Culture Shock

Posted: November 29, 2013 in Church, Culture
Tags: , , , , ,

One of the many “culture shock” moments for me returning from China is the tribal nature of the church in London.  One of the joys of living and working in Beijing is that although there are many limits on Christian meetings, the foreign believers are forced to mingle together at BICF, Beijing International Christian Fellowship.  This means that I have spent the last 9 years not only working with Chinese friends in the house churches and state sponsored churches, I have also had the joy of fellowship with friends from the Assemblies of God, Old German Baptist, Southern Baptist, Presbyterian, Acts 29, Charismatic, Conservative, Korean, African, Pacific Island, Russian, Singaporean, European, American, Latin American church groupings (to name but a few).  Here in London most Christians keep to our own cliques.  This is a pity because it displays  disunity when we should be distinctive to the world because of our love for one another.  We make the problem worse by spending our time criticising every other group and worrying whether anyone outside our grouping is really a Christian.  The entire African church is sometimes written off as “prosperity gospel”, the charismatics are too “feeling orientated”, the conservatives are “quenching the Spirit”, the Koreans are “workaholics”, etc.

In Ephesians 3, Paul explains that he has been given a ministry to Gentiles so that the church will display to the all the “manifold wisdom of God” Eph 3:10.  This word manifold, πολυποίκιλος means multi-faceted, diverse, many sided.  The context , Paul’s discussion of his mission to the Gentiles, suggests a sense that God’s church displays the diverse, muti-coloured nature of his plan for the world. We fail to display this πολυποίκιλος beauty when we remain in our church ghettos. Worse, we fail to show the distinctive Christ-like love for which the church should be famous. Christ’s love is sacrificial, steadfast, culture-crossing. Clique love is self-serving, fickle, and aimed at people similar to ourselves. Even the businessmen at the golf club know how to invite golfing friends over for dinner and drinks. If the extent of our fellowship is inviting people just like ourselves over for dinner and drinks to extend our social network then we are not showing Christ-like love, we are showing world-like love. Finally clique churches will tend to be more faddish, and less creative. Each visit from China to the UK I have spotted new church fads because we are all reading the same recommended books and attending the same annual conferences. Diverse congregations have a much wider group of opinion sources.  They will tend to have more creative conflict and may even break apart under the weight of that conflict, but they will benefit from having less “groupthink” and more innovative solutions to long standing problems.
So how can we learn to be more inclusive without watering down our doctrinal statements or distinctive values?
One way is to reach out into the diversity of the community in which we find ourselves. South Asian origin kids make up something like 15% of London’s schools. London’s Christians need to be making friendships across those cultural boundaries at the school gate.  Polish immigrants arrived in 2004 and Romanians are arriving as I write.  Our churches need to be reaching out to these people groups for our good as well as theirs.

Fast growing churches tend to be made up of young graduates. Young people in the church need to be encouraged to visit and befriend the elderly in their neighbourhood.
Many Christians (especially those reading this blog) will be getting new ideas and forging connections online. We need to make a conscious effort to listen to voices outside our usual cliques and groupings and make connections with people from different racial, economic, and age backgrounds.

A church which is welcoming to a diverse community will have diversity in its leadership.  People tend to attend a church where the people down the front of the church look a bit like themselves.  Planting a church of 100 young middle class graduates onto a housing estate is a noble thing to do, but it is likely to be more effective to start a church with a dozen local people and only half a dozen of the graduates, and then encourage the local people to take responsibility for the singing, praying, and welcoming.  A big, “white”, Anglican city centre church on the other hand will benefit by adding leaders from Asian or African backgrounds to the leadership teams.
Making friends cross-culturally can be a source of great joy.  One of the wonderful aspects of living in a city like London is that I can have Korean, Indian, Nigerian, young, old, rich, poor friends and we can learn from eachother’s diverse experiences.  We need to be ready to widen the cultural makeup of our network of Christian friends if we want to display the multicoloured beauty of God’s Church.  It is not so hard, but it requires patient, humble, sacrificial love.  It is the Holy Spirit that pours this love into our heart, and that is why Christians love is distinctive.  As we pray for a deeper love for our neighbours of all backgrounds we shouldn’t be surprised when we have opportunities to love the elderly, the foreign, the poor, the marginalised.  They are all around us but we haven’t been looking.

Here is an exercise for you. Have a look at the people you follow on Facebook or Twitter. Count up 100 and see how many of them are from a different economic, racial, age background. If less than 20% are different from you then you need to ask if you are engaging with society or hiding in your clique.

  1. I’ve been having conversations with friends along similar lines. The clique or silo phenomenon is difficult to break out of…
    …must try harder.
    PS I calculate that perhaps 30% of my social media connections are different to me, but that still leaves room for improvement 🙂


  2. Steve Plumb says:

    Thanks for this. Very encouraging and gently/kindly challenging. Steve


  3. rolerrol says:

    What a thought provoking post. You have hit the nail on the head. Even in Africa the church rarely comes together to do things. Everyone sticks to themselves…..but this is not God’s will. God help us as the church to become united….Great post

    Thanks for the follow.



  4. rolerrol says:

    Thought provoking post. Even in Africa the church is not united. The church is divided and because of that we are not powerful. God help us as the church to see the truth…..Great post!!!!
    Thanks for the follow!!



  5. Windy_London says:

    I have heard so many sad stories of Asians who have tried attending English churches. Most have given up after a month or two of trying without anyone saying hello. The worst was the Japanese husband who thanked me for arranging for his wife to attend the church “Mums and Tots” outreach. He said “thank you so much brother for making this arrangement for my wife, my hope is that if she keeps going for another few months eventually someone will speak to her. I guess it is a bit early after only 6 weeks to expect anyone to make an effort”. I had been busy doing a one on one Bible study with the husband for months but the lack of church love for his wife was like a slap in the face.


  6. Peter says:

    Granted, metaphors for the church like “body” and “family” strengthen obligations to love across cultural, linguistic and ethnic barriers. Yet a few observations may be worth making.

    1) As Rolan illustrates, preference for ethnic homogeneity (birds of a feather flock together) is not unique to Caucasian churches. It is a world wide phenomenon.

    2) For all that, the church of Jesus Christ IS ethnically and linguistically and culturally diverse even while a great deal of work remains for outreach and loving integration within the church.

    3) Not all who are ethnically diverse are also culturally diverse. To illustrate, the Chinese church I long attended talked of “banana Chinese”; that is Chinese here in the US who were “yellow on the outside, but white on the inside.”

    Second and third generation immigrants in western countries may remain culturally apart (e.g., Gypsies, Algerians in France?, Turkish “guest workers” in Germany) or if they integrate through language, education, media, affiliations and so on, may walk and talk and think very much like the people of their adopted culture (even if some feel like outsiders).

    4) Barriers to integration are not all inherently morally evil. Linguistic differences are not inherently evil. Culture implies certain commonly held assumptions and ways of looking at things (such as wrt etiquette and familial or business civility) which develop often of sheer necessity or pressure for efficiency. One cannot make no assumptions at all and still function as a society. This is not to say all conceptual artifacts of culture are morally neutral, only that some are not necessarily inherently evil (morality depending then on use and motive, for example).

    5) Thus ethnic integration within the church may be difficult and multifaceted and take considerable time and energy to work effectively in theologically sound ways. Integration may be facilitated by education (which is difficult and multifaceted and takes considerable time and energy), especially for those who haven’t a clue how to relate to linguistic and/or cultural strangers.

    6) Some wide areas of the world are culturally and linguistically homogeneous, or largely so. Think “rural,” or “isolated by conditions.” In other cases, crossing the cultural divide can be as dangerous as for Romeo and Juliet; opposing sides may be at violent odds with each other. Yes, the gospel may ameliorate, but there may be costs.

    7) Multiculturalism at least in the US (and I think most western countries to one degree or another) has its attractive sides, but if moral relativism surfaces as arbiter and judge (as it often does in social and legal power structures), a tendency develops to marginalize or shame or prohibit moral and religious claims to exclusive truth such as Christianity possesses. Distinctions between cultural neutrality (e.g., driving on the left or right side of the road) and ethical absolutes (e.g., not jeopardizing public safety on the road because God says so) can be non-existent in the popular mind.


  7. Peter says:

    Given my comments above, there are or may be reasons to accept and facilitate ethnically and culturally homogeneous groups within the church.

    If there is a problem with Asian brethren over time not feeling welcome at Caucasian meetings of believers (as above), a possible solution (at least in part) could be found if there were an alternative Filipino or Korean or Japanese (etc.) fellowship where the marginalized people might feel more at home.

    Of course such segregation does not address the problem in the Caucasian church of not making the effort to make the Asian brother welcome–and I agree that is a problem that needs to be addressed–but an Asian fellowship alternative may be preferable to the Asian (although “Asian” too broad).

    But I think there is more than “feeling at home” and “preference” motivating group homogeneity. Language is perhaps the most obvious. It is within reason, though awkward and difficult, to have every line or paragraph of a sermon translated in a kind of repeat antiphony, but imagine a worship service in which every member had to wait for just four other translations before the one s/he understood came around again. And what if one’s particular translator isn’t quite fluent (or animated) enough or messes some idiom or colloquialism? At some point, the method becomes impractical even if occasional meetings in such awkward format may suggest a point about ecclesiastical unity.

    More broadly, cultural conventions e.g., in regard to status-related deference, standards of clothing propriety, meal etiquette, humor, shame, hospitality, sex roles, non-verbal signals and so on may in culturally diverse church gatherings introduce enough awkward, confusing, or offensive (even if unintentional) lines of communication as to distract from (or worse, pre-empt) the sermon, liturgy, or lesson that the leadership is in process of promoting. There is a point at which cultural differences become unwieldy and impractical to handle all at once, especially in a crowd of diverse levels of maturation and opinion. Or a great deal of control and limitation must be enforced.

    Granted the goal is the sort of maturation under the Head, Christ to the effect that minor offenses and misunderstandings do not ruffle feathers–or that understanding and empathy grow together to minimize cracks for Satan’s subtle wedges–but how does one get from here to mutual maturity all in an earthly lifetime?

    Along the way, some church buildings are used to house a set of distributively culturally and linguistically diverse Christian groups, each of which meets at separate times in homogeneous clusters (e.g, a Nigerian congregation, a Romanian congregation, a British congregation, etc. all using the same facility at different times). If this is not the end goal, it does imply something about unity–somewhat. Meanwhile, how does one, or rather the whole, become all things to all that by all means we may win the more?


    • Windy_London says:

      Peter, you’ve mentioned all the practical difficulties of coping with multicultural church. None of them explain why white leaders don’t meet regularly in forums with black leaders in London, or why young people are unloving to the elderly, or why church members fail to invite an obviously poor and needy person back to lunch after church. Until heaven we will likely always fail to have complete diversity, but I am concerned about people’s unloving attitude, not the cost and effort of simultaneous translation (which is actually quite straightforward).


    • Windy_London says:

      Sorry Peter for my earlier reply which was brief to the point of rudeness (because of Christmas time constraints). Your point that we are a “work in progress” in terms of diversity is a good one and well taken. Evangelism to specific groups is often best done in a homogenous setting and it may take decades before the love of Christ has sufficiently transformed us that we are mature enough to overlook cultural obstacles and enjoy true cross cultural fellowship. My aim in writing the original blog was really to give people a vision for a direction to travel rather than say we must create perfectly diverse churches immediately. Your suggestions about building sharing are helpful as well, although it takes a great effort for cohabiting churches to grow in unity rather than drift into friction. The best cooperation I have seen is where ministers from the various cohabiting congregations speak at eachothers services and look for opportunities for cooperation. Youth work, ministry training, weekends away, quarterly celebrations, mission giving, outreach to the poor & elderly are all areas where various cohabiting congregations can come together to express unity.


  8. Peter says:

    Hi Windy_London,

    I don’t think your remarks in response to mine are fair to my remarks (or experience). Nor am I disagreeing with attitudinal problems as a hindrance to the exercise of love across barriers in the church.


  9. Peter says:

    Hi Windy_London,

    I understand, indeed I had feared you were under a bit too much stress. I think your opening post and my comments would in effect come to a like conclusion that ecclesiastical cohabitation is a meal best served in courses and eaten in manageable bites. Along the way there are spicy and sweet delights as well as various pains of indigestion in the fellowship of the gospel. May heaven help us.

    And while I agree that translation can be “straightforward,” my experience is that “in theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is.” In other words, translators are imperfect and the business can be hard for them–and for the hearers.

    May the Lord help us to see His presence even behind strange faces in uncomfortable places.


  10. Gosh, we Koreans are workaholics in London too, eh?


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