The Church’s Cultural Captivity

In my previous post I began a summary of a presentation by Dr Soong-Chan Rah that I recently attended at the Northeastern Seminary. In this post I will describe his second session.

What is Cultural Captivity?

“When the church looks more like surrounding culture than the values of Scripture, it has been taken captive.”

Dr Rah suggested three ways that Western/White culture has captured the church in America.

  1. Individualism;
  2. Materialism; and
  3. Racism.

Let’s look at these:

1. Individualism

Most Western Christians fail to appreciate that the Bible was written to communities. In the case of many Old Testament books the targeted audience was the nation of Israel. In some cases the prophets also wrote to the nations surrounding Israel. Likewise, the New Testament was predominantly written to entire churches. Even the pastoral books were included in the Bible because Timothy and Titus obviously shared them with the congregations they served.

Yet when we read Scripture we predominantly seek personal applications. We ask, “How does this passage speak to my circumstances, or improve my life?” rather than asking “How can this church better represent God to our immediate community and the world?”

Our individualistic mindset is demonstrated in 1 Corinthians 3:16: Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? (NASB) Both the context and the plural Greek word make clear that this statement refers to the church, not the individual. This hasn’t prevented us from using this verse to support everything from prohibiting smoking to supporting dieting, etc. while completely missing the point that Christ dwells within his church.

Without going into details here, other cultures with a more communal worldview will more naturally value the spiritual health of the body, the church, rather than focusing upon individuals.

2. Materialism

This point extends beyond simply the pursuit of material goods. Rah proposes that our vocabulary often betrays how we have reduced life and relationships to an exchange of goods. Commerce becomes the lens through which we view and describe life. Consider this list of terms:

  • We invest in people.
  • We spend time.
  • We value or treasure  those we love.
  • We waste time.
  • We shop for churches.

You could probably come up with your own list.

Many churches also reflect a materialistic attitude. We commonly assess the health of a church using the ABC measuring stick: Attendance, Building, and Cash flow. Matthew 25 and Acts 2 both teach that spiritual health has nothing to do with these measures. Rather, Jesus seeks justice and compassion, love for the poor, dedication to God, and commitment to other believers.

If we accept these attitudes as symptoms of Cultural Captivity, then we need to open ourselves up to the possibility that we can learn from Christians and churches in other cultures.  This realisation challenges any sense of spiritual superiority we might have because of large ABC’s.

3. Racism

Although “race” is really a social construct to explain visual differences between groups of people, it has proved a major point of conflict throughout the history of the church. In the NT the divide between Jew and Gentile was at once cultural, racial, and spiritual. While it is too simplistic to view the Jew-Gentile conflict as purely racial, surely ethnic heritage played a significant part in creating that divide.

Acts 15 describes a major council within the first church to address significant questions about Jews, Gentiles and Jesus. Sadly, the church failed to embrace that lesson and has throughout history sought to exclude various racial groups from full membership in the body of Christ.

The rest of the book of Acts describes the power of the church to grow when we concentrate on the Spirit that binds us together rather than various aspects that differentiate us from one another.

American churches have allowed cultural values to validate the establishment and preservation of separate black and white churches throughout the country. Rather than embodying a lesson the first church learned 2000 year ago, we have lagged behind culture as we have resisted and devalued the racial integration of churches. We have maintained our racial islands while watching institutions throughout society integrate. In this instance churches are captive not just to culture, but to a culture of 30 years ago. In the meantime, society’s values in relation to race relations now often do a better job of reflecting Godly values than the church does.

Is there Hope?

A major empowering feature of Cultural Captivity is that it’s difficult to detect from the inside. With no other reference point we read Scripture through our cultural lens and it feels normal and logical.

My previous post demonstrated the “browning of America”. As a result of this demographic shift our cultural assumptions are challenged. We find ourselves exposed to alternative ways of reading and applying Scripture. Exposure to different cultural values should prompt us to reexamine our beliefs and practices for areas where western culture has skewed our reading of God’s Word. As we study the Bible, we need to listen to others who speak from a different cultural perspective. Not everything that is “obvious” to us is obvious to everyone. And sometimes what’s “obvious” may even be wrong.

Multiethnic churches have an opportunity to lead the US church  in this process of  self-examination. However, it still requires a commitment to raise, discuss and study topics that may lead us individually and as a church to uncomfortable places. Racial integration will lead to healthier churches, but it requires each of us to be willing to live with a degree of discomfort as we encourage each other on our journey toward Christ.


Changing Faces

many colorsEarlier this week I was fortunate to attend a workshop on Multicultural Churches presented by Dr Soong-Chan Rah at Northeastern Seminary here in Rochester, NY. Dr. Rah is widely recognised as a leading academic in the field of multiethnic churches. He has directly planted and ministered in a multiethnic church in Cambridge, MA and now teaches courses related to urban and multiethnic churches. In 2010 he published a popular book, Many Colors, advocating the need for churches and church leaders to understand the influence of culture and the need to develop Cultural Intelligence.

Over the next few weeks I plan to reflect on the material Dr. Rah presented at this workshop.

The Changing Face of Global Christianity

In 1900 83% of Christians were located in Europe and North America. These primarily white continents infused Christianity with values and practices that were meaningful to that population.

By 2050 sociologists project that a mere 28% of Christians will be located in Europe and North America. Even in these continents many of the churches will be predominantly filled with non-white members. For example, the largest church currently in Kiev, Russia is a Nigerian congregation.

Globally, God’s kingdom is growing, not shrinking. But the church of today and tomorrow looks very different from the church of yesteryear. By 2050 Africa will contain 29% of global Christians, Latin America will be home to 22% and Asia will have 20% of all Christians.

The forms and rituals of the predominantly white European church will also need to evolve to reflect this movement in global church demographics. Each of these cultures needs to find it’s individual voice with which to worship and serve God.

The Changing Face of American Christianity

As a result of immigration (legal and illegal) and birth-rate American society has changed dramatically since the 1960’s. In 2008 one-third of the American population were minorities of various backgrounds. By 2011 half of all births were within minority communities. At that rate, by 2023 one half of all children in the US will be racial minorities. As the trend continues, by 2042 the historically dominant white racial group will make up less than 50% of the US population.

Stephen Warner has observed, “The new immigrants represent not the de-Christianization of American society, but the de-Europeanization of American Christianity.” Elsewhere he noted,

Above all, the new immigrants make it decreasingly plausible for Americans to think of Christianity as a white person’s religion. . . . And although it may not be apparent in many congregations, American Christians are increasingly people of color.

There is no reason to think that this trend will reverse itself any time soon. Predominantly white churches will increasingly look like anomalies in this changing landscape. The question monocultural churches must address is whether they will embrace this racial diversification of Christianity, or resist it.

The Changing Face of Boston

Dr Rah illustrated the transition the American church is experiencing by using Boston as a case study. New England has long been recognised as the prime example of increasing secularisation and diminishing Christian presence. However, Dr Rah contends that much of this decrease in church attendance is primarily predominantly located within the white portion of society.

In 1970 the city proper of Boston was home to about 300 churches. Many of these historic churches no longer exist. In most cases their buildings have been repurposed or demolished.

However, this does not mean that God has fled Boston. Dr Rah cited a recent survey that listed 600 churches within the city limits of Boston. The difference is that these churches do not meet in stately buildings on prominent street corners. The churches are mostly found within ethnic, immigrant communities, and over half these churches hold their services in a language other than English.

According to a 2009 report commissioned by the Mayor’s Office of New Bostonians, by 2007 minority racial groups made up a majority (50.1%) of the city of Boston’s population. The demise of most of those 300 churches was not tied to a decline in Christianity, but the churches failure to engage the highly spiritual immigrant and other minority communities.

Between 2001-06 at least 98 new churches were planted in Boston. 76 of these churches responded to survey and reported that while 50% of those new churches worship in a language other than English, many of them, even with a majority non-white attendance, also have English services.

The Christian world is changing. American society is changing. Our cities are changing.

The big question for established churches is, “Will existing churches allow God to infuse them with new life and cultures, or will God need to raise up new churches to continue his mission in the changing landscape of American cities.

Boston Immigration

Color Brave not Blind

This week a friend shared a TED talk with me that captured my attention. Mellody Hobson raises the issue of race because as she looks around the boardrooms of corporate America she sees a glaring absence of minority representation. Consider this statement, “Of the Fortune 250, there are only seven CEOs that are minorities, and of the thousands of publicly traded companies today, thousands, only two are chaired by black women, and you’re looking at one of them.

This disparity prompted her to take the risk to use the forum of TED talks to discuss the state of race equality in the United States. She speaks to the business community and challenges them not to be complacent and to take whatever small steps they can to provide all people with the same opportunities in life.

Here is her presentation from March 2014.

I appreciate her use of the term “color brave”. It encapsulates several important ideas.

  1. Addressing racial issues still requires courage.
  2. The phrase promotes action. No bravery is required to say nothing.
  3. It challenges the common term, “color blind”.

I’m not going to regurgitate her excellent presentation, but I do believe churches need to adopt this attitude. I believe that color blindness is the predominant attitude toward racial integration in the majority of churches and it results in a lot of white folks standing around together, and a lot of black folks standing around together, and lot of Hispanic folks….

I was also blessed this week to attend a Gospel Meeting at a local black Church of Christ. The visiting speaker was Dr Carl Baccus from the Southside Church of Christ in Los Angeles. Dr Baccus has ministered with this church he planted for the past 58 years.

At one point during his sermon, Dr Baccus paused, looked around and said, “This church is too black.” That’s a “color brave” statement if ever I heard one!!! He then made the point that churches need to serve their communities and therefore look like their communities.

His own church was planted in a predominantly African-American neighbourhood not far from LAX. However, over the years this neigbourhood has transitioned and now is now predominantly Hispanic. Southside Church of Christ responded to this change by hiring a Hispanic minister. They offer a Spanish language worship service and Bible classes as well as bilingual portions of their services.

Dr Baccus also mentioned that more Koreans are moving into the neighbourhood now and the church is considering how this will impact their ministries.

When Dr Baccus said, “This church is too black” he spoke with considerable credibility as someone willing to change the culture of his church in order to reach the lost souls in his community. That’s being “Color Brave”.

What will it take for more church leaders to look their congregation in the eye and say, “We’re too monotone. Let’s do something about it!

  • I have previously written on the topic of racial colour blindness HERE.

The Value of Community

Last week’s post on Donald Sterling was well received. Thank-you to those who took the time to read it and also to those who sent me a private message on the subject.

I wrote that post just a couple of days after the NBA gave Sterling a lifetime suspension from the NBA. I’m happy with my comments and questions. But I appreciate a couple of friends who have written on the topic this week and the perspectives that they present. No one person or article can cover all aspects of any topic and each writer has a style that connects best with different audiences. So I accept my limitations, but look at this for a diverse lineup:

  • I write as an Australian who has spent most of the last 15 years in the US. I now life in upstate New York.
  • Jonathan Storment has white skin, was raised in Arkansas and now preaches for a church in Abilene, Texas.
  • Sean Palmer is an African-American raised in the deep South. He now serves as the Lead Minister at The Vine church in Temple, Texas.

You get enough of my writing on this site, so I want to use this space to highlight some elements of recent articles by Jonathan and Sean.

Jonathan’s article is one of his regular guest posts on Scot McKnight’s blog.  He opens and closes by racist attitudes in his life. The point of his article is that the church has helped him identify this sin and repent of it. Without this outside intervention in his life these attitudes may still remain unacknowledged and festering. Praise God for those in his life who were not too timid to speak truth. Too often we gather around us people who affirm us more than challenge us. While we certainly need affirmation and encouragement a healthy church will also help us identify blind spots in our hearts and lives.

Jonathan used one term that really caught my attention: “Elegant Racism”. While it’s hardly self-explanatory it accurately describes many of our churches today. On the one hand we confess that God loves all people of all races, all ethnicities, all  cultures, and all languages equally. But we take no steps to build bridges to the racial, ethnic, cultural and language groups different from our own. We are “elegantly racist” because we’re so darn polite about not associating with the “others”!

The sad truth is that it’s often easier to love people who aren’t sitting in our living room. It’s easy to be moved about the plight of poor children on the other side of the world and give lots of money to send a missionary so that they can hear the wonderful news of Jesus. It’s much harder to run an after school program for children on the other side of town.

Jonathan’s article is a needed reminder for me. Too often I get to the end of a week and look back on who I ate with and realise they were mostly, or all, white guys aged within 15 years either side of me. If I’m not intentional, elegant racism becomes a tragic part of my life. Who are your friends? Who do you eat with? Who do you go to the movies with? What activities in your life take you outside your cultural comfort level?

Sean’s article points out three ways our Sunday segregation undermine central tenets of the Gospel. First, we make cultural preservation a ministry of the church. Although Romans 16:4 has a puzzling mention of “all the churches of the Gentiles” the first church consistently worked to overwhelm the Jew – Gentile divide. When churches make the preservation of a particular culture part of their mission, we begin diluting the Gospel message.

Second, when our racial traits form a stronger bond than does our submission to Jesus we undermine Jesus’ death. Sean makes this excellent point, “Because we have deluded the scriptures and encased the Bible as a personal, self-help book, we’ve lost its deliberately public calls for social change.” Yes, we can make our faith too personal.

Sean’s third point naturally flows from his second. Not only is our faith too personal, so is our worship. The church is infatuated with worship styles. I’m part of that. I’m a big believer that worship needs to be meaningful to me in order to be meaningful to God. Singing hymns from the 1600’s with words I don’t understand prompts a disinterested attitude that disrespects God. But when we worship as a church we also practice sacrifice. We worship God when we sacrifice some of our preferences so that a sister or brother can express their heart to God.

I’ve recently been challenged to consider my entire Christian walk as one of submission. It’s tough. Ephesians 5:22 is an infamous verse as it instructs wives to submit to their husbands. If I’m asked to read this passage at a wedding I always make sure I read v21 “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This certainly provides a great basis for marriage. What we often overlook is that this passage discusses marriage as a metaphor of Christ and the church (v32). Mutual submission is the basis of harmony within the church.

When I’m unable to worship God because of “style”, I’m also not submitting to my sisters for whom that style has great familiarity and meaning. But if other church members refuse to vary their worship style they’re also refusing to serve those in the church with values different to themselves. God’s model of worship requires submission and sacrifice by everyone, not just the minority.


I hope my reflections have encouraged you. Most of all, I hope my post encourages you to go and read what these guys have to say. I really appreciate their hearts and the authenticity they bring to the table from their distinct backgrounds. Leave a comment on their blogs and support them as they stick their necks out to challenge the church to represent God’s vision for his kingdom: that the church may be one.

Immigration is Tough

I took a couple of days vacation this week, so I’m also taking a short cut with this blog post. I recently came across this article on ESPN that describes the challenges confronting Latin American baseball players who’ve been raised in poverty when they move to the US.

“Let’s cut Yasiel Puig some slack”

Yasiel Puig is a star player for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Puig was born and raised in Cuba. He defected from Cuba in 2012 and shortly after signed a multimillion dollar contract with the Dodgers.

Yasiel PuigIn June 2013 Puig made his major league debut. Since then he has seemingly made a habit of attracting controversy and criticism. Off the field he’s twice been arrested for driving 40-50+ mph over the speed limit. On the field he’s been criticised for some of his decisions and effort. His attitude toward the media  has also lacked cooperation at  times leading to more criticism.

If you’re an American member of the media, or coaching staff, or fan, you look at his behaviour and evaluate it based upon standards and social expectations with which you’re familiar. In this article Dan Le Batard does a good job of explaining all the adjustments Puig, and other Latin American players, go through when they find instant wealth in a new country.

I share this article here as a reminder that many industries have to work through the cultural challenges that arise in a multicultural environment. Churches can learn from these businesses and industries. Over time Puig will undoubtedly become more familiar with American expectations and customs, but in the meantime he will continue to fumble his way through social situations and probably offend some people as well.

This article reminds me that often we know very little of what’s going on in  a person’s life that motivates their behaviours and attitudes. We need to  exercise care not to simply criticise behaviours without making and effort to understand what’s going on int he bigger picture of their life.

I remember an elderly lady in my home church who emigrated from Germany after World War II. Fairly regularly she would drop an expletive into a conversation. She was a wonderful Christian so this always seemed very strange. One day I learned that her husband had been killed by the Nazis and she’d emigrated on her own. She’d found work wherever she could get it and worked in the fields harvesting crops for many years. In that environment she was exposed to a lot of course language at the same time she was learning English. She simply didn’t have anyone in her life to help her navigate the social acceptance of particular words. Knowing that back story really helped to understand conversations I’d had with her!

The Conference Conundrum

Late last year I came across an article describing the lack of racial diversity among speakers at major evangelical conferences around the US.

Since I can be a pretty skeptical guy, let me get the limitations of this article out of the way:

  • The numbers are not serious research as they were determined simply by the author scanning names and photo’s of speakers at the various conferences. (I expect they should still be pretty close to accurate.)
  • The article’s bottom line that only 13% of conference speakers represent minorities is skewed by some conferences with many speakers but low minority involvement. In fact about one-quarter of the conferences listed have 20% or higher minority speakers.
  • The numbers do not reflect the percentage of “unique” speakers, either white or minority. It could be the same 5 black and Hispanic speakers at each conference!
  • Some of the organizations that host these conferences serve mostly white churches. The speakers reflect the target audience.
  • The evangelical movement is largely a white movement. As the article itself points out 81% of evangelicals are non-hispanic whites. Wouldn’t we expect their conferences to be largely white?
  • This is not just a white issue. The religious landscape is scattered with black denominations, hispanic workshops, etc.

Despite the limitations listed above I thought the article raised a valid point on whether these significant and influential events among evangelical church leadership should better reflect the goal of racial diversity.

In a similar analysis Mark DeYmaz concluded that based upon US population distribution at least 25% of conference speakers would be non-White. He’s not arguing for quotas or compromising the quality of speakers, just more awareness of this issue and the racial landscape of the United States.

I’ve never organized or hosted a major conference. All my reflection should be understood through that lens.

These major events that attract thousands of church leaders have an easily generalised goal of influencing the church to be more passionate and effective in carrying out the mission of God. In many ways these conferences seek to model what local churches can look like, and inspire them to move in certain directions.

If a conference rolls out white male after white male speaker, it implies that these white men are the keepers of God’s word for the church today. It discourages minorities from attending the conference as their social context and cultural perspective will not be represented. It further insulates the “white church” from the influence of other people groups and thus perpetuates the issue of segregation within the church.

I’m not at all blaming conferences for the segregation of the church. I am criticising these conferences for not leading the movement toward racially integrated churches. I see this as an opportunity missed.

Because I know some people will quickly point a finger at the various workshops and conferences catering to minority groups let me address that topic for a moment.

Some of those conferences need to exist to serve a particular language group. Some of those conferences exist because they function as identity preservation for a particular cultural group. (If there was a conference for “Australian church leaders working in the US”, I’d try to get there!) Some of these workshops allow issues specific to Asian-American immigrants to be addressed by those familiar with the issues.

I’m not trying to argue that all conferences should offer a melting pot of speakers and attendees.

However, even within the workshops that cater specifically to non-White populations it seems that many of the arguments for greater diversification still have some validity. I would hope that all church leaders across the racial spectrum agree that we can learn from each other.

If there isn’t room for racial diversity in our iconic events, then there’s unlikely to be room for this enrichment in our local congregations.

Thankfully, DeYmaz could also reflect, “With this in mind, we should be encouraged as trends are moving in a positive direction.

If you’re interested in multi-ethnic conferences here are a couple to consider:

Am I too White?

I don’t know a lot about River Pointe Church in Houston. This video was embedded in this interesting article on River Pointe and its efforts to embrace racial diversity.

I’m going to make a few comments on the video, so WATCH IT NOW!!!

The question “Am I too white to be your pastor?” seems like a fair one to ask. That one question addresses several underlying issues. “Do you think a white guy like me can speak into your cultural world?”, “Do you think God can speak to you through me in a relevant way or am I too different?”, “How important is it for your worship to reflect your culture?”, “Can the Spirit of God operate cross-culturally?”

In sharing this question I don’t want to disparage any minority that might answer “Yes”. There are times when I convince myself that I’m too white to pastor in a multiracial church.

I found it interesting that many of the people surveyed in the video who answered “No”, still attended mono-racial churches. I suspect that for many people the thought of church as anything but mono-racial has never crossed their mind.

From watching the video and reading the original article I get the sense that this church actively pursues cultural competence.  They’re asking awkward questions and hosting difficult conversations. Theydon’t pretend racial diversity is an insignificant accident. This quote from lead pastor, Patrick Kelley, demonstrates the attitude necessary to make a church like this survive.

“The key has been humbly becoming a learner,” says Patrick, who adds that he had to overcome racist attitudes he picked up from his parents. “I went in as ignorant as could be. And more than once, I’ve gone to our church and said, ‘I want to ask your forgiveness. But if you’ll give me a lot of grace, we’ll go together trying to reach our community for Christ.’ ”

I liked how in the video Reggie Slater made the point that worshiping with people unfamiliar with us requires us making an effort. It’s easier to stick with what’s familiar, and many people choose easy. But easy is seldom best. If it was easy we’d have solved this problem a long time ago and moved on to the next topic.

I also liked how Reggie turned the initial question around, “Am I too black for your church?”. As a minister I can ask all day whether or not I’m too white to be your pastor, but if my church believes the individual is too black, too Latino, or too Asian to fit in, then I’ve asking the wrong people the wrong questions.

Lastly, let me point out from the article that River Pointe didn’t set out to be a multiracial church. It simply set out to serve it’s community with a willingness to become multiracial as a reflection of that community. Kelley comments, “It’s not a goal of River Pointe to be diverse, but to help all people groups find a meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ. We have to figure out how to be all things to all men in order to win some.”