Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Church, Gospel and Culture

Congregations seem to have a tough time adjusting to the culture in which they exist. Missionaries adapt quickly or fail in their effort. Missionaries spend time learning the language, cultural values, trends, and preferences in order to gain a hearing for their message.

Bob Kuest, our team leader, spent substantial time with us helping us learn about Myanmar's culture before and during our first trip to Asia. Sometimes these instructions seemed simple and unimportant, but failure to acknowledge these cultural differences build walls that may never be taken down. Like most Asian cultures, for example, the Burmese (people of Myanmar) look upon the bottom of the foot as dirty. Showing the bottom of a shoe or foot, then, is an insult. (The throwing of a shoe at President Bush was intended as a terrible insult.) In Myanmar, you beckon another with the palm down and pulling the fingers toward you. The "thumbs up" sign is insulting. Refusing hospitality or a gift is insulting. Western visitors to Myanmar become ineffective when they neglect or forget these and other simple cultural issues. Then add to that the considerable communication difficulty due to the language barrier (multiple tribal tongues), government restrictions, diet, musical tastes, and more and you can see how important it is for the missionary to adapt to the culture. The missionary should never compromise the message but he/she must often clothe it in forms acceptable to the culture.

It is no different in this country. Christians must get it into their thick skulls they are working "cross culturally." The American culture transformed into something different in the 1960s and 70s. It changed again in the 1980s. It continues to undergo major cultural shifts. Although English is still spoken, the English language uses multiple new words and old words took on meanings unknown 20-30 years ago. Technology dramatically transformed the American culture. I remember when the few businessmen who immediately got on their cell phones upon lighting from an airplane seemed almost ridiculous. Sit on any airplane today and as soon as the wheels hit the runway you'll hear cell phones chirping everywhere. Television transformed the culture. The digital age with projection technology, instantaneous communication, and an intensely graphical medium transformed the way we get messages across.

Christians must see they are increasingly taking the Gospel cross-culturally. Sadly, however, too many churches remain locked into the models of the mid-20th century. Their message, although sound and solid, simply does not resonate with the contemporary culture because it seems foreign and strange. They simply don't speak the language of contemporary culture!

Does this mean the "old style" has no place? Not at all. Can there still be traditional churches? Absolutely! But...they must learn to adapt their "language" and their "practice" so it communicates. For example, there are many who yearn for a church "like grandma and grandpa" attended -- the church gathers in a building that looks like a church, the singing is accompanied by organ and piano (and other instruments), and it has the feel of the older style. Churches must learn the difference between form and substance! Avoid the ritual and repetitiveness of the mid-20th century style, sing more praise hymns (yes out of the hymnal or projected), use digital technology, do things well, cut out "dead spots," and be upbeat. Doing so will retain the feel of the old but use the best of the new. Furthermore, it will communicate!