstruct. If we’re going to engage culture we need a number of ways to do so. I’m thankful that Q is putting forwards some of those ways to do so. Here’s my call on this: let’s commit to cultural engagement as the Church in Christ, in a number of ways and through various avenues. Our motivation must be the love of Christ for the world. With him we commit to meeting peoples as our neighbors: getting to know each other by name, face, place, and stories.

Events like Q can help us get a wider picture, and quick snapshots from around the world, but from there we have to sit with the people around us, learning how we can serve and grow with them – engaging culture through creativity, through our passions, our quiet labor, silence, protest, with dialogue, in new innovative means, in the boring and old school, in contemplation, actions, word, thought, deed – and always in the dynamic spirit of Christ.