Why there still might be cultural issues though we don't realise it

I recently wrote a couple of articles on class and the church. The first looked at some of the things people hear when we talk about this issue but that we’re really not saying. You can read that here. Having laid out specifically what we aren’t saying I wrote a second post regarding some of the comments we frequently hear from those who are not in working class communities nor themselves working class that can be quite frustrating to us in this conversation. You can read that second post here. In this post, I want to just look at some of things that might cause us to assume there is no issue when, in reality, there is more of a problem than we may realise.

One of the biggest issues is that of church culture. The problems with diagnosing our culture are myriad. In the church, we all assume that everything we do is simply biblical without recognising that a lot of what we do is a cultural application of universal biblical principles. This is compounded when we have a dominant culture and one or more non-dominant cultures present. The culture of the church will be shaped by the dominant group, and assumed to be biblical, while cultural expressions among those from non-dominant cultures can easily be seen less as legitimate expressions of a different culture and more commonly as unbiblical views and behaviours.

Those in the dominant culture, however, rarely recognise that their culture dominates. This often leads to frustrating comments such as, ‘there are no cultural issues in our church’ or ‘our church doesn’t have a dominant culture; everyone is welcome.’ I am sure when people say this they are being entirely genuine believing that to be the case. Unfortunately, they fail to see that if they do not believe their church has a dominant culture it is because they are part of the dominant culture of that church.

A simple way to see this is to look at the leaders of your church. Whilst these are not the only people who will shape the culture, they will have a bigger hand in doing so than most. If all your elders are drawn from middle class, white, professional backgrounds – whether you have some working class people in your church or not – chances are your church culture is white, middle class and professional. Not only is this likely to be the case because groupthink thrives in homogeneous groups but it also speaks to precisely whom you will appoint to leadership roles. If your leadership is always made up of white, middle class, professional people – given that most churches do not permit elders to simply appoint themselves as individuals – it speaks to the people you recognise as fit for leadership.

Many wish to argue that they do not have any such problems because people from different class and ethnic backgrounds exist in their churches. Ironically, this defence actually compounds this point. If your church is entirely homogeneous – a purposefully ethnically bound church, for example, such as Chinese Churches – you only have a person from a certain kind of background to ever elect to office. There is much that can be said of this homogeneous unit principle, but that is another post for another day. But if you wish to claim that you have no such cultural problems in your church because there are a variety of classes and ethnicities present, but none of them ever seem to make it to leadership level, rather than proving your point, it is badly undermined as you are actively passing over such people in favour of those who look entirely alike. That is not to say there are never any legitimate reasons why this happens, but it certainly requires a credible explanation that does not sink into a equation of Biblical principles with white middle class values.

This issue of homogeneous leadership is more significant the more alike the group happens to be. So, for example, churches that not only have people drawn from the same class and ethnicity but who also draw all their leaders from the same family are particularly at risk of creating a dominant culture without any outsider perspective on their culture. The more diverse your leadership – in terms of class, ethnicity, nationality, education, etc – the less likely one culture is going to dominate.

Apart from leadership, we may assume that there are no cultural issues because nobody ever mentions them to us. But, of course, there are lots of reasons why this may happen. For one, we may not have a culture of being able to openly air such concerns. If we value easy-going relationships and find honesty on these matters entirely uncomfortable, we are unlikely to welcome these sorts of views. Otherwise, we may have a culture that simply values conformity and submission. As such, should we receive these sorts of comments, it is very easy to pass them off as grumbling and complaining and to send people packing with a pseudo-spiritual comment about unity or the priority being our worship of God and thus this being an unbiblical concern. People may not raise these matters because they are not convinced it will achieve anything. I’ve met a number of people who have had such bad experiences on this front that they just don’t see the point.

Another reason people may not raise these issues is because they have no other experience of church that gives them a frame of reference. What they are taught, either explicitly or implicitly, is that to be a Christian is to deny your culture and background. It is, ironically, one of the first problems that arose in the Early Church for Jewish believers – so it is not as if scripture doesn’t warn us that this would be a thing! In that case, the apostles were clear that Jewish believers do not have to deny their culture to be believers and nor do Gentiles have to deny theirs. Both the Jerusalem Council and most of Galatians deal with these issues.

For folks who are new believers, or have no church background and have never read these things, they may believe the gospel and then encounter the church as it is presented to them by the believers they join. If what they encounter is series of people dressing, speaking and acting in a homogeneous way that is utterly alien to them, and then those things are couched in terms of what is biblical rather than cultural (because that is what they are believed to be), are we really expecting that person to unpick all that? What they are presented with is a choice: reject your culture, family and background or obey the bible. This is not the choice scripture presents, but it is the de facto one we often present in our churches. But with no other frame of reference, why would people necessarily raise this? As far as they may be concerned, this is Christianity as presented in the Bible.

I have commented before on ‘young fogey syndrome’ in many churches. Why do we so often see lads in their teens and twenties dressing like 50 and 60 year old men? Essentially, it is because they want respect and they know the way to get it is to assimilate to the culture, play the game and make sure that their behaviour reflects what is deemed worthy of respect. But the same is true of those from different class and ethnic cultures. Many join the church and realise, quite quickly, if they are to be given any respect or opportunities for service, they better assimilate. So they contort to the culture with which they are presented, they reject their background in favour of the church culture, so that they might gain respect and be granted opportunities to serve.

None of that is to say that everything about our church culture will be bad. There will, inevitably, be some things in which working class and ethnic minority people ought to change because their culture is not excellent. The issue is that we are typically asking them to abandon all of it when much of it may be actively good and this is not something scripture calls them or us to do. But so few of us realise this is what we’re doing because our culture is the dominant one and our friends are either from that same culture or happen to be those who have assimilated over time so that they look just the same.

There is lots more we could say. But these are just some of the ways in which we may (genuinely) believe there are no such cultural issues in our church without realising that there are, nonetheless, issues that we simply do not see.