Friday, January 11, 2008

The Privatization of Culture

In talking about my last post with a friend, we discussed the difference between what Donald McGavern talked about in the pivotal book "Understanding Church Growth" as planting and building churches that reflect the cultural aspects of a people group versus the niche-marketing of many American evangelical churches.

There is one large cultural aspect that is not often discussed in the Evangelical US world--mostly because it is not much discussed in the broader US world either--and that is what my friend called the "privatization of culture." By and large, Americans demand (sometimes subtly, sometimes overty) assimilation to certain cultural norms. Those could be as big as language, perceived work ethics, and relationship styles; and as small as public mannerisms and modes of dress. This is one of the key reasons that Hispanic immigration is a big issue. Moreso than the immigrants of the past, Hispanics tend to keep their cultural distinctives when they come, assimilating at a slower pace. There are some churches that attract people from different cultures, and again, that's a far sight better than the country club deal. But does that truly make a church multicultural, in the sense described in Revelation, or do those people who do come simply understand that they need to become a part of the dominant culture? Are they people who have already committed to assimilation, or are already assimilated? I would submit that they are at least assimilated in one key factor--economic--if they attend and stay at the typical USAmerican Evangelical church. Like my bro-in-law stated in response to my last post, the biggest cultural obstacle most churches never cross is the level of wealth one. But there are a lot of cultural baggage issues, and unless someone sheds their baggage that isn't like the dominant culture of the church they are attending, they aren't going to stay and may not even be welcome.

Is there a way to celebrate and practice true multicultural community? From the standpoint of public, consumer-oriented church programming, I'm not sure it can be done.

I would also submit that the "predominant obstacle" to doing this is almost always the predominant culture. This is vividly displayed in Kenya right now. I think it's one of the reasons that for 2000 years Christianity has thrived in places where it is not the dominant culture and struggled when it actually becomes so (yes, I'm sure this statement is simplistic, but worth thinking through...). So yes, here in the US, whatever American culture is (I'm not fond of "Anglo" but have yet to find a good sub; even "American" is not too good, considering that every other country in North and South America does not like USAmericans usurping sole use of that word) is the primary obstacle. No matter how hard we try, non-conformity to the USAmerican cultural values is ostracized.

The really bad stuff happens when the dominant culture's values are equated with God's values--the typically pattern when Christianity becomes the dominant culture of a people-group. Jesus' message was about so much more than getting your sins forgiven. When he talks about the kingdom of heaven he's challenging the cultural values of the kingdom of earth--even the American ones, and even (maybe especially!) the religious ones--when they function according to the world's system. Jesus came not just to destroy sin's power over my life/death, but to destroy systemic sin as it operates in the world, and this includes the tribalism of Kenya or the US.


Victor R. said...

Arnie, thanks for that post! You are right ... this is the stuff that no one wants to talk about. We are to romantic on our ideas about “multiculuralism.” Another aspect is (in my opinion) when a lot of "minorities" (of whom I'm part) speak of multiculturalism, what they mean is, "now is our turn to segregate" ... "to do things my way" (I know nobody articulates it that way ... but that’s the implication!). I don't think that's very "multi" as far as culturalism is concern. In fact, I wonder to what extent you can truly do things in a 100% multicultural way. One of the cultures is always going to be "giving-in" and "giving-up" things (values, etc). This is the very thing no one wants to talk about ... it's not politically correct ... it doesn't fit in a culture that brags on relativism and pluralism. However, what makes it hard in America (and an uncomfortable challenge) is that the dominant culture is quickly becoming the minority! I like to talk about meta-cultural principles, transcultural virtues. I think we should use those terms if we really want to be "multi-cultural and cross-cultural. It's funny how we no longer like to about "virtue"," but rather about "values." The same with "personality," rather than "character." "Values" and "personality" have to do more with individualistic emphasis ... rather than "virtue" and character" which can point to more meta-cultural and true cross-cultural concepts. I agree with you Arnie in that Christ's Gospel deal with more than our sins. BUT, how the Gospel forgives our sins (atonement in the cross) ... becomes the worldview (the Gospel) that judges and affects how we live (even culturally). As when Paul gets after Peter on how he was selectively "multi-cultural" in Antioch (Gal. 2:14), "when I saw they (Peter and co) were not behaving according to the Gospel)." The issue there was a minister been affected by the dominant culture! It's amazing how the early church was dealing with these issues! I believe the Gospel judges BOTH cultures: the dominant and the in-coming one! They key perhaps is in Eph. 2 ... both cultures to function have to find common ground, common denominators ... even beyond the Gospel and the faith: such as language, socio-economics, etc. ... to be truly "multi-cultural." A church can be "multi-ethnic," but it has to have the same language to make it as one true community. I think that beyond that, if language or socio-economics, are not the same, it will be difficult for BOTH cultures to be comfortable regularly worshiping together ... but that doesn't mean there can be cooperation and participation of cultures that are different (language, etc.) to work together ... to facilitate ministry to each other: such as missions and church planting.

texasinafrica said...

Isn't part of the solution then to move away from consumer-oriented church?

Your observations are dead-on. One of the most interesting aspects of the New Baptist Covenant is the near-total initial failure of the organizers to recognize that there's more to racial reconciliation than the black/white divide. Until someone pointed it out, it didn't occur to them to invite Hispanic Baptists. I don't think this was done out of mean-spiritedness or anything like that; it was just a total oversight. It just never occurred to anyone that these things are issues. Until we all wake up and recognize that the world is multicultural (something I think we Texans are a little more aware of than the average Baptists), very little is likely to change.

Arnie Adkison said...

Victor, thanks for the comments. It often takes a minority (even though in spite of our friend's recent blunder, BUA students from Puerto Rico DO NOT need a student visa to attend) to point out charged issues like that.

Awareness is the first step, and a big one, as TIA points out. The Baptists planning the NBC in Atlanta are some of the more open to these issues type of Baptists, and if even they needed their eyes opened on certain issues, then I think humility is required for us all. We first need to acknowledge what we don't know before we even know what to know.

TIA, I fudge back and forth between utopia and the real world. I'm naturally utopian, in that I agree, it's time to dump the consumer-oriented model altogether. Then I think of it in the same vein as the statement someone famously made that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. The consumer model isn't the worst model in the US, I think. So do I leave it behind and forge into what I really believe (utopia)? Or do I stay and try to effect change in small pockets from the inside out? I've actually chosen to do both, for various reasons.

That probably means I'm doing neither well.