Why churches naturally exclude

21 07 2014

I occasionally enjoy reflecting on the little volume Ministering Cross-Culturally (by Lingenfelter and Mayers, Baker Academic). While I always profit from these discussions in the context of foreign mission, I now cannot help but reflect on issues of culture through the lens of the multiculturalism of the USA and the West in general.

Lingenfelter writes, “Acceptance in our groups comes at the cost of exclusion from the groups of others. An attempt to belong to groups whose standards are in conflict with ours produces emotional stress within us and antagonism in our relationships with others. For this reason, most of us choose to belong only to those groups within which we find people who have standards and values similar to our own. As a consequence of our choices, the communities we form include some and exclude others.” (p. 21)

Intentionally intercultural churches are therefore a challenge because we must reverse this tendency to exclude so as to include those who are different, whose values and behaviors clash with our own.

At the same time, as a community hailing from different cultures work together over time to understand, appreciate and draw from each other, a new kind of meta-culture can form among them. In the same way that every person ultimately has their own unique personal culture, surely every church (including multicultural ones) has its own unique culture.

Here is another quote: “The cultural bias we share with others in our communities becomes a consensus we use to protect ourselves from others…. The comfort of our community becomes a bias toward [against?] others and a blindness to viable relationships different from our own.” (p.22)

This is where the Homogenous Unit Principle (HUP)  turns ugly even as it does its good work of community preservation. Shared culture shuns those who are excluded and thereby misses the opportunity to learn that there are aspects of other cultures that are actually worth evaluating and even adopting. People who leave a multiethnic church because they are not willing to consider the benefits of other cultures have made a decision to stay within the safe fortress of their community. I cannot fault them for this because I (and all of us) do the same thing, we just choose different levels of risk. I may take some risk in living in Kenya, or joining a primarily African-American church. As a result I might consider myself superior to someone who stays in their comfortable church made up of people much like themselves. But I have also limited my risk in that I have not gone for 50 years to a city that is 100% muslim or Hindu; I have not sold my house and gone to live in a pre-historic village in a forest somewhere. We all make self-preserving choices.

For those who are willing to attempt the risk of multi-ethnic church, read this next quote (in which the author speaks to the cross-cultural missionary) from the standpoint of building trusting relationships across cultural lines in your multiethnic local church: “The practice of incarnation (i.e., a willingness to learn as if we were helpless infants) is the first essential step toward breaking this pattern of excluding others. Missionaries, by the nature of their task, must become personally immersed with people who are different. To follow the example of Christ, that of incarnation, means undergoing drastic personal reorientation. They must be socialized all over again into a new cultural context. They must enter a culture as if they were children–ignorant of everything, from the customs of eating and talking to the patterns of work, play, and worship.” (p. 22-3)

One of my concerns in the multiethnic movement in the USA is that many of the practitioners do not seem to have this missionary mindset. Of course I don’t know what is in their hearts. But if the movement is to include deep reconciliation, leaders will need to pave the way and have this sacrificial, incarnational commitment. If the multi-ethnic pursuit is seen primarily as a way of better reflecting the changing neighborhood around the church, or if it is basically an implementation of the Biblical passages that call for it, without this deeper issue of self-denial to the point of incarnation, then the efforts will stop short of their potential as external witness and internal transformation.

I think an interesting question to discuss this would be: Must incarnational church life be a special calling from God, or does He expect it of all His children?

Another would be: How is my community life helping me learn “drastic personal reorientation” that comes with doing life with those of different cultures than my own?

 


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