Creating culture, changing culture, transforming cities – evangelicals have been talking about these subjects for many years now. Much of the focus has been directed toward political involvement, renewing urban centers, or creating art that reflects the beauty and glory of God.
Unfortunately, when it comes to culture making, we are so apt to think big that we devote our energy to areas where we often have little authority. As a result, we miss the opportunity to effect change in the place we have the most direct influence: our homes.
Assessing the Culture of a Home
A few years ago, I worked as a government-sponsored tutor for middle-school kids who were falling behind in their school system. Over the course of several months, I spent several hours a week with 8 different children. I’m not a psychologist and admit that my initial impressions may have been wrong, but observing these families over a period of several months was enough to help me formulate a few impressions regarding the family dynamic.
- In one home, the tension between family members was so palpable that I couldn’t wait to leave. I think the kid I was tutoring would have loved to escape as well.
- In another home, the house was so cluttered and dirty that it’s no wonder that a sense of disorganization was transferred to a little girl doing her best to get her grades up despite the squalor of her surroundings.
- In yet another home, this one blended, the parents and kids were together physically but not emotionally, particularly since the man and woman were still unmarried.
In each home, there were tell-tale signs as to what was valued. From the furniture, to the pets, to the technology – it was easy to sense the dynamic of the family and the culture of the home.
Since that time, I have often wondered how visitors might assess the dynamic of our home. If there were hidden cameras all over the house, what mood would they capture? What kind of culture are we creating? What is the atmosphere in the home? What does all the “stuff” in our home communicate to our kids (and to others) about what we think is important?
One of the subtle ways we shape the culture of our home is through the thoughtful use of cultural artifacts. A cultural object (like a kitchen table, for instance) assumes something about the way the world is: food is essential to human life. It also carries assumptions about the way the world should be: food is to be consumed together as a family.
I remember my surprise at recent reports that having a lot of books in the home can boost a child’s education. Studies suggest that the impact is due to the “scholarly culture” of individual households. The mere presence of literature in the home can have a profound impact on the family.
Toys and gadgets and decorations help to shape (directly or indirectly) the culture of our homes. Let’s say you’ve got young children, and you visit a home where there are breakable ornaments and fine china everywhere. Chances are you will be on pins and needles until the visit is over. The hosts may be gracious and warm, but the objects create an atmosphere that says, “Kids aren’t expected here.”
Consider the placement of a television. Ten years ago, when my parents moved into a new house, they chose to cover up the TV in the “great room” with a large family portrait. Now, whenever our family gets together and enjoys that expansive living area, we are never distracted by the television droning on in the background. Our focus is on each other. The choice to cover the television with a family portrait created an atmosphere in the home that prioritized family and relationships over entertainment.
Possibilities and Impossibilities
Different families come to different conclusions on how they shape the culture of their home. There are no hard, fast rules. But it is at least good to think through the possibilities and impossibilities created by the cultural objects we bring into our houses.
- For some, a smartphone makes possible constant communication. At the same time, a smartphone makes it almost impossible to give undivided attention to whatever is going on around you.
- For some, the Nintendo Wii is a welcome addition to the home, as it creates the possibility for families to play games together, much like they did with board games and cards a generation ago. Some of these same families will reject the Nintendo DS for the way it can isolate family members from one another and lead to addiction in small kids. Other families forego electronic games altogether.
- For some, it’s important that the living space in the home be sprawling and expansive, even if it means bedrooms will be smaller than usual, in order to foster more “family time” together. For others, large bedrooms with bathrooms are important as guests are regularly expected to stay overnight.
An Atmosphere of Grace
As Christian parents, we are not only responsible for carefully considering the cultural artifacts we bring into our homes. We are also responsible for cultivating an atmosphere of grace. That’s why we ought to be quick to openly confess our sins to one another and quick to extend forgiveness.
It’s easy for many parents to think that the admission of wrongdoing is a sign of weakness a child will exploit. But in failing to confess our own sins, we unintentionally create a culture of stubbornness. Our kids catch on very quickly to the way we shift blame and justify our actions. When we complain and are short-tempered, they complain and are short-tempered. It is easy for the culture of a home to degenerate quickly into periods of sullenness and silence rather than the playful exuberance of joyful liberation that comes from the gospel being applied to our hearts.
Shape Your Culture
Shaping the culture of a home is hard work. It is an ongoing process that demands careful thinking and constant attention. Often we don’t recognize the impact of our decisions on our home’s culture until after we’ve made them. My wife and I don’t have this all figured out. But by God’s grace, we are seeking to create an atmosphere of human flourishing, where the sense of joy is thick, and where God’s love is palpable.