Thursday, December 15, 2005

Barbecues, Culture & American Churches: Clues to the Need of the Hour

I am especially looking forward to one of my seminary courses next semester. It is an intensive, with a number of textbooks. One is titled Why Do Men Barbecue? (Harvard University Press, 2003). No, Salt Lake Seminary is not incorporating culinary classes in their coursework. The book is part of a class on "Cross-Cultural Hermeneutics," or the interpretation of cultures. The course is part of the intercultural studies program. It raises the question of barbecuing for American males as part of a cultural practice we take for granted.

Consider other cultural questions the book raises on the back cover. "Why do American children sleep alone? Why do Western women cling to their youth, while young wives in India look forward to being middle-aged?" By reflecting on these questions, and the very different answers to them provided by those in different cultures, we come to recognize the importance of culture to how we view the world and live within it.

Now consider the importance of cultural considerations to church, ministry and missions in America and the West. Why do we "do church" in much the same way regardless of what communities or sub-cultures the church ministers among? Why are church services, regardless of whether it is traditional or contemporary, largely "cookie cutter" replications of basic themes? Why aren't ecclesiological forms subject to differing cultural expressions?

It is now imperative for us to understand culture and cross-cultural considerations, not only for American missionaries serving overseas, but especially for pastors, seminary students preparing for the pastorate, and missionaries working in both the American and broader Western cultural contexts. In their book Emerging Churches (Baker Academic, 2005), Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger touch on why understanding culture is so important (and these considerations are important regardless of your view on the emerging church). Here are a few of their ideas:

1. Because the West Is in the Midst of Huge Cultural Shifts. Cultures always experience change and shifts, but the speed and size of our cultural shifts in the West in recent years has been especially significant. The place of the church has shifted from the center to the margins in terms of its influence and how it is perceived in Western culture. As Gibbs and Bolger write, "To pastor missionally, church leaders must understand the cultural changes that have occurred outside its doors. For the church to be able to situate itself in culture, an understanding of these social processes must be pursued." (Emphasis in original.)

2. Because the Church Is in Decline. The Bible belt and the megachurch phenomenon of Willow Creek and Saddleback notwithstanding, the decline of the church in the U.S. is well documented. While regular church attendance is higher in the U.S. than Australia or the U.K., the reported weekly church attendance in the U.S. of 40 percent may be inflated, and the actual number may be 15 to 20 percent. Sobering statistics also indicate that within 20-25 years some 60 percent of American churches, traditional and contemporary, will close their doors.

3. Because Boomers Are the Last Generation That Is Happy with Modern Churches. New generations are increasingly following patterns of life, thought, and spirituality that are at odds with even the best contemporary churches and services. Modern churches with contemporary music and great programs are perceived as institutions that are irrelevant to or stifle a contemporary spiritual quest. Well-intentioned churches are making modifications to church services, programs, and buildings in order to attract a group of people that are no longer there.

Gibbs and Bolger provide a number of other considerations, but these are the most noteworthy for the point I'm trying to make. As Gibbs and Bolger state, "There is now a growing realization that churches in the West face a missional challenge, one that is increasingly cross-cultural in nature" (p. 16). As a result, "Churches in the United Kingdom and the United States seriously underestimate the need for cross-cultural training for those in their respective congregations. Consequently, churches misread the culture, thereby undermining the church's overall mission" (p. 15).

The cultural distance is so great between church sub-cultures and the sub-cultures of surrounding communities that no amount of modification to existing attractional forms of Christendom model churches will do. The need of the hour is cultural understanding and relevancy that will hopefully result in a transformation of attractional congregations into missional communities that are Jesus and Kingdom based. Cultural studies and missiology thus provide a diagnosis and remedy for the ill's of the Western church.

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