Culture-making is one of the ways we change the world. But we should think small before we think big. Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.” What if we thought of culture-making in the same way? What if all culture-making started locally? What if we started by establishing a Christian culture in our family, our church, and our schools? Also included in this list are our businesses, if we own them, our youth soccer teams, if we coach them, and our book groups, if we host them.
Jesus said that they will know we are Christians by our love for one another (Jn. 13:35). The center of Christian love is sacrifice. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The shepherd lays down his life for his sheep” (Jn. 10:11), and “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13). Paul said, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8) and “Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2). John said, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:9-11).
I once heard it said that love is so powerful it can be neither measured nor seen. The Bible disagrees. Christ’s love for the church is that he gave himself up for her (Eph. 5:25). This is love for all to see, in the willing sacrifice of Jesus Christ for his bride. Love is not some mystic notion that dances just beyond our senses. It is seen. It is done. Love is Jesus willingly sacrificing his life for his bride. It was a sacrifice seen by people with eyes. It was followed up with a resurrection that was seen by people with eyes. And it is the love Christians are called to emulate.
Sacrifice is the visible and tangible expression of love. If we are going to establish a truly Christian culture in our families, churches, and schools, we need to establish a culture of sacrifice. The work of establishing is hard. We need somewhere to begin. To create a local culture is to steer an association in such a way that patterns emerge over time and are passed down from generation to generation. This happens through discussions, allusions, and actions. It happens through institutions, laughter, and singing. And it needs to happen on two levels.
Two-level Culture Making
First, the instinctive level
The word “instinctive” comes from the Latin instinctus, which means “impulse” and from the Latin instinguere, which means “an inward prick.” Something instinctive is something natural, something automatic, something innate. You might think that intuitive ways of acting or thinking are inborn. In truth, they can be trained into the soul as something deeper than valid syllogisms or animal desires.
Sacrifice must never be mere theoretical knowledge. For it to be believed is for it to be practiced (Phil. 2:5-11). When sacrifice becomes instinctive you know what to do in a world of ever-changing situations. In this way, sacrifice becomes a form of knowledge, the best kind of knowledge, the kind that comes out of your fingertips before you even realize it. This kind of knowledge is caught, not taught, as they say. It is not ordinarily acquired in a classroom, but by full immersion in a community.
The word community is overused today. In the Christian sense, community is made up of people bound together by their common faith in Christ, unified by the Spirit of Christ, and sealed by their one baptism into Christ (Eph. 4:4-6). Paul called those people “members” of a body where some are feet, some are hands, some are eyes, and some are unpresentable parts (1 Cor. 12:12-31). Christian community is not only made up of the living. It is between the living and our long-passed grandmothers (2 Tim. 1:5) and between the living and those who came before as examples for our instructions (1 Cor. 10:11-12). It is also between the living and those yet born who will receive the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
Because the covenant community is bound together in Christ, its binding principle is the sacrificial love of Christ. This is our shared inheritance. We receive it. Then we give it. But it’s more than a line of obligation. It’s the reflex of Christian love that develops by osmosis. More practically, it develops when dads, moms, elders, and teachers live sacrificially day by day in the Spirit’s power rather than their own. Children, church members, and students are absorbed into the ethos of sacrifice. They learn that babysitting for isolated and struggling church members makes for a joyful day. They learn how to love sacrificially when they have a conversation, when they have an elderly neighbor, and when the day is stacked against them. They gather an instinctive sense that the best obligations aren’t the ones freely chosen, but the ones joyfully received.
Second, the personal level
A culture of sacrifice must reflect that we are not only bound to Christ and his body, but we are loyal and caring toward actual living, breathing people. Devotion to a particular group of people creates a sense of responsibility toward those people. This develops through face-to-face interaction. Here, more than text messages or tweets, we learn to interact with others in a way where we have responsibility for their well-being. Gathering together, fellowshipping at the park, and sitting around the table, is another form of knowledge. This is where you learn to exchange promises and sacrifices and say, “These are my people. I have a responsibility toward them.” They aren’t a name on a prayer list, but a friend who is hurting.
The personal level is about re-establishing the virtue of duty. It’s not that one member ought to be held responsible for the behaviors of another member. Its that members have a duty toward the community. Duties differ depending on if they are conveyed to the weak, the unborn, or those who came before. It’s a duty that rejects false desires and embraces true ones, counting others more significant than yourself (Phil. 2:3). Duty means that we go together. It means that together we are, as John Williams has written, “ready to slog the road that ends all roads.” But how do we get to slogging? How do we shape a culture that gets to the personal level?
First, whether at home, at church, or school, small routines of service can be incorporated into the community. Parents may assign their children chores around the house. Elders may encourage members to use their gifts to serve the body. Teachers may stipulate sweeping floors as part of the class routine. These subtle acts of sacrifice and service build a social knowledge of responsibility toward others. The children learn the home is ours. The members learn that the body of Christ is interdependent. The students learn that wisdom requires people to get out of their chairs.
Second, culture-creation on the personal level happens through the stories we tell, which is why Christians must collect stories that model our aspirations. We must tell stories of God and his people, including the stories of the Bible and church history. These stories are rooted in the covenant loyalty of God to his people, a loyalty where God sacrificed himself to save his people. The Christian story is a product of sacrifice. When it’s told over and over it produces a culture of sacrifice—one where last means first and loss means gain; where sacrificing your life is a rite of passage into maturity.
Third, a culture of Christian love is active, not passive. When children drift through childhood according to the defaults of the zeitgeist, too often they emerge as children in adult bodies lacking a sense of duty, responsibility, or hard work. Where does perpetual passivity come from? Excessive screen time creates distracted and drifting souls. Continual consumption with no thought of production creates entitlement. Bubble-wrapped kids don’t learn the lessons taught by skinned-knees. Age segregation and peer culture don’t build wisdom, character, or self-control. If we are going to cultivate a culture of people that see themselves as God’s children called to love and serve their neighbor, we must overcome these worldly patterns of passivity.
The culture of sacrifice is not calling its members to become doormats. Sacrifice has expansive application. It’s sacrificial love to mow your neighbor’s lawn when he’s out of town, or to host several families for dinner, or to refuse to sign the corporate “diversity” pledge. In each case, something was sacrificed, something was given up, and someone received the love of Christ through what was given up. It’s not that love is the only virtue. Love sums up the whole law (Mt. 22:37-40), which means that no command in Scripture can be followed if we don’t love God and neighbor.
A culture of natural selection, the survival of the fittest, and what Richard Dawkins calls, “the selfish gene,” inevitably reproduces itself. Which is another way of saying it destroys itself. A culture of sacrifice, the interaction of others-centered beings made by a God of loving sacrifice in a culture defined by what Paul calls “living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1), inevitable reproduces itself, which is another way of saying the mustard seed grows into a tree (Lk. 13:19).
A culture of sacrifice is not a utilitarian ploy for leaders to manipulate people. It’s not about merely producing a certain outcome—i.e., the kids stop fighting, the church members cease gossiping, and the students quit complaining. It’s about living in such a way that reflects Ultimate Reality, namely, God himself, his character, his becoming a curse to redeem those who were under the curse (Gal. 3:13). When you live every day under this Ultimate Reality, and those around you do the same, belief in God locks into the soul in a way where it can’t be unlocked.
Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.
 John Williams, Augustus (New York; New York Review of Books, 1971), 239.