Multi-cultural churches: understanding culture

Our first article in this series highlighted both the opportunities and challenges of the multi-cultural nature of life in UK today.

Mark Davies

Mark and his wife Shirley served as missionaries in Zambia for 20 years engaging in Bible teaching and church/community development projects. From 2003 Mark worked at Tilsley College, Scotland, recently leaving his role as Principal to continue serving with GLO Europe as the Training Director and Coordinator of a national training network. Mark and Shirley are now based in London at Highgate International Church.

It finished with some “homework” to be done – Have you carried out any recent research on the demographics in your local community? What changes are taking place? Who are the new groupings of people you can now reach for Christ? Who are the new workers (fellow believers) that the Lord has brought to you? We then looked at the particular role that languages play within the dynamics of connecting with and working among incoming groups, while they grapple with learning English and adapting to British cultures. In this article we explore the concept of culture itself.

When to be or not to be … or who to be at all?
Culture is that thing which, while we are not born with it, we so naturally live and breathe, such that the majority of us are utterly oblivious to what is “our” culture – until we leave our environment and enter into another cultural world. And then it hits us, often in our stomach as our digestive system struggles with new cuisine or as we fumble with hands, noses and cheeks to give an appropriate greeting. These, and the frustration at having to wait an extra 38 minutes before the promised tour guide pitches up, are some of the practical evidences that our expectations differ from culture to culture.

Birth culture, so called as it is the socialisation into which we were encultured from birth, includes the deepest values we live by, the way we think or rationalise our actions, as well as the practical habits of daily life.

The “Understanding Culture” diagram opposite, illustrates the interconnectedness of how we present ourselves to one another. As if that range of possible difference is not enough, most cultures have their own language to describe it all, and, in itself alone, language is a formidable barrier to social cohesion in a given location, be it in your local market, school or church.

Identity is a core issue for human well-being and useful functionality – knowing who you are and why you are and what you are has a huge impact on what you can do and achieve. Identity is not just about the individual (How do you see yourself?) but about the community (How do others see you?).

As the “Elements of personal and group make up” diagram illustrates, we share a common human nature and inherit some personality traits from parents, but are nurtured into forms of cultural or group identity.

From a Biblical perspective it is not something sourced just within myself or from my community but something God speaks to us (again needing to be personally heard and collectively accepted).

There is also the question of the priority order of one’s core identity and subsidiary identities which may be linked to sub-cultures that I see myself as part of. I am “comfortable” (at times) with a range of subsidiary identities (I am Welsh, British, male, a father, a son, a Christian minister, white). These have a certain developmental dynamic to them and are to some extent context related. However I must learn to hold to a core identity as being a child of God, someone who is significant in God’s eyes. Choosing that order of identity priority will be a significant help to engaging in a multi-cultural church

Choosing that order of identity priority will be a significant help to engaging in a multi-cultural church context, because one key area that affects our sense of identity is the “culture(s)” that we feel at home in.While Paul in Galatians 3:26-29 teaches clearly the over-riding priority of who we are in Christ, yet he retains a clear sense of the dimensions of his own human

While Paul in Galatians 3:26-29 teaches clearly the over-riding priority of who we are in Christ, yet he retains a clear sense of the dimensions of his own human make up – cultural and sub-grouping identities (male, Jew, Benjaminite, Pharisee, Roman citizen – Acts 22:3,27-28, 23:6; Philippians 3:5).

A healthy self-consciousness, with an acknowledgement of my own boundaries as to who I am, help me realise that to effectively communicate and connect with others I need to make compromises and changes in how I think and act. Hence Paul teaches by personal example in 1 Corinthians 9:19-27 that he must make the significant effort to change and run the risk of his own group misunderstandings so that those of other cultural groupings may receive Christ clearly.

In working out the great commission, Matthew 28:19-20, of making disciples of all nations, we are to be the “go-ers”, the bridge makers and gulf crossers. The responsibility has to be on us to change and become in some ways like the “other” (be it an ethnic minority or cultural sub-grouping such as Bikers, Goths, Ravers or Yummy Mummies), not expect them to change and become like us culturally speaking, in order to receive Christ. The incarnation of God into our world sets the supreme example. Philippians 2:3-8, He emptied Himself, He laid down, He let go of all the outwardly evidences of His divine glory (though not being any less divine as that was His very nature) so that there be no barriers in His desire to connect, communicate and serve us, His now fellow-humanity.

Having spent 20+ years living and working in another culture, I know it is not possible to fully enculturate into another culture other than your birth culture, but you can go a long way towards adapting and fitting in, to humbling yourself, to learning how to be in another’s shoes, such that the barriers to communicating Christ are reduced to those that relate to sinful rebelliousness against God and not the barriers of cultural difference.

More homework … ! What steps are you taking, as probably the majority culture in your area, to understand and meet the various minority cultures and sub-groupings of people in your local community? What are some of the key barriers in socialising? What steps can you take as a group or as individuals to overcome those barriers? What aspects of our majority culture can we sacrifice and change, so that other cultural groupings feel more comfortable in our company and in the way we can worship God together?

Foundation Spring 2017