Tribalism

Nicholas, my husband, was reading books on missional church. One of the topics he encountered was “tribalism,” not in the classic Margaret Mead way, but the way we Westerners sort ourselves into groups of identity. Young people especially devolve into tribes as they look for identity outside their family and traditional structures.

This does make it hard to evangelize, since one of the characteristics of “tribalism” is rejection of other groups.

St. Paul explained that he was a Greek with Greeks, a Jew with Jews, and transcended tribalism in his time by finding points of commonality. I don’t think that he carried around a bunch of costumes and put on phony accents to look like he fit right in, just that he was willing to meet people where they were rather than trying to change them to fit his tribe.

The misunderstanding we can experience in dealing with the new tribalism is that it is not in fact a valid cultural identification but a manufactured identity, a product for sale. It is consumerist, not authentic. Today’s cultural tribes are a result of mass media, and sub-specialization, but are nothing more than a commodity.

We spend a lot of time on and near a large university campus. We began to notice “types” of students, seemingly unrelated to each other, with no discernible ethnic identity uniting them (as one might find with hijabi, Plain, or traditional immigrant groups). These groups are identified instead by what they have purchased, mostly clothing. Such groups vary from month to month, year to year, and I expect from one region to the next. Each reader can probably identify such groups within their own communities. Skater, punk, hiphop, neo-hippie, Manga – all are identified by what they have purchased, and by what body altering styles they affect (and pay for, from piercings to hair dye.)  There are subgroups we can identify within the greater groups. My husband christened one subgroup “Charlie’s Angels” – always three girls traveling together, with very expensive and stylish hair, makeup and clothes.

What is obvious is that they do not identify with their families of origin to any great extent. They do not have strong ethnic or regional identity. They are tough candidates for evangelizing.

I believe the key to working with these groups is to meet them where they are, with what we are. They may look at us as just members of a rival group (and we get treated that way – bait the Plain seems to be a hobby with some tough guy groups.) They are not coming to sit in the pews, unless for a semester or two, Cool Anglican Teen is a media-generated lifestyle product.

One of the key concepts in Christianity is that God does not change. God is immutable. God is not a product that can be restyled. God is not Barbie, with new clothes, new Corvettes, new hairstyles every decade or so.

And that’s where the missional church needs to meet the world. Not selling something, but offering the everlasting cool water, the life without end, the Way Out of the eternal, discouraging treadmill of style.

Come and drink, the Lord says. Come and eat; all is made ready. The world’s food is ashes, the world’s drink is tears. In the banquet of the Lamb only is true refreshment.

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