Monday, June 26, 2017

Gospel Reality or Cultural Expectations?

One of the questions we are constantly confronted with here is the interaction between Gospel and Culture. What do I mean by that? There is some percentage of my expectations for "what church is" that is dictated by my cultural background. This can be practical things like, "should we stand up during our singing time?" or "How long is our service?" or "how planned out or spontaneous is our service?". There are theological points to be made as well, but we wouldn't be telling the truth if we said churches express cultural preferences and expectations only in small and subtle ways.

This also moves over into leadership decisions or styles. Many church leaders (and this can be good or bad) take on the leadership values of the culture in which they find themselves. It isn't surprising that many American churches have a CEO-style pastor that manages the ministry. I am not necessarily criticizing this model, but more making the observation: there seems to be a correlation between American cultural leadership values and structures and the churches that exist within that culture. This comes out in how leaders behave, what we expect of leaders, and even churches' attitudes towards larger authority structures like denominations.

This all leads us to an interesting conversation I had with an American church leader here in Austria. He was talking about the many of the young American pastors he has seen coming to Europe, who often see no need for denominational connections. They bring with them their American individualism, but also the recent history of the American church moving away from denominations and towards independent non-denominational churches. Because of that, many of these young pastors arrive in Europe and don't think much of the denomination to which their church belongs.

My friend explained that many of the national pastors he encounters, on the other hand, are so thankful for their denominational support. Many of these leaders grew up in countries and cultures where they were one of the only believers they knew outside of their local church or maybe a local youth event. They often feel isolated or on the margin. In the States, there are many different conference options - smaller local conferences, camping ministries, big national conferences with big name authors and speakers. In the German speaking world, we are blessed with a great deal of opportunities for fellowship and encouragement, but much less than in America. There are many other places in the world where those denominational structures that many Americans have moved away from are a critical lifeline for the local church to stay connected and find accountability.

I found a few things fascinating about this conversation. I often encounter situations living and working cross-culturally that I could have never expected or seen beforehand. This is one of those things. I am not sure I could have ever expected such a tension to exist. Now that I see it, I completely understand how it could come to be, but before moving here I would have had no idea.

The second thing is the continual push back that some of these American pastors give towards something that is a positive thing for their national colleagues. This is a key point here: there are many times in cross-cultural ministry when we have to set aside our personal cultural preferences or expectations for the sake of someone else. I have to ask myself, "is this a gospel reality or a cultural expectation?" This question is key in helping me understand a situation. Another key question is, "what are the cultural values undergirding this decision?" Often with enough patience and the right line of questions, it is possible to acquire the cultural value behind a decision.

Can you think of an example of something in your church has primarily cultural roots?