Christian Formation and the Importance of Place
Across two decades in the middle of the twentieth century, several friends and scholars met at an Oxford pub, the Eagle and the Child, to discuss literature and university life. The Inklings—this informal group of Christian scholars—did not have big ambitions, and J.R.R Tolkien had no idea The Lord of the Rings, first read and discussed in this place, would become one of the great works of Western literature. This group of world class scholars and Christians simply needed time together, recognizing that their life and work was impoverished by a lack of community.
The world we inhabit has changed immeasurably since the days of Tolkien and Lewis. We live in the digital age, where so much of our life and thinking is conditioned by the internet and our personal devices. In this world, an entire identity can be fabricated online, and people come to view “online communities” as their primary social world. Technology adds undeniable benefits to our lives (like the ability to send this email), but its limits are real and mostly unacknowledged by those leading our cultural transformation. The rapid advancement of technology parallels the rise of novel ideologies. Notions of human autonomy have long been popular, but in recent decades individualism—seen as a right to unlimited personal expression or to create one’s own identity—has been enshrined by our culture as the highest good. As wise observers have noted, the cost of this “freedom” is any shared sense of meaning. And the pressure to affirm each individual expression is incompatible with serious formation. It does not take much reflection to see that our society is fractured, and many of the institutions we rely on have been weakened.
Why should Christians care? You can find Christian positions on culture and technology that range from shallow to severe. Yet if we combine thoughtful attention with biblical wisdom, we should be able to reach a consensus that the ideological and technological forces that dominate our culture are corrosive to Christian faith. Meaning and identity are given by God to be received, not created by us. We are finite, limited, and dependent creatures who need others and especially God, and no willful assertion or technological invention can change this. God created us with bodies and determined the times and places in which we live (Acts 17:26). There is no such thing as a virtual church, and virtual “communities” range from moderately helpful to incredibly destructive.
What can we do? Christians do not exist simply to lament and condemn, but work in hope, knowing that our labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Cor 15:58). We do not simply write off our culture as hopelessly lost, or attempt to win secular people by adapting to their ways of thinking and living. Rather, we return to the unsearchable riches of Christ and his gospel, trust in the power of God’s Word and Spirit, and follow the apostle Paul in taking risks based on God’s promise that “those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand” (Rom 15:21).
One such risk is to reinvest in places and institutions that many people consider worthless.
Perhaps it is true that what people want is a platform to proclaim they are special, not a place that teaches them they need to change. But the radical individualism on offer is shallow and unsatisfying. It will not last. Human beings need a place—a real, physical space—to belong, and institutions that shape them for a higher purpose. No institution can offer a better hope or sense of meaning than the church of Jesus Christ. Yet the church must also invest in places and institutions where there are unique opportunities to do good.
The South Carolina Study Center exists to be a place of genuine hospitality and learning, a place that resists the ideological and technological forces that are dehumanizing society. We hope to add a distinct note of hope and wisdom to university life, shaping teachers and students to think, live, and lead in a different way. This kind of deep formation cannot be accomplished by using the ways of the digital world—we are committed to embodied teaching, discipleship, and community.
It may be tempting to dismiss small gatherings of Christians as unimportant and ineffective. But recall that Christian history began with a small group of committed believers gathering regularly to pray, read the Scriptures, and marvel at the hope of the gospel. Two millennia later, at the Eagle and the Child, a small group of Christians discussed ideas and stories that would shape the Christian imagination in the twentieth century and beyond.
Our hope is that God would use our own small gatherings to make a genuine difference at the university and in our city. If you share this vision, please consider praying for us and supporting our work. I hope to see you this fall.
UPDATE: We take possession of our house – 1711 Pendleton St – this week. Our goal is to do a small scale renovation of $50,000 to be ready to launch later this fall. Below is a link to contribute to this project if you desire to help. Please contact Richard at the email listed above if there is any other way you can support us, or with any questions. Thank you!