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Christian Cultural Chauvinism

Suburban America today is a  multi-ethnic, heterogeneous  society.  Indian, Chinese, Korean, Caucasian, Hispanic, and  African Americans live and work together.  But where are the multicultural, multiethnic churches which reflect the diversity of our  society?

Many of my acquaintances would feel extremely out of place at my church.  Not that they would be snubbed and stared at.  On the contrary, they would be warmly and sincerely welcomed.  However,  because my church is almost exclusively young, white, and middle- or upper-middle class,  they would stick out by virtue of race, age, or background.  Some of them would find it extremely difficult to relate to the worship style and music. Now,  I could certainly find a church where the atmosphere would be congenial to them  --  but I cannot find a church which is multicultural as my neighborhood or work environment is.

The worldwide body of Christ is supposed to function as a single multi-ethnic multi-cultural body. The Lord has charged us to put aside our personal prejudices and preferences, and work together to promote the Kingdom of God.  To be sure, there is some degree of inter-church cooperation along these lines. However, individual churches rarely function in a manner which is representative of this commission.  Instead, each church remains comfortably within its own particular subculture.  Sometimes the subculture is determined by the distinctives of the church's denomination.  Sometimes it is determined by the socioeconomic and cultural background of the church's leadership.  Whatever the source of the subculture,  invariably it becomes as much a part of the church's fundamental character as the Gospel itself.  This is extremely unfortunate, because oftentimes church members cannot distinguish  their individual cultural mores from the fundamental message of Christ.

Far from being harmless, cultural chauvinism in the Church  is inimical to the Lord's purposes.  By virtue of its sub-cultural fragmentation, the Church today is failing in its mission to represent the Kingdom of God to the lost.  Instead, we are reflecting the worldly pattern of separation, non-communication, ignorance, and prejudice which has been with us ever since the Tower of Babel.

Besides misrepresenting the Kingdom of God to the world, our cliquishness impairs the internal functioning of the Church.  The Church is like a body which has been ripped apart, one arm here, one leg there, each limb doing its best on its own to get the job done but  in the end succeeding mostly in thrashing about. Christians from different subcultures do not connect with each other on a spiritual level.  Each is stuck in  his/her own cultural idiom, and is unable to reach across and identify with others from different backgrounds. The result is interdenominational  and inter-church prejudice,  leading to  mistrust, misunderstanding, and distance among Christians. We do not even appreciate each other -- how then do we expect to work together to bring the Gospel to the world? We are hopelessly uncoordinated. By our sinful insularity, we have afflicted the body of Christ with cerebral palsy.

Worship is one area where our churches' cultural chauvinism most obviously manifests itself.  Some churches are immovably stuck in their long-standing traditions.  On the other hand, over the past several decades a  large number of churches  have taken up what might be called the "McDonald's approach" to worship culture.  McDonald's  offers a uniform menu of simple, popular, tasty, characteristically American fast food items.  McDonald's is not highbrow or imposing by any means.  It caters to "least common denominator" tastes and preferences.

From a commercial viewpoint  McDonald's is hugely successful, worldwide operation, with over 28,000 restaurants in 121 countries.  But from a spiritual standpoint, there are serious problems with patterning a church after McDonald's. Lots of people go to McDonald's, but far fewer would say that they really feel "at home" there.  Many (if not most) would soon get heartily sick of McDonald's if they had to depend on it for daily sustenance.

Should the Church be patterned after a fast-food restaurant chain, even if it is highly successful?  Should it not rather be patterned after a widely diverse, extended family, where multiple "menus", multiple forms of expression may be found?

Even within the commercial world, a better paradigm may be found than McDonald's.  In recent years, the Disney Corporation has produced a number of highly successful films which are based upon stories and characters from different cultures worldwide.  Although the cultures may be somewhat caricatured (and distorted by Americanisms), still they are portrayed with appreciation and sensitivity.  One of my Saudi Arabian friends told me (to my surprise!) that he greatly enjoyed Aladdin, while an African friend loved The Lion King.  Could not a similar cultural variety and sensitivity be displayed in our individual churches?

The problem of Christian cultural chauvinism is  deeply rooted.  Conscious, concerted effort is required for its solution. Changes must be made which will challenge our comfortable complaceny.   Of course, action will take different forms in different individual situations.  All efforts must be undergirded with prayer and seeking the Lord's specific direction.  One promising starting point is church partnerships, where churches from widely different backgrounds become thoroughly involved in each others/ worship and practical spirituality.  How often do we see two churches side by side, whose congregations  are miles apart!

Prayer: Father, the sins of Your children are open before You. You see we snub each other, how we follow Babel's example and fragment ourselves into isolated sub-cultures.  Our sinful insularity has brought paralysis to  the body of Christ. Father, forgive us and restore us to wholeness. Renew within us the vision of a single Body,  the strong parts giving place to the weak, the honorable to the dishonorable (1 Corinthians 12:22-25),  the young to the old, the uninhibited to the inhibited, the progressive to the traditional, and vice versa.

You have moved men to worship you in myriads of styles and fashions -- but we have closed our hearts to all but our own favorite means. Because we have closed our hearts to others, we have closed our hearts to You also.  Forgive us, Lord, and open our hearts.

e-mail: thornroot@juno.com
Copyright © 2001 CrossPollen
Last Revised: October 4, 2001

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