I’ve been reading Stories of Emergence: Moving from Absolute to Authentic (Mike Yaconelli, ed.), and I found some interesting thoughts on pages 90-91 in the chapter written by Chuck Smith, Jr. Here’s the quote with some of my thoughts interacting with it…
Missionaries have the challenge of learning the language and culture of the people among whom they work. To be effective, they have to learn not only how to communicate with words, but to master all the symbolic gestures, signs, and customs that define a culture. A missionary who ignores culture not only sabatoges communication, but also violates the incarnational model of Scripture in which God became one of us.
Good, we’re on the right track here. This is something that missiologists have known for decades, but the church doesn’t seem to think this applies in their own backyard. Communication is key, of course, and understanding culture is the basis for communicating. Here’s where the missionary effort’s greatest failing has been for the past number of decades. While successful in understanding other cultures and beginning communication within those contexts to the extent that the gospel is spread and new churches are established, there remains a failing, namely the phases that follow the establishing of a church. In this phase, colonialism rears its ugly head as the new converts are taught to be more like the culture from whence the missionaries came rather than the one from whence the convert came — and in which he still lives.
Perhaps it was while reading Christianity In Culture that I realized the subculture of my youth had cut me off from mainstream culture. No wonder few people outside our church listened to us. We were uninteligible to them. It also occured to me that to be effective among the baby boom generation, I would have to treat my connection with them as a cross-cultural adventure. In other words, I would have to learn their music, literature, interests, and customs to be able to communicate with them effectively. Sadly this revelation came to me in the late 1970’s when I was already 30 years old.
You’re doing far better than some of us, Chuck. Some of us read all these same books on cultural anthropology and didn’t clue in until we were much older than 30 that there’s a huge disconnect between how the church percieves its mission to the world across the sea and to its near neighbours. But here again, we don’t see our own culture as cross-cultural. It’s where we live and work, and it’s what we know… but we don’t stop to think that our version of it isn’t our neighbours’ version of it. Worse, some of us get to thinking that our (christian) subculture is representative of the whole culture around us; it isn’t. Ward Cleaver, meet Homer Simpson.
What perplexes me is that Christians have known for 50 or 60 years how valuable cultural anthropology is to cross-cultural ministry, but we’ve never applied that knowledge her at home. We’ve assumed that we’re the same culture as those around us, but we’ve failed to acknowledge our radically different worldviews; values; customs; and—in some cases—dress, speech, mannerisms. We may live on the same street as our next-door neighbour, but when we talk about God, we sound like foreigners.
Why haven’t we been encouraged to enter our neighbour’s frame of reference, to see the world as they do, so we can communicate the truth of Jesus to them in a way that they can immediately understand? Why haven’t we been more engaged in popular culture? Why have we allowed Christianity to be marginalized in North America?
Yes, exactly! We allowed Christianity to become marginalized simply because we weren’t paying attention. It wasn’t marginalized in our little circles, after all. And here’s the rub: either we tend not to admit that our circles don’t represent the world around them, or we tend to dichotomize them as good/evil inside/outside circle/world us/them church/target.
For most of my life I was taught that too much interest in popular culture (the world) would result in a compromised faith. A number of normal activities (normal for everyone but religious kids) would lead us to backsliding or even worse. But living under strict censorship and limited involvement with people my own age prevented me from knowing who these people were and what unmet needs might lead them to an interest in Jesus Christ and what he has to offer.
See, it’s fear-based. We allowed Christianity to become marginalized by intentionally isolating it, by trying to keep ourselves “pure” of the world, to keep the worldly culture out of the church. Then we figured that the church’s mission is to get the world into the church, and this was largely approached as being the task of getting the worldliness out of the world so that they’d fit into the church. Here’s where, oddly enough, we’re attempting to colonize our own culture, trying to impose our subculture upon the culture at large. The odds of success are pretty long.
Through ongoing studies in communication and cultural anthropology, our church began to build bridges to our community and tear down the barriers that had kept people out. The way forward was not always clear to us—it never is to pioneers—and we made mistakes. But God has always been faithful to stay near us, guide our progress, and mainatain our momentum. Jesus still patiently trains and leads his disciples.
Back to basics. Get over the fact that culture is amoral, deal with it, and begin to relate and communicate with neighbours within the culture we share. The 50’s are not coming back. Trust me, they’re over. Move on.
So there it is… a resurgence in colonial thinking because of a failure to understand culture, since we don’t recognize that we’re reaching across a culture gap… we can’t or won’t see it. As a result, we attempt to make the culture conform to what we think it should be …laced with our idea of a “biblical” worldview. In so doing, we’re attempting to colonialize our own culture.