Does Spiral Dynamics theory explain why we are instinctively changing our approaches to evangelism?

canon mark russell
The Archbishops Task Group on Evangelism includes Canon Mark Russell of Church Army, an organisation dedicated to making the Gospel relevant in places parish clergy often don’t reach – but do we all need to change our approach now?

In the 1970s Clare Graves developed a social theory that just might explain the varied mission fields we find ourselves in and the communication mismatch that frequently occurs when we try to proclaim the gospel.

The Anglican Ordinal asks ministers to proclaim the good news of Jesus ‘afresh to every generation’ and Graves theory suggests several reasons why this is getting more complex. Spiral Dynamics is a developmental model of society showing that at various points in history whole sections of the population undergo transitions in the way they perceive and interpret the reality surrounding them. As we cannot understand everything that we see and sense, we filter them through our prevailing values or worldview. These filters determine our response to arguments and events as surely as our genes determine our biological traits. They are called ‘memes’ and collectively ‘v-memes’ where ‘v’ is for value.

You will have gone through a number of these transitions in your lifetime. The first v-meme represents primitive humanity which most of us leave behind in infancy. This gives way to a purple v-meme – a mystical / magical way of interpreting the world – the stuff of the tooth fairy, shamen, Frank Peretti novels and possibly parts of the Bethel church movement. We then develop through the red v-meme in packs or groups where there is a clear leader (think: play ground pecking order or tribal society) to a stable blue level of civilisation and order where ideas and truth claims are settled and reassuringly absolute.

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Frank Peretti novels. This present darkness has sold 1.2million + copies. Read a review?

The blue v-meme works with hierarchical institutions and religion very well. Some of the nicest churches to be in are blue. With reassuring confident worship, and clarity of teaching to anchor you from the storms of life, many people will happily rest in blue, and live out good and productive Christian lives. With ‘faith like a child’ and acceptance of authority there is much to be gained from this v-meme… but !

…But as happened with the enlightenment, and tends to happen earlier and earlier with our schooling, the rational mind at some point wants to ask lots of questions about purpose and truth. A quite strident v-meme emerges beyond this of exploration and achievement asking unsettling questions and trying to maximise your impact and significance in the world. This orange v-meme can be fuel for missionary enterprise and zeal for atheists, evangelicals and liberals alike – each following their quest for truth and trying to influence those around them with and through rational argument.

In the light of this modernistic fervour a new v-meme emerged, the ‘green v-meme’. This is the colour of the ‘tree-hugger’, environmentalist, pluralist, post-evangelical, and all those ‘wishy-washy’ older church leaders that red-BLUE student movements are fond of maligning. It trumpets the language of tolerance, and is the trajectory of most educational / media programmes today. Our children are enculturated in this v-meme from infancy. It is a post-orange worldview where diversity and personal experience are values in and of themselves, and doctrinaire orange absolutists (be they Richard Dawkins or John Piper) are viewed with considerable suspicion.

So far, so familiar, yes? But this is where Spiral Dynamics gets interesting for us:

Firstly: You do have it in you 

Like a set of Russian dolls, all of us retain the previous v-memes in us, even after adding on another v-meme. Hence you can easily return to the magical / mystical v-meme when faced with a terminal illness and you need a miraculous cure. Likewise if you are faced with a sudden threat from an attacker a primitive Beige survival response is better than a Green attempt to see the attack from their point of view.

In ministry terms: You have it in you. You don’t have to be stuck on the level you’ve grown into… you’ve got a whole load of resources in you to help you relate on other levels… Sometimes you can just be tribal! Not sure about this? Check out the Bishop of Willesden on his football comments twitter stream vs his General Synod missives. It’s possible to be red and orange (although a Tottenham fan might not appreciate either colour)!

Second, you need the right people in the right place at the right time.

Street-Pastor3Spiral Dynamics shows that not all the population goes through all these transitions. Some are more than happy to stay Red – doing what they’re told by an authority figure in a small pack/group/gang. It takes red to reach red. Maybe this is what a uniformed Brixton Street Pastor is doing when they reach out to a gang? Huge sections of UK society are purple, red or blue and need leaders who can reach them at the level that they are at. This might explain why the Pentecostal Church (and even Church Army) sometimes has extraordinary successes right next to a failing Anglican church. The leaders are the right people, in the right place at the right time with the right way to communicate the message.

All Nations Christian Centre – just one of many Pentecostal/Charismatic churches thriving in Wolverhampton centre, a few hundred yards from an Anglican church that had been turned into a Sainsbury’s before even the grocer got out! 

Morale of the story: stop overtraining clergy? 

But thirdly, there is the Yellow Leader factor…

Maybe it’s not about not overtraining, but training further than we ever have before…

Later versions of Spiral Dynamics (Spiral Dynamics Integral – SDi) suggest that all of the v-memes described above are First Tier Levels of Consciousness. What comes beyond that is a Second Tier Level of Consciousness that has the ability to integrate all that is good from the preceding v-memes. In the Second Tier you can purposefully select what level you wish to engage at with the people you are seeking to influence. ‘To the Red I became like a Red, to the Orange I became like an Orange’. These Second Tier levels are the Yellow and Aqua v-memes. Apparently they constitute only 1.0% and 0.1% of the current population, and yet perhaps these levels are ones that we should aspire to.

Richard Rohr and Rob Bell enjoying teaching on the Spiral Dynamics Integral

Depending on your background you might investigate SDi, and be intrigued or horrified because of the influence of Ken Wilbur’s Buddhist philosophy. You might see worrying gnostic sounding overtones to this special second tier revelation, or see it as an adventure to explore. You might be reassured or dismayed by Richard Rohr or Rob Bell’s fascination with it. But if you care about reaching people in this nation you shouldn’t dismiss the  empirically based descriptive power on the first tier thinking too readily.

We have churches dominated by the blue v-meme, where individual pastors/ leaders are wrestling with orange issues. We have a sub-culture of Christian young people hiding away in a purple mystical v-meme hoping that the world is actually a different place. We have a schooling system allegedly about an orange engagement with truth, but more often then not pushing for a green universalism. And we have a whole society no longer capable of ‘turning back’ and believing the good news, because they have nowhere to turn back to. Much of our strategy with green level 21st Century intelligentsia has been to say ‘return with me to my orange level’, or ‘come and enjoy the community safety of my blue level’, or ‘let me meet your purple level mystical/magical need through my prayer ministry’.

But what if we tried to lead such people not backwards, but forwards? What if there is a Yellow level – where you and they can truly appreciate all of the preceeding v-memes for the health and good each brings? Most non-churchgoers I interact with instinctively see the advantages of the green over the orange. But does the yellow/aqua level allow us to say to them:

‘Yes. It is good that you can see the benefit of transcending petty fights over religious theory. Yes, it’s good to care deeply about the environment. Yes, it is good to see what is healthy and right in all cultures and not think too highly of ourselves… But come with me also to this further place where you learn to see the world not just through the more helpful aspects of pluralism, but also reengage with a quest for truth and even learn to have faith like a child.’

If we transcend culture in this way, perhaps a truly enlightened society will once again find that there are some things to be learnt that can only be learnt from a place of trust.
If you’re ministering in the Green v-meme maybe it’s time to transcend post-modernity not trip over it. This article about Redeemer Presbyterian   is worth a read. 

But if you’re ministering in red it’s probably time to take a leaf out of the Pentecostal church notebook and forget more than half of what they thought they taught you at college. If we’re not going to abandon huge parts of the U.K. we’d better learn from those good st doing outreach there.


A fascinating podcast on this issue can be found on: the liturgist podcast (episode 5) with Michael Gungor.