Intro to Part 3
I’ve had a couple of people ask me why I went with a four-part blog post. I can understand why some might wonder about this… Let me explain (…ees too much… I sum up–Princess Bride fans applaud here).
First, I’m trying to develop an argument that has several parts: the first part is to explain a very, very complicated issue (self-righteousness and culture), and the second part is to encourage readers to move forward in a risky, emotional place. It seemed foolish to try to do that in one simple blog post.
The other reason is that I want to develop some anticipation for the blog to come out. I hope that helped a little. So, with that out of the way…
My brothers and I try to get together when we can to do “man trips.” Sometimes these work out well (like the mountain climbing trip to Mexico pictured here in 06).
And sometimes not so well (the lack of salmon on the Oregon fishing trip-not Dan’s fault btw), but we always enjoy the time together and enjoy the attempt at adventure. On one of those trips, we went off-roading in West Texas looking for some adventure. I stopped to ask a local rancher for some advice, and when I got back in the Jeep, my brothers started laughing at me. I asked what was wrong, and they began to tease me for switching into a “Texas” accent. I was trying to speak in the “right” cultural way to my Texas neighbor. Talkin’ good matters!
The Water Where We Swim…
Culture is a complicated thing. Even defining culture is hard. All kinds of people use that word for all kinds of things. It’s a challenging concept to understand. In fact, the best imagery I know is the cliché of the iceberg… the stuff you can’t see is the absolute mass of how culture moves through our existence. My studies in intercultural communication have shown me that the rabbit hole goes pretty deep on this one. It gets particularly difficult to think about your own culture in a wise way. A proverb among cultural students says, “the fish is the last one to understand water.”
The reason I’m bringing this topic into the conversation about “you’re doing it wrong” is that our cultural bias feels “right.” This is part of the normality of life. All the best Christian anthropologists and cultural students know that we are given our first worldviews. We do not analyze them as we grow up… it’s just what we know is right (as we’ve learned to understand the world). Imagine the different assumptions that happen for someone growing up in rural Kenya compared to someone growing up in Tokyo.
While that comparison might seem obvious (about Kenya and Tokyo), it gets more complicated when we start talking about something important to us: like how we do ministry. When we are absolutely committed that our way (regardless of our reasoning) is RIGHT, it’s a short step to feeling righteous. I am not suggesting that accuracy leads to self-righteousness in every situation. But when you add cultural anxiety or feeling culturally threatened to the equation, people quickly revert to drawing lines about the right way to do things.
When we talk about an alternative, people often wonder if I’m throwing out the idea of absolute truth. Of course not. We need to deal with reality first. Our preferences about reality are not the same thing as the essence, so that means that we need to examine our cultural ideas about how church and leadership ought to be. Hopefully, that would lead us to question how we can do that well. Here’s a starting point.
Four Social Games (and why they matter to the argument)
In his excellent book, Transforming Culture, Sherwood Lingenfelter¹ outlines four main cultural expressions based on how organized a culture is (or isn’t) and how much they value individuality (or togetherness). He refers to them as SOCIAL GAMES. This can get complicated, so after listing each group, I’ll give a mundane example to loosely describe it and then also show some church forms that have come from these cultural views:
- Individualist – This element values the rights of the individual over the group and is not all that excited about too many rules or too much time together. Example: Imagine the lonely cowboys all proving themselves alone on the range. Church: the house church/emergent movement.
- Egalitarian – This is where no one person rules, but the group’s desires trump individual will. Example: Small tribes that rotate leadership (Like the Yap in the Caroline Islands) Church: Quakers, Plymouth Brethren and small churches where any person can be an elder/deacon (with the right spiritual qualifications).
- Hierarchist – This is the corporation, lots of people, lots of levels and organized subgroups. Example: The modern corporation and business model. Church: Mega-churches.
- Authoritarian – This quadrant is highly organized, leveled, prescribed and is not interested in groupthink or voting blocks. Example: Government jobs that promote only on seniority. Church: Liturgical churches (like Anglican or Orthodox).²
These social games all have elements that are good, and they all have challenges. What’s interesting is that they tend to develop based on outside pressure and environments rather than on a prescription of what is absolutely true for all people everywhere. Lingenfelter’s belief is that as Christians, we are not full-time residents of any of these social games. Rather, we’re pilgrims traveling through any or all of them as needed. Jesus himself at some point engaged all of these social games. The reason I’m explaining social games is not to explain the intricacies of culture. It’s to make this point from Lingenfelter –
The social games we play are much more than games. They reflect a particular bias that we have about the best and the right way to live our collective life of faith. If we could take the time to examine the theological underpinnings of each of the churches described, we would find careful biblical and theological justification for each particular social expression of the church. Every tradition founds its church practices upon a theological rationale that can be supported fron Holy Writ. Are all the others blind to what Scripture really says, and do we alone have the truth? (34, italics mine)
In every social game you find elements of God’s design for his people, and, at the same time, you find evil has infiltrated and contaminated that. The reason this matters so much is that an outright condemnation of people doing things differently does NOT make them automatically wrong. But, it does not make them automatically right either! Some examples:
The early church wasn’t so individualistic, and that’s what’s wrong with our churches today
The church should be more like a family than an organization, (or) this isn’t a “ministry” it’s just a “business”
Worship should have more (x) and less (y) because of (z) reasons
You get the idea. We genuinely believe that we do things the right way… sometimes it’s just one way that works for now.
So if this problem is so difficult, what do we all do without getting a Ph.D. in intercultural studies (some of my friends’ heads just exploded)? Here are a few things that are helpful.
- Start with a deeper humility–Surely we are not the pinnacle of human growth and practice over the last 2000+ years. It is often assumed that because we’re later on the timeline, somehow we’re smarter/better than those who went before. While we’ve grown in many ways, there are still shocking gaps in our theology and practice that should humble us. In fact, the rise in sex-trafficking, HIV/AIDS, abortion rates, poverty getting worse, and millions and millions who have not yet heard of Jesus (in spite of planes, the internet, and more money than ever in history) might make us a tad ashamed… what do we really have to be proud about anyway? Isn’t all our success from God?
- Ask before you assume–I remember the first time I worshiped with some Anglican friends. I was really uncomfortable and felt like I was surely doing something wrong. I had a list of mental objections: the robed people, the weird liturgy, and the longest communion experience of my life. I made a choice to ask my friends about why those things were so important. And, as I learned from my friends and teachers about why they were so passionate about their liturgy, I was humbled at their depth of devotion and purity, their commitment to reaching the poor, and their deep love for their neighbors. Asking first can be our first step in humility.
- Focus on your own context without judging another–We all need to focus intently and passionately on reaching our own context. The church where I work is very focused on reaching our context. We’re not trying to ask anyone else to do what we are doing. In fact, my pastor just recently said from the pulpit how much he loves the churches around us.³ My friend Haydn Shaw was musing about this one day and remarked that he does not want to judge another servant of our master. Jesus will be our judge.
- Be a loving learner – Prov 2:1-6 provides a great roadmap for learning that reveals how becoming wise is a journey not a state of being. When we learn from a position of trying to be loving instead of trying to be right (or righteous), our learning becomes compounded by the wisdom of others. We win at every level with this attitude!
Concluding Part 3
In the end, the reason this matters so much to me is not to tell anyone they’re wrong. It’s for the sake of joy and love! It’s also about how deeply the world needs us to be for each other as opposed! When we can hold our assumptions lightly and allow others to work and worship in ways we don’t understand, we can learn from them, enjoy our diversity, and grow. This freedom from the “right” way allows us to build creative, reciprocal partnerships where we can work in new ways to reach this broken world. What develops is an all-encompassing joy at the myriad of ways God uses his broken people to bring HIS healing, truth, blessings, and work.
Part Four will be the conclusion of this argument. In part one I set up the argument, in part two I laid the historical foundation of this kind of thinking, and this part of the argument took the most explanation. I hope that looking at all four articles together will bring a sense of excitement, humility, and joy to all of us as we work together for the Kingdom! As always, I welcome your comments. Blessings on you and thanks for reading.
¹I am not doing justice to Dr. Lingenfelter’s excellent book. There are some great new books coming out about learning to read the Bible through the Honor / Shame lens (a near-east model rather than a Western one). Another help in this journey is Richard Foster’s Streams of Living Water.
²I recognize that this is a complete generalization. I’m not trying to be judgmental here, or explain it fully, or criticize the hierarchal churches.
³I love the contextual focus of my pastor. If you want to hear Drew Sherman’s preaching, go to mycompasschurch.com!