The Point of No Return

This is my third post discussing a five stage continuum of growing cross-cultural competence that Mark DeYmaz describes in his book, Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic ChurchHe calls this third stage “Cultural Awareness”.

Cultural Awareness occurs when a person recognises and accepts cultural distinctives. To reach this point one crosses a tipping point away from the previous stage of Cultural Blindness. Once a person accepts that culture runs much deeper than the skin and actually makes up a large part of a persons identity they can no longer deny that cultural differences exist.

Churches positioned in the stage of Cultural Awareness will find themselves talking about their diversity. They will also take steps to address obvious cultural issues such as providing sign language interpretation for deaf members. Decorations and art around the church building may reflect racial diversity. Signs and announcements may be printed in multiple languages. The church might even provide English as a Second Language classes.

DeYmaz describes how Mosaic church has hung flags in their worship area to “communicate no only our awareness but also our appreciation for the individuals and nations represented in our body at any given time.” (104) This makes a public statement that other nationalities and cultures are wanted and welcome at the church.

My observation of this stage is that churches and individuals willingly make adjustments to accommodate differences they observe with people of another race or culture.

This stage cannot be the final destination on the journey of cultural awareness. Although it has crossed a tipping point it still deals mostly with surface issues and observed needs. At this stage understanding intangible cultural values is not a priority.

Although a church service might be bilingual, the attitude toward time and punctuality may still reflect the values of the majority group. A casual attitude toward punctuality on the part of the minority may be generally regarded as disrespectful and rude.

Cultural Awareness does not necessarily lead one to seek understanding of other cultures. The word “awareness” is key to this definition. People recognise differences, but probably can’t explain the differences or the heart issues and values of the other culture. At this stage a person might acknowledge the fact that racial discrimination occurs, but not sit down with a man or woman of colour and ask them to describe the feelings that come with being discriminated against.

If your church is at a place of Cultural Awareness, celebrate that perspective! This is the starting point for a positive dialogue. From this point growth is possible without requiring a new worldview. But don’t sit back as though this is the destination.

Encourage your church to explore cultural issues. Take the first step yourself. Whether your part of a majority or minority, take some time to sit down with someone and compare cultural notes. Find someone you trust and ask them questions you’re nervous to ask publicly.

Don’t think you’ve arrived because you can list those differences.

Make an effort to understand the reason for differences.

Footprints on the Toilet Seat

This is my second post discussing a five stage continuum of growing cross-cultural competence that Mark DeYmaz describes in his book, Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic ChurchHe calls his second stage “Cultural Blindness”.

While stage one actively promotes destruction of other cultures, stage two takes a much more subtle approach. While stage one should never be valued within a church, many churches seem to pursue stage two as a desirable goal.

DeYmaz provides the following definition of cultural blindness:

“[an attitude that] fosters an assumption that people are all basically alike, so what works with members of one culture should work with all other cultures.”

The cunning danger of cultural blindness is that this attitude feeds off words like “equality”. Those who adopt this definition of equality don’t realise that that they actually dehumanise all people. They devalue the unique experiences and values of diverse cultural, ethnic, racial groups and fit them all into a single “human” mold. Strangely that single mold often looks like the person or group making the statement.

I have personally witnessed the pursuit of cultural blindness when I have suggested to churches that they should celebrate the racial diversity among their members. In reply I have heard back statements such as:

  • We don’t want to make a big deal of it, we’re not that different from other churches. (This is a false statement.)
  • When I see people I don’t see colour, I just see people.
  • We’re all Christians, let’s focus on what we have in common.

I’m thankful that the congregation I currently serve does celebrate Harmony Sunday each year.

If we say we see people, but not colour then we’re really not seeing people. If you tell me you know me well and you love me, but you want to ignore the fact that I’m an Australian then you’re ignoring a large part of who I am. You’re ignoring the way I pronounce words, the words I use, the sports that I value most, summers at the beach, a love of lamb meat. Instead, you project on me your likes and dislikes on the basis that we’re both human.

I’m not just being critical of others. I still remember saying to a good friend something like, “I think cultural differences are a crock for people who can’t be bothered to be polite or decent.

Yep, that was me.

Then I lived with some international friends who had several conversations about whether or not they could balance to squat on a raised toilet as they were accustomed to squatting on the lower toilets in their home country.

A person might say they don’t see colour, but there’s a good chance they’ll see footprints on the toilet seat and not be happy about it!

It’s much healthier to recognise and discuss cultural distinctions than pretend they don’t exist while complaining or fighting about them.

Then there’s those Christians who quote verses like 1 Corinthians 12:13 “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” They then use this to argue for a Christian culture subsumes other human cultures.

I was once invited by an African-American family to participate in the funeral of a loved one. I spoke with the minister of the church hosting the funeral and sought clarification on what the various elements of the service were. Some of them were new to me but apparently familiar to this African-American community. Rather than give me an explanation he laughed at my question and said something like, “We’re all Christians so just speak the word.”

That wasn’t very helpful and made me feel a bit stupid.

Yes, Christians have an enormous amount in common with one another. In fact, it’s the presence of the Spirit of God within in us that motivates us to overcome our cultural differences to work together and honour God as a unified body. But the worship at a Chinese church is never going to look like a worship service at a predominantly black church. That difference is culture.

While it’s tempting to pretend that racial and ethnic differences are only skin deep, it’s crucial for church leaders to encourage our members to pursue understanding, not ignorance.

Are Churches Destroying Cultures?

In Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church, Mark DeYmaz describes a five stage continuum of growing cross-cultural competence. Over the next month I’m going to spend some time discussing each of these stages. Here’s DeYmaz’s introduction:

So how can those of us committed to Christ and to the local church pursue cross-cultural competence and avoid ethnocentrism? Although there are a variety of ways to go about it, we should first understand that it will be an ongoing developmental process. We see a cultural continuum moving from destructiveness to blindness to awareness to sensitivity to competence. (p103)

Cultural Destructiveness

I hope that this first stage is never present in a church. DeYmaz includes  a quote that at this level “the emphasis is on using differences as barriers.” People with this mindset acknowledge only one way of being and intentionally seek to subdue and eradicate other cultures.

Examples given of this stage of cultural competence include the ethnic atrocities arising in Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur. Attempts to “reform” native cultures in the United States by forcing Native Americans to Westernise and the tragedy of the Stolen Generation in Australia also fall under this heading.

The goal of multi-ethnic churches is to respect all cultures, not force all cultures to dissolve into the dominant culture of the church.

So while Cultural Destructiveness is never (should never be) a goal of the church, it remains a great fear that hangs over race relations within the church.

Here’s an example from my personal experience.

Australian’s love to watch American movies and TV shows. There’s a lot of them. Some of them are great. Some connect with niche audiences. They generally have high production values and talented writers and actors. What’s not to like?

This movie raises some of the issues in the Australia – US relationship. I thought it was very well done.

In contrast films made in Australia telling Australian stories have much smaller budgets. The writers and actors do a terrific job, but the movies always seem to lack the Hollywood glitz. Australia doesn’t have super spy agencies. Australia doesn’t have the super glamourous rich and famous segment of society. Basically, Australia just lacks the same “cool factor” that American movies seem to ooze. As a result less people watch them.

That’s simply the market realities. There is no secret US plot to take over Australia and suppress Australian stories and destroy the Aussie culture. (or is there???) But when kids who need the police in an emergency dial 911 instead of the Australian emergency number 000, the influence is undeniable. Aussies then become defensive toward Americans as a way of protecting their cultural identity and independence.

Can you picture this same process taking place in a church setting?

While teaching English to immigrants can provide a valuable service to that community, if immigrants are expected to always speak in English in the church they will always be outsiders. If the church doesn’t support the learning of the parent languages among 2nd generations, it may appear that the church is on a mission to Anglicise and Westernise all immigrants as much as it is to worship God.

If US churches make a big deal of Independence Day celebrations, but fail to acknowledge Martin Luther King Day, or Chinese New Year they silently make the statement that only one culture is important. Sometimes churches feel good because their Chinese members celebrate the Lunar New Year together and it’s on the church calendar, but no one really expects the whole church to attend. Yet for the Labor Day picnic the entire church body is expected to be in attendance (including the Chinese members).

While an initial survey of this continuum may tempt us to disregard the first stage, it really needs to be considered. While only in rare and extreme situations would a church actually say “we don’t want a particular racial group or culture to enter our church”, the fear of cultural destruction is very real for minority groups within a church. “Do we have to give up our racial and cultural identity to become part of this church family?”

Churches and individual Christians need to make the conscious decision that we will not only love and embrace people from other races and cultures, we we will also do our best to welcome their culture. One way we will demonstrate our love is by expressing interest and value in the customs of cultures we don’t know well.