I attended a wedding last weekend. It was a typical, in-a-church, down-the-aisle, light-the-candles, kiss-the-bride, very-nice wedding. But for me it was much more than that. I was stepping back into a church culture that I had been part of for many years. I'm not talking about one specific church. In fact, there were people from several different churches present. But it was the town that I formerly pastored in, people that I knew, and an overall culture that, I believe, is very representative of the culture that makes up most of our church world.
I felt very much like an outsider. Of that I was I very glad.
Before I offer my reflections on this church culture I want to qualify my critique with a couple of important comments:
- All cultures are made up of human characteristics and are therefore, by nature, imperfect. Let me say it more clearly: there is no such thing, this side of heaven, as a perfect culture.
- The typical american church culture, which I am reflecting on here, has many good attributes: there is generally a sound understanding of Christ and his work, good truths are taught, families are supported, and people find Christ through them.
One last qualifying comment is that I critique this culture not to put others down, which serves no purpose, rather to challenge myself and others to grow, strive for something more, and to do my part to walk in greater repentance and, if possible, to be part of a healthier church culture because of the lessons learned.
Okay, I know, I know, enough qualifiers. Having said all of that, I want to explore some of the more negative aspects of this culture. In fact, I was so overwhelmed by my past memories of total involvement with this culture that it was all I could do to sit in my seat and not flee.
Marks of the American culture that I want to be free of:
1. There is a religious arrogance that permeates much of our church culture. It is very subtle and hard to pick up on since the words spoken are always so "loving" and "sweet." But everyone knows that there are rules followed to be part of the church culture and that those that fit the mold are "in." And it is an "in" thing and an "out" thing. By that I mean we have a quiet smugness about having found our way "in." We are, in fact, just a little better, thank God, and the only way others can be "in" like we are "in" is to find their way, first to Christ and then into the cultural rules that declare one to be "wholly in" (or is it "holy in").
What is even more distressing to me is that within this religious culture there are those who are slightly more "in" and those who are slightly less "in" creating a certain caste system that keeps everyone in place and knowing who is who.
2. Related to this religious pride is an exlusivity about the church culture. It is not a culture that is seeking, generally speaking, to incarnate the message of life to others. In fact those who are "radical" in an outreach sort-of way are often labelled as those "missions-minded" folks and, incredibly unless they are a key leader or pastor, often seen as not quite as "in" as others. In any case, the culture has an air of exclusivity that is quite contrary to the apostolic life lived by Jesus.
3. This culture is mired in spiritual passivity. I walked into the "church" box building. I sat in one of several hundred seats facing forward. I faced a platform with microphones and special lights shining on the stage area. Once the "service" began there were perhaps three people who contributed out of that group of several hundred. Now, I understand that this was a wedding, afterall, but it was still reflective of the way we do church. We train people in passivity. We teach people that observing others and nodding heads in agreement is a top-notch spiritual experience.
4. The culture is dependent upon its superstars and is slightly condescending toward those who are not. While the average Christian has learned to be passive, we find those with the flavor-of-the-year spiritual gifts (music, teaching, prophesying, etc) and ask them to be our representative superstars. We sometimes take people with little proven character and ascribe status to them because of their abilities. In so doing, we teach people that character is not as important as giftedness and that those without flavor-of-the-year gifts are slightly less valuable and important as others. This is not a culture of equal value, regardless of the sermons preached on the subject.
I suppose I could go on. I am not interested in bashing but learning. But I do want to look critically at the cultures I am a part of and have been a part of. I don't want to just blindly follow those around me because it's "the way we do it." I do not wish, in any way, to be a subversive or a difficult person, but I do want to attempt to be part of Christian cultures that truly value one another, that call for responsible spiritual involvement of every person, that are apostolic, and that are more relational and authentic than religious. May we continue to learn and grow.