What might be the next step in mapping a way forward in overcoming the difficulties that our different cultures cause in church life? As we did last time I want to take my lead from the Bible and suggest that just as right theology is important here, so is right character.
When I think of unity in the church two passages in Paul’s letters quickly spring to my mind – Eph 4:1-6 & Phil 2:1-4. Both of them are calls for the church to be united, and both of them emphasise humility as key to that unity. As I have thought and faced the problems that culture can cause in the church I have found these verses to be so helpful and so necessary. If we want unity despite our cultural diversity we need humility.
I want to suggest three ways in which this is important. First, we need the humility to acknowledge that much of what we do and the assumptions that we have are culturally conditioned. I remember spending a year at University in America. I didn’t expect to have a culture shock when I went there, but I did. There were several differences and one that stood out to me, although it was so small, was the way the traffic lights worked. In the UK they go red, red & amber, green. In the US they go red, green. As I missed home this became an issue to me and in my pride I wanted to shout out, “YA’LL ARE DOING IT WRONG!!!” But of course that is not true. It was just different.
There are many areas in church life where we need the humility to accept that someone elses way is not wrong, it is just different. It is not wrong to sing in a different style. It is not wrong to make decisions in a different way based upon the same biblical principles. It is not wrong to preach in jeans and t-shirt. It is not wrong to not meet at 11am & 6pm on a Sunday, but to do Sunday another way. It is not wrong to have Saturday meetings, or not to have Saturday meetings. It is just different. But that takes humility to recognise. Often pride and a satisfaction with our culture blinds us to this.
Second, we need humility to compromise with each other. One of the lessons that I have learned in marriage is that if we are to live together in harmony there needs to be a good deal of give and take. The same is true in the church. Paul points this out, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” (Phil 2:3). The problem is that this is not always easy or always the case.
I have found this to be particularly in churches where a dominant culture has existed for a long time. New people come in and are welcomed, but often on the condition that they fit in with what is already there. However, is that a biblical approach? Obviously church is not about conforming to the wishes and desires of every newcomer. That would be impossible and deny the need for compromise from those who start coming to a church. Yet, is it right to insist that for someone to be part of a church body they must conform with the cultural practices of the church and not just the biblical principles on which they are based? I would answer no.
We need to accept that one way of doing things that encourages one group of people may not encourage another. We need to understand that while our needs might be ‘being met’ by the way we are doing things others needs may not. We have to grasp that while I may understand what is being said others might not because of the cultural barriers that exist. This takes humility.
Third, we need humility to be patient with each other. Paul writes, “bearing with one another in love” (Eph 4:2). I don’t know about you, but I need people to bear with me in love. I get so much wrong and I am slow to understand others.
One area where I think this is needed today is in the relationship between the young and old and the use of language. I have friends on facebook of varying ages and in looking at their communications I have noticed that words once used to express strong feelings are now common place. Similarly phrases that were once used to give offence are now used as the norm between friends. These are cultural differences that can easily cause real problems between people as offense is taken where none was intended. We need to bear with one another, think the best of each other and seek to understand one another.
As we come together from different cultures, thinking differently and liking different things there are many areas where friction can easily be fostered. However, much of this can be avoided if we approach eachother with humility.