The Miriam-Webster dictionary defines “culture” as “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group”. We are all part of culture, or more than likely a part of several different “sub-cultures”. For example, your cultures might include your family of origin, your family of formation, your work culture, church culture, social culture, educational culture, social media culture, and others.
What cultures or cultural groups do you share an affinity with? These may be variously defined by the kind of music you listen to, how you vote, spend your free time, your choices in media consumption, exercise, worship, what you read, and who you cheer for. But culture runs deeper than surface labels or associations. Culture is felt. It is a core representation of one’s person, the heartbeat we walk to, the song we carry in our heart.
I, for example, am part of the long suffering culture of the Purdue University fan base. My lifelong participation in this sub-group means that I can quickly discern a true Boilermaker fan from a bandwagon type. True Purdue fans are never comfortable until the game is over and final score reads in your favor. We know the heartache of final four famine, disappointment of fast starts, big leads and disastrous endings. Yet, no matter the heartache, we are loyal. We know the Boiler fight song word for word, and gladly share a hearty “Boiler Up!” greeting when meeting others adorned in the Old Gold and Black.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been observing and becoming acquainted with new expressions of culture as I’ve made a professional and geographic transition. These have included the culture of pheasant hunters (and hunters in general); ranchers and farmers (there is a difference); those from Scandinavian, Norwegian, German and other immigrant heritages; and a variety of church, congregational and camp cultures. It’s been an immersive experience of discovery, education and appreciation for the “fellowship of differents” that comprise the various populations found among the people of South and North Dakota. Like a native speaker whose dialect is akin to the language being used, I can understand and communicate freely, but on occasion recognize that there are unique terms, usages and contexts representing the unspoken rules to which I’m a newcomer. Have you been there? I bet you have.
A few years ago while traveling in Scotland and Ireland I had even more pronounced encounters with cultural distinctives. I remember two occasions in particular where though I was speaking the same language (English) I was getting no where fast communicating with my conversation partner. One experience involved trying to buy tickets for a train passage to Edinburgh, another involved trying to share contact information with another driver after a minor auto accident. In both instances I eventually called in another person for assistance. Had it not been for these culture guides I expect the stalemate in understanding would have persisted.
Which brings me to thoughts about culture as it concerns our Christ following faith in a world of growing diversity and abundant opportunity. How do those of us who are part of the Church (or Christ following) culture mix and share life with so many today who have no familiarity with, or interest in, that culture? Do our expressions of church culture in fact sometimes feel so foreign, even unfriendly, to those outside it, that they assume a lack of welcome? Are we speaking using a similar alphabet and language but with words and dialects that are talking past each other?
This phenomena is not new. Congregations have long been guilty of a de facto insider language where those “in the know” are aware of the “unwritten rules” and customs unknown to newcomers. More than once I witnessed the uncomfortable lack of hospitality as a long tenured church member asked a guest to move because they were sitting in their seat! But this example assumes the guest will be brave enough to come into the churched culture to visit in the first place. This is a bold assumption in today’s world where a vast majority of people are not inclined to darken church thresholds.
No, the cross cultural work for those of us who follow Jesus today isn’t engaged from the comfort of our own turf, it is “as we are going” about our lives in the marketplace, the workplace, the neighborhood, at school and the gym. Our missional efforts at engagement with others, as a church on mission with God, are to be foremost in our daily thoughts and actions. We are a people sent in the name of Jesus, with the love of Jesus, and love of others as our “new commandment”.
My recent experiences at “being new” and trying to “break into” or understand some new cultures have in some ways sensitized me to the fact that is so easy to become comfortable in one’s own cultural norms. When our faith becomes too comfortable we risk becoming complacent. We move from being a people sent to acting as a people gathered, and a people content. We gladly welcome those who assimilate to our ways, and adopt our traditions; but we resist (maybe even resent) those who come from such a vastly different background that our ways and traditions feel alien.
Jesus, our model for incarnational ministry, shows us another way. He regularly met others on their turf, engaging across cultures to share the good news of God’s kingdom way. He crossed thresholds rather than waited for others to do so. He initiated conversation, brokered understanding, found common ground in dialogue, and acted as a guide, pointing those who were hungry for God’s mercy and love past obstacles to surrender and acceptance.
Can we do the same? It’s the commission we’ve been given, in Jesus’ name. So, as you are going about your life, take note of the many different cultures you encounter. But more than notice, why not act, speak and move cross culturally? Why not assume the apostolic role of going, in the mission of Jesus, with the good news of God’s love. Like me, you just might discover the worth and appeal of that which is different, yet at the same time so very much the same. You might discover the humanity of the other, like you, made in the image of God, for whom the Son of God came into the world.