important preliminary comments here (part 1)
our american identity here (part 2)
my framing theological assumption here (part 3)
the unfortunate results of being reactors here (part 4)
the unfortunate results of being simplifiers here (part 5)
the unfortunate results of being systemitizers here (part 6)
the unfortunate results of being highly individualistic here (part 7)
the unfortunate results of being overstaters here (part 8)
the unfortunate results of being enamoured of BIG here (part 9)
one of the motivations for this rant, as i stated in the first post, is my noticing of the quantity of unfiltered church strategies, ideas and approaches we american export to the rest of the world. yes, the rest of the world shares some responsibility for this in their insatiable appetite for our quick fixes, simplified systems, overstatements and reactionary pendulum swings. but i believe we have a larger responsibility.
here’s an example: when i speak about youth ministry in another culture, i always do four things…
1. i learn about the culture (specifically, in my case, about the church culture, the youth ministry culture, and the youth culture). if there are no paid youth workers in a country, how stupid would it be of me to constantly address the paid youth workers?
2. i’m very intentional about thinking through , ahead of time, the cultural aspects of my content — what am i presenting that’s built on american assumptions or american context? what would be a non-connect due to cultural differences?
3. i turn my cultural radar on and set it at the highest sensitivity. while i’m speaking, i’m constantly watching for cues as to whether or not what i’ve just said needs reframing, reculturalizing, or rejection (blame it on the silly american!).
4. i invite, over and over again, people to listen with cultural skepticism. i tell them, “i know SOME things about your culture, and i’ll try to be conscious of our differences — but i am NOT singaporian (or irish or argentine or guatemalan or…), and i will definitely say things that need to be filtered or rejected.”
but the other-side-of-the-coin on all of this is that we (americans) see ourselves primarily as church-stuff exporters. occaisionally we glom onto a paul yongi cho or a holy trinity brompton. but in general, we’re more exporters than importers (or maybe more accurately, we’re more ‘tellers’ than we are ‘learners’).
when i presented this seminar at greenbelt, in the UK, i ended with a section called “a few things you can learn from the american church”. i think i put this section in as much to assuage my own guilt over ranting about the church i love in my own country (turncoat!). but i also DO think there are some great things about the american church.
for our purposes here, i’m going to turn that around, and mention a few things i think we can learn from the church in other countries. this is a place missiologists and people who work intensely with the church in other cultures would have much more to say that little ol’ me. but here are three starters…
being the church can be hard. we americans want everything in our lives, including our religion, to make life easier. we want to legislate morality in order to make our own lives easier. we want our churches to meet all our felt needs (which drives us to larger shopping-mall churches and church-shopping). we rarely entertain the notion that being the church — being who we are really called to be — can be tough. it might not result in BIG; might not result in elections going our way; might not result in the largest teen centers; might not result in popularity.
if we reframe our expectations away from ‘church/jesus makes life easy’ to something else, everything changes.
success is measured in ways other than numbers. a very dear friend of mine, a leader in the emerging church who normally ‘gets it’ in a way that i don’t, shocked me one day. we were talking about the church that jonny baker is a part of in london, called ‘grace’. this little rag-tag group of al-worshippers has such a commitment to creating worship experiences of creativity and beauty that they can only pull them off a couple times a month. my friend said: “grace church is only, like, 60 people! what’s significant about that?”
i couldn’t believe it. and i know that many (if not most) of us can dismiss that comment. but — deep down — that kind of thinking is SO engrained in our american brains (and souls!).
we MUST re-evaluate our measuring sticks. sure, i think numbers have a place. if my youth group suddenly shrinks or grows by 75%, i should take notice, and start to ask why! but the measuring stick of size should be way down the list, below sticks pertaining to love, community, justice, serving the poor and others.
i know i’m sounding a bit idealistic. deal with it. jesus was idealistic.
we’re designed for inter-dependence. i think one of the most influential technologies in america over the last couple decades isn’t the internet or digital tv or any one of another host of technologies. i think it’s the garage-door opener. this little box leads so many to live lives of relative isolation (or, at least, of non-technological isolation). (note: i realize i’m speaking primarily of suburban life here — but that’s where the pop-culture church flourishes.)
i live on a cul-de-sac of like-designed newish homes. as i drive up my street toward my house, i click my garage door opener. i slow down in my driveway as the garage door opens, taking that moment to turn to my left and right and wave to my neighbors who are outside playing with their children. i pull into my garage and close the door, then walk through a different door that goes straight into my house. no need to go outside. if i DO want to go outside, i go in my backyard (my garden, for my non-american friends) and sit by my tropical pool, under an automatically-watered palm tree, inside a high privacy fence. people from other countries who visit my house say with respect, “you never have to leave your house!”
there’s a shift that takes place in the lives of young teens, shortly after puberty. most go through a friendship shift, and move from friendships based on proximity (‘you and i are friends because we live by each other, or spend a lot of time in the same place’) to friendships based on affinity (‘you and i are friends because we like the same things’). i think american culture has gone thr0ugh the same shift at a macro level. my wife and i are isolated in our neighborhood, but constantly have people in our home.
we in the church have lost sight of the fact that our design (the way god made us) is for relationships. it’s somewhere deep in our psyche or soul or dna or somewhere. we need other people or we’re not fully human. churches in many other cultures seem to have a deeper understanding of this than we do.
ok — so i said this was a 10-parter, and scot mcknight said it was longer than anything he’s ever done! but i’m taking ONE more — part 11 — to suggest a handful of ‘new values’ i’d love to see the american church embrace. it’ll be my idealistic parting shot on this subject…