Black Violins

I have something different this week. It’s a bit of a parable. A friend of mine recently shared a video on her facebook page of two black violinists playing to hip hop beats.

I knew nothing about these artists, but I thought, “How sad if people recognised their talents but insisted they play Mozart.”

At a talk I attended last year by Dr. Soong-Chan Rah.  At one stage he made the point that we’ve given the descriptor “classical” to Western European music most popular starting in the 1600’s. All other musical genres from other cultures and times are given different descriptors that often indicate they are something less than “classical”.

What if people looked at these musicians and thought, “How sad they settled into popular music when they could have joined an orchestra and made a name for themselves as classical musicians.”

I have a stereotype in my mind of what violinists look like. And it’s something much more like this video that was shared with me on facebook than the previous duo.

They’re white. They’re women. They’re wearing evening dresses. And even though they’re clowning around and playing popular tunes they more closely fit the image I expect.

But I’m also forced to face my own violin prejudice. Within the predominantly white culture there’s also the decidedly non-classical genre of fiddle playing. No one looks at a fiddler and says, “That guy has talent. What a shame he’s not part of a philharmonic somewhere.” There’s a willingness to accept this folk music style as a distinct genre because we recognise its roots.

We face a couple of challenges when we consider these different styles of violin performances.

1. Can we value each style for its unique traits, or do we feel an urge to rank them?

2. Would it be possible to host a concert with all these artists performing together?  Would the musicians need to make adjustments in order for the concert to appeal to the entire audience? Would they be willing to make adjustments? Would the crowd give each group equal attention and respect?

Sadly, churches often want to make newcomers from other cultures worship and serve in a style preferred by the majority culture. This attitude is most often unthoughtful, but it communicates a lack of respect for the talents and values of the minority culture. This is why it’s so important for congregational worship to reflect the values and preferences of all cultures if the church is to grow. It’s also why it’s so difficult to change the existing pattern of worship.

What do you think? Is this helpful? What are the strengths and weaknesses of comparing these violin genres to multi-ethnic churches?

After a little research, I can share that the duo in the opening video are known as Black Violin. They’re both classically trained musicians who creatively play a variety of styles. They have performed at the US President’s Inauguration Ball in addition to many other high profile gigs. Here’s one of their recent performances:

More Than a Dream

I didn’t attend a MLK Day event today. I feel ashamed of this. But my daughter was sick in the middle of the night and never went back to sleep. I just couldn’t be downtown at 8:30 for the big event.

I haven’t read as much of Dr King’s writings as I’d like. Each time the third Monday in January rolls around I’m reminded that I’ve neglected them again.

I can easily run through my list of regrets:

  • Not drinking enough coffee with people of other races and cultures;
  • Not using enough diversity in my sermon illustrations;
  • Not taking steps to make my church’s worship services more culturally inclusive;
  • Not praying as I should for God to break down racial barriers in our church and community;
  • Not getting involved in a reconciliation organization outside the church.

If I thought longer I could probably come up with more.

My intent in sharing this list is not a subtle attempt to have you un-friend me. (In fact, if you’re reading this you may be the only active reader I have!)  Rather, I share my regret list as a reminder that progress requires intentionality.

One might cite Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin as an accidental discovery that had a positive impact upon the world, but even there Fleming was intentionally searching for such a substance. He was working in an advanced laboratory. He had advanced degrees in his field. He knew what he was looking at in the fungus covered dish.

Churches sometimes become multi-ethnic by accident. I’ve seen situations where a split in a church with predominantly one race, leads to a significant group from that church joining a sister congregation whose members predominantly represent another race. Suddenly, the second church is multiracial… by accident.

However, if the members of this new congregation think they only need to turn up on Sunday and everything will be okay, they will soon discover otherwise.

The civil rights movement in the United States did not happen by accident. Dr King’s speeches and the movement he spearheaded did not happen by accident. Although Dr King had a dream, he didn’t develop that dream sitting in a rocking chair on a porch watching fire flies dance in the moonlight. His dream evolved from his experience, his faith and his education. His dream only moved toward reality because he was prepared to pursue it and gifted to inspire others to pursue it with him. And as my friend Sean Palmer pointed out in a blog he wrote last week, these people were willing to bleed to change their world.

mlk dream speech 01Churches and church leaders who dream of racial harmony have found a great starting point. What they do next is vital.

Will they seek out other races and listen to their stories?

.     What books will they read?

.          Will they involve themselves in their communities?

.              Will they learn new languages?

.                  Are they willing to make adjustments in the feel of their worship services?

.                      Will they accept new leaders in the church and treat them as equals?

If no one asks questions like these, or if the answer to each question is negative, the dream will die as quickly as it was born.

Through the echoes of history Martin Luther King Day calls us to keep dreaming. It also calls us to action… not accidents.

Each year I read at least one book on the subject of race relations and/or multi-ethnic church leadership. Today I bought the books I’ll read this year. When the third Monday of January rolls around in 2016 I’ll know more about Martin Luther King Jr than I do today. Next year I’ll have one less regret.

Progress requires intentionality.

What intentions do you have for the coming year to turn MLK’s dream to reality?

Multicultural Churches Have Better Parties

How does your church party? Or more to the point, when does your church party?

A monocultural church can quickly answer this question by referring to a calendar. What are the national holidays? Which ones do people celebrate privately? Which ones can the church piggyback?

I know churches that host a 4th of July fireworks extravaganza each year. When I worked in the church in Melbourne someone organized an area-wide Anzac Day picnic each April. In fact, I know that these Anzac Day Picnics occur among Churches of Christ in several cities around the country.

I’ve attended churches that hand out flowers to ladies on Mothers’ Day. I’ve seen churches make a beg event out of Halloween. Some turn the Superbowl into a significant Sunday with a special sermon and other events. Some churches emphasise Thanksgiving while others put all their energy into Christmas.

Martin-Luther-King-Day 01I raise this topic at this time because I serve in a church with a large African-American membership and there are significant dates in their community that I haven’t previously given a lot of attention.

  • Some of my members celebrate Kwanzaa, which runs from 26 December to 1 January.
  • On January 1, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln signed the emancipation proclamation.
  • The third Monday in January is Martin Luther King Day.
  • In the United States, March is Black History Month.

I’ve struggled to make these dates significant in the life of my church. It’s something I need to work on. I should expect everyone to celebrate Superbowl Sunday with me if I’m not willing to join by black brothers and sisters in their celebrations.

But these dates are more than just an excuse to have a party. They also tell an important theological redemptive story of justice, equality and love for neighbour. Our churches and world need to hear this message and these dates seem to provide a great opportunity to raise the topic.

Beyond just preaching on these topics or showing a motivational video, I’m very curious whether other churches involve themselves in community celebrations of these events. I know that sometimes members participate, but I wonder how many churches actively promote participation in community organised MLK reconciliation events?

As churches grow more culturally diverse we need to embrace a willingness to expand our celebrations. Hispanic holidays are more difficult to schedule as each country have their own significant days. Which Hispanic holidayIMG_2204s will your church celebrate as the neighbourhood demographics change?

How could your church celebrate Chinese New Year? What message would this send to local international students or migrants?

We have quite a large Indian workforce in Rochester, although no Indian members attending our church. I don’t even know their significant holidays. It seems to me that a significant question would be, “How can the church engage this population if these holidays are all related to Hinduism?”

A couple of years ago I hosted an Australia Day game night at my church. We didn’t have a large turnout, but I greatly appreciated those who turned out on a snowy, January night.

Parties, holidays, and celebrations provide a great indicator of the progress a church has made down the road of cultural integration. These events help us to not only better understand each other, they also help churches build a bridge toward these communities outside the church.

When a multicultural church sits down to plan calendar events for the coming year, it should intentionally ask the question, “Which cultural celebrations do we want to participate in this year?” Far too often we simply participate in those most familiar to us.

I’d love for you to leave a comment describing a cross-cultural celebration you’ve experienced.

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.

May I Vent?

I am enough of a sports fan that I also publish a christian sports blog. As an Australian football fan I’ve been poking around their league website as the season is just starting. As I poked around I immediately noticed two articles (here and here) related to promoting multiculturalism in the sport and tolerance in our society.

Look at the vision and resources dedicated to this program described in this quote,

The AFL is pleased to announce 183 multicultural community leaders from around Australia will join the AFL Multicultural Community Ambassador program in 2014.

The aim of the AFL Multicultural Community Ambassador Program is to further engage multicultural communities in Australian football through a network of dedicated volunteers… representing 44 countries of birth, 65 nationalities and around 100 languages.

So here’s my vent…

How can a football league recognise the value of racial and ethnic diversity to its future growth while many Christians complain that the complexion of their neighbourhood has changed?

How can a football league proactively recruit and train “lay people” to spread the good news about football within their communities, while the answer most churches have is to start a new church for the new people?

How can it seem so normal for a football league to celebrate cultural diversity and such a political statement for a church to do the same?

How can a football league possess greater passion in spreading its game to new people than the church has for spreading the message of new life in Christ?

Can you imagine the church recruiting and training 200 “ambassadors” representing 44 countries of birth, 65 nationalities and around 100 languages? Wouldn’t that be a dynamic workshop?!

A separate article describes how Essendon captain, Jobe Watson, joined the AFL’s multicultural ambassador program as “the token white guy”. The rest of the players in this program represent immigrant or aboriginal communities. So why would a white guy from the suburbs join? I love his answer,

How can you expect society to be inclusive if a proportion of society only think multiculturalism is the responsibility of people with multicultural backgrounds?

To build on being an inclusive game and being accessible to people from all different backgrounds, it’s important that someone who doesn’t have as diverse a multicultural background as others is interested and is part of the program.

Those two sentences carry a lot of weight when applied to the church. Unless people of all ethnic backgrounds willingly work together our churches and society will never change. It shouldn’t be about a minority or collection of minorities conducting a campaign. It shouldn’t be about the majority legislating a path forward. It should be about everyone being willing to talk and work together.

Cultural Competence

This is the fifth and final 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 destination stage “Cultural Competence”.

We should not confuse Cultural Competence with expertise. DeYmaz describes Culturally Competent people as “individuals who value diversity, conduct self-assessment, manage the dynamics of difference, acquire and institutionalize cultural knowledge and are able to adapt to diversity and the cultural contexts of the communities they serve.” (105) That’s quite a mouth full.

This definition becomes clearer when we contrast it with the previous stage, Cultural Sensitivity. Sensitivity emphasises asking the right questions. Competence has learned the answers to the question and now does something about it.

Notice the action words in the above definition: Value, conduct, manage, acquire and institutionalize, and adapt. The Culturally Competent person still continues to ask questions and explore different cultures. This person remembers previous lessons, avoids the pitfalls and uses their inquiries to benefit others of that culture.

One personal example of obtaining Cultural Competence involves football. Coming to the United States in 1999 I was aware of “gridiron”, but had zero understanding. Over time I asked questions and listened to sports talk radio. I selected a team to support and participated in conversations with American fans. I still know more about Australian football than American, but I have reached a level of competence so that I can blog about American sports, including NFL.

What areas of church life require us to pursue Cultural Competence? Of course, individual relationships are the most important, but many other areas of congregational life present opportunities for cultural misunderstandings. The worship service can potentially project the values of inclusion and acceptance by the people involved in public responsibilities. A variety of musical styles communicates openness to diverse cultures.

Less obvious ministry opportunities to demonstrate Cultural Competence include church meals and the nursery. If the church fellowship team prepares a menu for each church meal that is monocultural some members and guests will feel overlooked. While chicken and mashed potatoes may be staples in one cultural setting, others long for various beans and even different meats. Drinks also present a challenge not only between coffee and hot tea, but in a variety of cold drink preferences.

Then consider the nursery. As the parent of a 4 year old I’m aware of many different parenting approaches just within my white middle class community. Are Hispanic or Asian parents as willing to drop their children off at the nursery as White or African-American parents? Do different racial groups have different behavioural expectations for their children in the nursery? How can these differences be accommodated? How do these differences impact the scheduling and training of nursery volunteers? These cultural distinctions are not limited to racial differences but could also be relevant between urban and suburban families.

When churches can navigate these potentially troubled waters there’s a great likelihood that they’ve achieved Cultural Competence. At least in those areas of church life.

How Sensitive Are You?

This isthe fourth 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 fourth stage “Cultural Sensitivity”.

If you’re reading this blog you’re probably already on the path to cultural sensitivity. Not because you’re learning from the most sensitive person in the world. I’m not. But because you’re making the effort to learn more about the subject. Hopefully you’re just as willing to learn more about other cultures you encounter in your church and community.

Many people practice cultural sensitivity when we travel overseas. In 1958 an influential fictional book was published with the title The Ugly American. It described a sensitive and insensitive approaches to interacting with locals in foreign countries. In time the phrase has often been associated with American tourists. However, tourists from all countries run the risk of being “ugly” when insensitive to local customs and values.

Most people I know when preparing for international travel take time to research the culture of their destination. Internet articles and numerous travel guides alert travelers to possible local sensitivities. Other people I know make an effort to speak to friends who’ve already traveled to those places and learn from their experiences.

But surely if I’m attending church with people who grew up in the same city as I did, I don’t need a “travel guide” to understand them!

Phil RobertsonFor several months I attended the church where Phil Robertson is an elder. I respect him, his family and the church. However, his comments in a GQ article regarding African-Americans that he observed prior to desegregation in the South demonstrated a lack of cultural sensitivity. He seems to assume that what he saw reflected the hearts of the people.

Practicing cultural sensitivity requires sitting down with those same people and saying, “I saw this and this on the news. How does it affect you?” Or maybe asking “Do you feel that our laws treat you as a lesser human being?” Without those conversations and efforts to understand those from another culture we’re never going to be sensitive to the thoughts and hearts of others.

Pursuing cultural sensitivity requires that we seek more than the facts regarding a culture, a race, or an historical event. True sensitivity demands that we seek to glimpse the feelings and heart of people with different experiences and values than ours.

Churches can promote the pursuit of sensitivity through organised events where different cultures exchange perspectives on various events. However, this does involve a risk of debating or comparing values. The most effective way for churches to embrace diverse ethnicities is for leaders to model the practice of cultural sensitivity one-on-one. These leaders will find themselves better equipped to lead the congregation along the multi-ethnic journey toward Cultural Competence.

The need for cultural education isn’t limited to when we travel. Too often we assume everyone sees the world the way we do. We need to pursue cultural sensitivity each time we engage people from a different cultural background to ourselves. Since loving our neighbour requires us to express that love in a way that is meaningful to them, we have a responsibility to first learn “what is meaningful to them”.

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.