One of the realities of today’s multicultural societies is that the participants in church congregations are increasingly culturally diverse. This can be both exciting and challenging to those in church leadership. It is exciting, because a culturally diverse church provides a glimpse of the intercultural multitude of worshipers described in Revelations and allows opportunities for people to learn from others who have different points of view. It is challenging because diversity, if not embraced and encouraged, can be divisive. While many groups have dealt with the challenge of diversity by forming smaller congregations that cater for particular cultural (and language) groups, others aspire to integrate diversity into one cohesive congregation. This article is directed toward this latter group.
In an effort to encourage harmony amongst a culturally diverse congregation, one temptation is to promote the notion of a “Christian” culture” (or “kingdom culture”) that supersedes national cultures. As such, members of the congregation are encouraged to leave aside their “differences” and focus on the commonality of Christian culture because, after all, shared Christian faith is the reason for the gathering. But what is Christian culture? The answer to this question must be explored with unflinching honesty if we are to make progress toward vibrant multicultural churches.
A good place to begin is by exploring the notion of culture. Culture is commonly defined as a set of beliefs, values, norms, and practices that is shared amongst a group of people. Culture often also has an element of shared history and shared knowledge. This is illustrated in many countries’ practice of necessitating new citizens to study the history of the country as part of a citizenship ‘test.’ By doing so the new citizens are invited into shared knowledge of the history of the particular group of people who identify themselves as citizens of that country. Similarly, organisations have induction processes for new members in which the members are informed of the values, beliefs, and norms of the organisation, as a way of inviting the members into that particular organisation’s culture.
In as much as culture is defined by beliefs and values, an argument can indeed be made for “Christian culture” because, broadly speaking, Christian scriptures and Christian doctrine shape the core beliefs and values held by those who would identify themselves as Christian. But norms and practices are also integral to “culture.” In fact norms and practices are the manifestations of values and beliefs. Here, the word “Christian” being associated with the word “culture” becomes problematic. Allow me to illustrate with an example.
Consider for examples Peter’s exhortation to “offer hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:9) or the exhortation in Hebrews 13:2, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” Hospitality is arguably a Christian value, based on the Christian belief that showing hospitality to others is a good thing. But what does hospitality look like in practice? There are unquestionably (national/regional) cultural differences in how hospitality is practiced. Even a cursory glance at tourism sites on the Internet (for example http://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/chinese-host-and-guest-customs.htm) would provide copious amounts of evidence for the fact that hospitable practices are very much culturally defined. While we may agree that we must be hospitable, how we show hospitality differs from culture to culture.
We cannot overlook the fact that the Biblical accounts of faith in action were within the context of the customs and norms of the culture of the land. A simple example is to think of our modern-day understanding of “modest” attire. I daresay that it is quite different to people’s understanding in Biblical times. In fact the concept of modest attire vary vastly amongst different cultures in contemporary society. If modesty is a Christian value, then by whose cultural standards will we enforce it? This is merely one example to illustrate the point that we cannot make quality-judgements on cultural variations in expressions of Christian values without implying that one (national/ethnic) culture is superior to another.
A similar observation can be extended to a variety of practices such as worship, style of preaching, style of leadership, etc., all of which are shaped by national and ethnic cultures. Thus we cannot assume that any reference to “Christian culture” is not devoid of national/ethnic culture. In fact, using the label of “Christian/Kingdom culture” to encourage a multicultural congregation to adhere to a common “culture” is disingenuous. By this we would essentially be saying that everyone should adhere to the national/ethnic culture of the dominant group in that church. Further, suggesting the homogeneity of “kingdom” culture puts us in the precarious position of implying that God is in the business of removing culture, rather than redeeming it.
This is not to say, however, that a diverse group of people cannot develop a common culture – they can, indeed.
Christian Values, Negotiated Practices
As I mentioned before, beliefs and values are fundamental parts of culture. Thus Christian beliefs and the values that they engender are certainly shared ground on which a multicultural church can be built. But the practice of these values in customs and norms has to be negotiated amongst the members. If not, the church is inevitably formed by the cultural worldview of those in leadership who may, with good intentions, presume (falsely) that they have established a “Christian culture” in which all people who attend that church are full participants. In other words, if for example a senior pastor (assuming s/he is Caucasian, born and raised in Australia) suggests that the congregation should not be divided by national cultures but rather put aside differences and come together in a unified “Christian culture,” it essentially translates as “put aside your cultural practices and adopt mine” – unless s/he is also willing to involve the congregation in discussing the church’s practices of worship, fellowship, preaching, community building, leadership training, etc., being open to integrating practices that may be somewhat different from ‘normal’ Australian practices. In fact, it was a process like this that was in operation in the early verses of Acts 15. That stimulated the Council of Jerusalem whose findings allowed for diversity of expression while maintaining integrity of core Christian values.
But such a process of negotiation can indeed be challenging, emotive, and possibly impractical. Bringing together people who have strong cultural identities is not easy because we are inherently suspicious of differences and slow to believe that someone else’s way of doing things could be better than ours. But if we want a common culture in a mixed congregation, then all participants of the congregation should feel that they are co-contributors to the norms and customs of that church. And it should be identified for what it is – the ‘culture’ of that particular church community, rather than “Christian” culture – because the label “Christian culture” implies that there is a universal culture to which all Christians should subscribe. Anyone who has worshiped in more than two or three churches knows that’s not true. So how can we build churches that are grounded on Christian values yet still inclusive of diversity?
Project: Building a Culture
The organisations that are most successful in retaining employees and projecting a cohesive message are ones that have also established a unique organisational culture with which the members identify. As in any community, culture is formed formally and informally – formally through policies, procedures, bi-laws, etc. (such as what is legal and what is not) and informally through social practices where somethings are considered acceptable and others are considered weird or improper. I would say that anywhere there is a group of people that co-exists, a ‘culture’ would inevitably develop. But there are ways through which culture can be deliberately shaped as well. So, if you sincerely want to build a cohesive multicultural church, here are some suggestions:
- Recognise that there are multiple cultural expressions of Christian values in practice.
- Identify the values and beliefs of the church (based on Christian faith), communicate it to the congregation, and ask for feedback on how these values could be practiced. For example, you could find out what does ‘worship’ mean to each member of the congregation, and how does s/he worship.
- Share your findings openly with the congregation, demonstrating the variety of ways in which the values of the church are practiced by the different members.
- Invite members to come up with suggestions as to how your church could practice these values – perhaps this can be done through a workgroup/team that has representatives from a variety of cultures. In other words, ask the congregation to design the ‘culture’ of the church. Just as in any culture, not all participants would agree on how to do things. But that’s part of culture-formation. The important thing is that the process is deliberate and consultative.
- To the extent that the practices fit with the vision/mission of the church, adopt as many of them as you can.
- Continue to reiterate the collective identity of the church on an ongoing basis, reminding the congregation of your collective values, norms, and customs. This is your church culture, one expression of Christian values (not the expression of it); an in-group with shared values, shared history, and shared customs.
These suggestions are based on the framework of a (multicultural) congregation where there is a common language. And these suggestions apply for “church” in the sense of a formalised regular gathering of believers. To take the message of the gospel to the far reaching corners of the community, however, other strategies are needed which also address cultural diversity. These are just as important (and even more so) as strategies for fostering cohesive multicultural churches and must be discussed in detail. While this discussion is beyond the scope of this particular paper, stay tuned for future articles.