Friday, May 16, 2008

Cultural Adaptation vs. Trusting in Cultural Cleverness

For a couple of years I was the piano player for a small Hispanic church. The church grew, then reached a plateau. Every Sunday morning I'd worship in Spanish while my wife worshiped in English in another building nearby. I tried to do music in as Hispanic a style as I could, but no matter how hard I tried, I still sounded Anglo. Eventually, I concluded that I needed to start worshiping with my wife again. The Hispanic church, now stronger than when I came, was forced to develop its own musical style. It started growing again.

Almost all of us Christians like to worship in our own culture. That's why we have mostly-black churches and mostly-white churches, mostly-old churches and mostly-young churches. It's why we have churches made up of English-speaking Filipinos and churches of English-speaking Chinese. Islam teaches that the Quran cannot be translated into any language but Arabic. Christianity, by contrast, translates the Bible into as many languages and sub-languages as possible. That's part of the wonder of Christianity, and it's not some new add-on. On the Day of Pentecost, the day of the church's birth, Jews from a number of different countries heard the apostles praising God, and each person heard praise in his own language. The apostle Peter himself opened the door for the Gospel to go to Gentiles (to non-Jews).

Today, chuches in the USA and other similar countries face the twin dangers of ignoring the need for cultural flexibility or of trusting in their cultural flexibility instead of trusting in Jesus. Some churches won't bend on cultural issues, no matter what. They are sure that their kind of music, their kind of sermon, their kind of clothing, their kind of building, and their kind of church dinner are the only possible holy ways to serve God. They're sure that Peter, James and John must have been culturally just like their own church.

Other churches trust in their cleverness. They publicize their trendiness. They think that if they are "relevant" enough, flocks of people will come to them and will experience the true gospel. Often, flocks of people DO come, but it's often doubtful how much of the gospel they experience. Churches of this sort may be experts in strategy sessions, in facilities management, and in publicity. They may know much more about sociology and psychology than about the Lord. For them, the Bible may be only a jumping-off point to launch them into messages about whatever perceived needs their people have. They may talk more about success, about spirituality, about encouragement, and about marriage than they do about Jesus.

Either type of church is out of balance. Jesus must be the center--today, tomorrow, and 100 years from now. Yet we must also be flexible. Our culture isn't Jesus' culture. It's ours, and other people don't need to imitate it. They will have their own culture. Yet we and they must love each other in the Lord, recognizing one another as family in the Lord.

How can we avoid both errors? Here are some thoughts.
1. We can remind ourselves over and over that Jesus is the heart of the gospel.
2. We can ask the Lord to give us cultural sensitivity.
3. We can look humbly at our own culture, asking the Lord to reveal parts of it that don't please him.
4. We can notice where another culture is more obedient to the Lord than is our own culture. For example, I can respect and admire the family loyalty of the Hispanics, the organization of the Germans, the humor of the Irish, the self-discipline of the Koreans, and so on.
5. We can try to be sensitive to the cultural preferences of everyone in our own congregations, trying not to freeze out anyone culturally.
6. We can steadfastly refuse to act like the power of our message is in its acculturation. We can realize that cultural sensitivity is not the force behind our message, but that cultural insensitivity can hinder the Lord's ability to work through us.
7. We can enjoy our own cultures without looking down on the cultures of other people.
8. We can ask the Lord to send out missionaries who are sensitive to culture, but who are more sensitive to him.


Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

A really good post, thoughtful, and very true.

When I was in Japan recently for the first time, I had another disappointment about my chosen form of Christianity there, Orthodoxy.

My trip coincided with the holiest part of the year, Orthodox Pascha (Easter), a time when one tries never to be away from home, unless he is in Jerusalem itself.

I made my trip with my best friend, missionary co-laborer Brock, and the two of us were visiting our mutual best friend Taka, who is a non-Christian with a very Christian personality and lifestyle. Oh, that's right, you already know all this!

I was hoping (we were hoping) that when we attended one of the Pascha services at the Japanese Orthodox church in Nagoya, that Taka might hear something from the Lord in the church service. Orthodox services are pretty much biblical passages sung or chanted, interspersed with biblically-based poetry in the form of songs. The Orthodox temple is also full of icons (bible pictures), which are supposed to help draw people to Christ.

What actually happened?
My best friend was alienated when he saw me singled out as an Orthodox, made to kneel down in front of the church for the formality of confession (even tho I had nothing to confess, and that is considered okay), given a blessing to receive holy communion, while he was left behind. I'm sure he would say that it didn't matter, and so would I, because the informal communion that we had up to that point was just as, if not more, real than the formal communion. But it did hurt me, because to me we are like one soul.

As for Taka, even though the service was almost all in Japanese, he claimed not to have understood any of what was sung or chanted. He said they were just mumbling. (That's a certain Orthodox style of reciting in a monotone so quickly that you really can't make out all the words, even when they're in your own language. I hate this custom!) And so, an evangelistic opportunity was wasted. The Orthodox Church was always foremost in translating the Word of God into native languages, but sometimes they use archaic forms of the language, and so the truth is hidden from the people. This was, I think, especially true of East Asian languages.

The other thing that really disappointed me was this. The Japanese Orthodox church we attended was in process of saving to build a new temple (worship hall). They have bought the land, and they have an architectural model of the building—it's a copy of an old 11th century Russian cathedral, box shaped with three arches at the top of each of the four faces, and then topped with a dome. Other buildings are, of course, attached to it (fellowship hall, school, etc.). What really bothered me was this:

Japan is not Russia. The church buildings should be Japanese in form, and since Orthodoxy was the original form of Japanese Christianity centuries before it was ever brought by Catholic and Protestant missionaries, the temple and its buildings should reflect the Japanese cultural heritage. Instead, they're building a Russian style temple and they chant and sing in a language my own best Japanese friend could not even understand! I was very, very unhappy.

The service we attended was the "descent into She'ol" service on the Saturday before Pascha (the resurrection of Jesus). I really wanted Taka to hear how Jesus, after He went to His voluntary and life-giving death, descended to Hades where He loosed the bonds of those who were chained there, and brought them out. Taka's mother had just died two years before, and I wanted him to understand that Buddha has no power over death and hell, but Christ has. I think that if he had been able to witness the service of "descent into She'ol" in modern Japanese, he might have begun to understand. (Their family is not technically Buddhist any more than any Japanese family. It’s only tradition to marry in a Shinto shrine and bury in a Buddhist temple.)

I wanted to blog on this topic, but I haven't yet, so I'm leaving the jist of what I'd like to blog as a comment on yours. I hope you don't mind. I want to get in touch again with the Orthodox church in Nagoya and let them know my thoughts. They claim to have the "seikyo" or true teaching about Jesus, and they say they want to bring it to all Japanese people. Well! That wasn't a fine start with my friend.

As you have seen, if you've read my blog and the statements I make there, the kind of Orthodoxy I believe and practice is non-denominational and bible-centered. The non-denominational aspect I learned from the Greek priests I hung around with in America when I first joined the Church. The bible-centered aspect I got from my original conversion experience plus the reading the writings of the best Church fathers, from earliest to latest.

These are my thoughts, brother, on bringing the good news to other peoples, how my church has done it, is doing it, sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly, and how I do it as an Orthodox layman.

Please pray for Romanos the sinner, who wants to help bring the good news to Japan, but doesn't know if the Lord will let him return there.

CHARLAX said...

HIM of Praise
HIM of Praise


life; broken
used unwashed homeless tired sad hurt questing for an answer, yes it is HIM who loves me JESUS. The answer to every question. ABOVE every other namme the HIM who seems so far away and yet eye find the love is still in evidence the richness in the finding. Love is given never taken the takers and the shakers come to HIM and get dumbfounded, the poor questors will still receive communion. Live is a mobius stripped not the start of the cradle to the grave sinfilled natural disaster somewhere in my timeline lies uninterrupted salvation. HIM who loved me also called me to tell his people of HIS namme. HIM who loves ewe also needs ewe to call on HIM in fear and trembling YES and then to drop the fear of days gone bye and love HIM for YES HE loves. HIM who writes the names in BOOK of LIFE loves all of us the namme of JESUS the namme the namme is JESUS. HE who brings us life also brings us days then HE adds them to our lives. JESUS. HIM of Praise.

Jim Swindle said...

Thank you, Romanós, for your comments. Most churches seem to run to one error or another concerning culture.

I believe it often takes the Lord's special work to open people's eyes to cultural adaptation that's needed; that's much of the missionary gift. Brother, it sounds like the Lord has gifted you to communicate his gospel across cultural barriers.

It also takes the Lord's preserving power to keep us from putting culture ahead of Jesus. That's one of the great blessings the Lord has given you: You love your culture, but you love him more, much more.

Jim Swindle said...

Charles, thanks for sharing. I'm glad the Lord is preserving you.

C. Marie Byars said...

I like the idea of the middle road, the moderation, although I'm in a different denomination. This, I believe, takes much wisdom & discernment & constant reevaluation. (But, personally, for me, I'm still in "nature mode" for my own spiritual insights!)

Jim Swindle said...

A middle road is good only if it's the CORRECT road. Somewhere in a drawer I have a haunting reminder of what happens when the church adapts too much to the culture. It's an "evangelical church" banner from Germany from the 1940's, complete with swastika.

C. Marie Byars said...

I sort of thought your were encouraging others to look at a middle road in dealing with culture and the church. The middle road isn't always synonymous with "appeasement". It can mean taking a stand for what's right--in the middle. I find that that's the area where there's usually less error than in the extremes. (Of course, in cases like facing the Nazi's, the right course was to be an extremist--to face them down and oppose them firmly as Bonhoeffer did.)

C. Marie Byars said...

Good morning! I wanted to follow up with why moderation has become important to me. (Yesterday was a bad day for a lot of reasons. Plus, in the non-electronic world, there are many arenas I can't always speak up, but I see & process a lot of things, nonetheless. On top of which, electronic interchanges are sometimes dicey.) One thing I'm absolutely conservative on is the belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. It's that very conservative matter that makes other things not always come out either on the right or the left on other things. Certain classic Lutheran doctrines are the "middle ground": the Real Presence in the Lord's Supper vs. either a symbolic meal or transubstantiation; a "single predestination" only for salvation vs. Arminianism or Calvinistic double predestination. (And this middle ground leads us into inexplicable mysteries.) Another reason for looking at the middle a lot, which is why I liked this posting of yours, is the incessant "tempest in a teapot" provoked (yes, provoked, not promoted) by a certain core of (mostly) clergy in our denomination. They're trying to recreate a past that never really existed. Trying to insist that we create a 'classical' culture in worship. (And I myself love Bach & Handel, but I like blended worship where you can select an appropriate contemporary song here and there that is not doctrinally off and goes with the theme of the day. But these guys decry even that as "liberal.") There are some people that are truly liberal enough that they probably should leave our denomiation for another. But these extreme guys on the so-called "right" probably should leave, too. They start lawsuits & spend all their time on the internet, overly suspicious of others' motives in outreach, and preside over ever-increasingly shrinking churches (which they chalk up to being the only ones who are "faithful" when in reality they often just have very bad people skills). Most people I know from any branch of the Lutheran church are straight Republicans on the seculart front. But even there I pause. (I'm an independent.) I'm really okay with evolution being taught in school because that's what the scientific community promotes. But I think it's a lousy theory (which I rejected even when I was an agnostic based on its own lack of merits, let alone the Biblical view); but I'll tell my children at home what the theory lacks. I don't need my children to pray in school, but we will proudly pray in restaurants, and, of course, at home, even when friends are over. Sometimes I think the right and the left in secular matters each promote (and then justify) different types of immorality. Yes, I'd love to see abortion end. But pro-life candidates rarely follow through. I think that's one that will get solved more on the person-to-person front. Plus, most candidates conservative enough to be pro-life will not consider any examination of gun regulations. (And I'm all for hunters having their long-barrel weapons; but considering how many kids are accidentally killed with handguns, why can't we look at stronger safety measures?) And, too, the more ideologal wings of secular politics want to decry "Who's getting welfare?" Well, almost everyone is, except some segments of the middle class: the poor, the corporations (and the CEO's with the golden parachutes), farmers, the banks. I guess all of us with mutual funds actually are getting a form of welfare, too. And having worked in medical billing, I can tell you that we have a highly inefficient form of socialized medicine, already. The insured pay for the uninsured, but it goes through a lot of bureaucracy and mental handstands. I know that bringing up all these various forms of "the middle ground" aren't part of your original post, but I like your work & just wanted to let on where I'm coming from. (BTW, on another note, my more secular blog, which occasionally has Biblical quotes, has attracted some readers from India & I've had a chance to share the gospel!!! So I pray for them.) God keep you!

Jim Swindle said...

Thanks, Marie, for your very detailed comment. I'd agree with almost all of it.

Yet I aim at being flexible yet biblical; not so much at a middle way. I used to aim at that, but the disaster of modern evangelicalism in the USA has discouraged me from thinking that way. Many of those I thought were on a middle, flexible-yet-biblical way, have gone far afield into non-biblical paths, away from Jesus.