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.

On Earth As In Heaven

This article was originally posted on the website in May 2013. Since football has become such a big part of the Christmas season in the US I thought it would be appropriate to share these thoughts here. I hope all my readers have a wonderful Christmas with those you love.

I remember the iconic picture on the news and in Australian newspapers 20 years ago. St. Kilda’s Nicky Winmar raising his guernsey in defiance after enduring an afternoon of racial abuse from the fans outside the fence. In 1993 it set off shock waves around the country. The profile of the “aboriginal issue” instantly grew on the public’s consciousness, not only in terms of national political policies, but in respect of individuals examining our own actions for racism. (Click HERE for a good short reflection on this event.) The fact that there’s still much work ahead is demonstrated in the abuse Adam Goodes received during a match this weekend from a 13 year old girl. (Read his reaction HERE.)

This might seem strange to many people today, but I graduated high school the year before and I don’t remember ever having a conversation about racism and the hurt it causes. There may have been other events that also placed racism on the public consciousness, but for young white males who admired Winmar as a superbly skilled football player, this image made an impact.

In the USA Jackie Robinson is honoured as the first black player in Major League Baseball in 1947. Just as the AFL now has an indigenous round each year, MLB also celebrates Jackie Robinson Day annually.

Sports have always had a close connection to race relations. Sometimes sports leagues, players and fans have disgraced themselves, but sports have also made some important contributions in race relations. Sometimes these improvements have come through official actions and at other times by unofficial events.

For many, Tiger Woods has become the face of a new generation with a bi-racial heritage and a drive to allow his talent to transcend racial issues. Although not the first black golfer on the PGA Tour, Tiger is certainly the most well-known and today the only African-American playing on the Tour. This past week Sergio Garcia found himself in hot water after making a “joke” about Tiger and fried chicken. Again demonstrating the work still to be done. This interesting article contained this description of Tiger,

It’s not Tiger’s way to bring attention to any aspect of his racial heritage. His aim is to transcend race through excellence as a professional golfer. He reaches for a higher plateau that is post-racial in a way that not even President Barack Obama could ever attain as a self-identified African-American.

One of the cruel ironies of Tiger’s hope for racial transcendence in a sport played predominantly by whites is that he has been both a symbol of racial harmony and a polarizing force along racial lines.

Apart from the statements made on the field, sports provide a unifying rallying cry for people from all backgrounds. Whether listening to a radio in the poorest hovel, or sipping wine in a corporate box, people connect by supporting the same team.

When I worked as a college minister in Melbourne, Australia, we had a large group of international students attending our church. I encouraged them to pick a football team, any team, and even if they weren’t interested at all, keep track of the team’s season from a distance. This would help them fit in with the local people they met and serve as a great conversation filler. Everyone has a favourite team. Even if your team is different to mine, at least an interest in the sport provides a commonality.

So if sports can unify fans across racial, educational and financial divides. And if sports can make strong statements opposing racism that impact society as a whole. The church has a lot of work to do to match the camaraderie of sports teams.

  • How do we welcome people different from ourselves?
  • Are our friends mostly like us, or do they reflect our community?
  • Shouldn’t the church be ahead of the local sports team, which basically are businesses, in acting as instruments of Godly social change?

Even today, many church growth consultants promote the idea that homogenous churches will grow more quickly than integrated, diverse congregations. I know churches that insist that they need to be racially black, or white or Chinese, or Latino to help them serve that particular ethnic community.

These might be valid reasonings. Even if they are, they shouldn’t apply to as many churches as they do. According to a 1999 survey (cited in One Body, One Spirit, George Yancey), only 8% of all US churches are multiracial. (I suspect this would be much higher in urban & suburban Australia, but I haven’t found any data.)

In Matthew 6:10 Jesus prays, “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” What is God’s will for race relations and the church? Let’s answer that by looking at heaven. Revelation 7:9 describes “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language standing before the throne an in front of the lamb” praising God. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that described our churches, “on earth as it is in heaven”?