Thursday, September 29, 2005

Social Identity, Neotribes, and Modern Tribalism

How human beings think of themselves remains one of the foundational questions of human existence. The concept of personal identity has been defined in differing ways by human beings related to their historical and cultural contexts.

Christian missions has long been interested in this issue, and has defined the various ethne (Matt. 28:19) in a variety of ways in the course of her history. The current tendency in missiological circles is to define "people groups" in ethno-linguistic ways.

Modern and post-modern concepts of self add new twists to our thinking. It seems as if the increasing dissatisfaction with modernity and the self defined by consumerism and rationalism is giving way to more fluid concepts of self defined more by shared interests within social networks. Whether goths, vampires, tattooists, or Burning Man participants, these "neotribes" have found a sense of individual and cultural identity that they did not find in either modern secularism or the church. Psychology, sociology, anthropology, and religious studies have been researching these phenomena, and it may be time for the church to interact with these ideas and these people in greater ways.

In my continuing research in these areas as it relates to missiology I came across a documentary titled Modern Tribalism. If evangelicals can get past the initial shock to the sensibilities that this video brings, there is much we can learn about how an increasing number of people view contemporary society and the church. How might the concepts of social idenitty and neotribalism be applied to our understanding of the new religions and emerging spiritualities, both in terms of how we conceptualize and respond to them? How might a new awareness of the multiplicity of neotribes in our communities inform (revolutionize?) our concepts and activities of church as missional congregations? Will we continue to casually dismiss them as the lunatic fringe, or will we love them, learn of them (and from them), listen to their pain and criticism, and embrace them in ways that enables us to walk spiritual paths alongside of them, and in so doing, living and telling of the way of Jesus?


Anonymous said...


One consequence: I am increasingly inclined towards identifying myself as a ‘holistic Christian’ rather than a big-e Evangelical, given that Evangelicalism is so closely identified with modernity in the minds of most people.

Spiritually I’m a bible believing Christian, but culturally I’m post-modern as are the people I witness amongst. I presume you’re familiar with the c-scale of contextualization? Basically I’m most comfortable with C4. I’m thinking there needs to be some expansion on emerging Christian neotribes on the neotribes site also.

John W. Morehead said...

Matt, I think you are correct that the issue of identity and self-reference should not only be considered by evangelicals in terms of their understanding of social groups, but also how we understand and refer to ourselves. I have referred to myself as post- or neo-evangelical, but perhaps the evangelical word has too much baggage to serve us usefully in interacting with the neotribes, not to mention the need for us to reflect on on our own theology and practice behind the label.

Anonymous said...

I can't comment on America but for Australia at least I think the evangelical label does have too much baggage for interacting with neotribes, at least the neotribes I interact with. I considered C5 identities but dropped the search as I could not find an acceptable resolution and came to question the necessity and wisdom of taking it that far where Wicca is concerned. I explored "neo-esoteric Christian" as a label but concluded that had as much baggage as evangelical but in the opposite direction. 'Holistic' is a word out of the cultural milieu which reflects my theological leanings more accurately, ie towards balance and integration of opposites. Esoteric tends to over-emphasise the inner whereas I seek balance between inner and outer. So in one sense I've be comfortable calling myself an esoteric-evangelical or evangelical-esoteric but I think holistic is closer to the mark and simpler.

PS. Before people try to read too much heresy into this they should ask me for clarification before jumping to implications I have not implied.