All church is culture. Church isn’t primarily spiritual. There are spiritual elements to be sure, but all of those elements are dipped, covered and sometimes overwhelmed by a culture of our choice.
And this is how it should be. Even as Jesus became a human being he also became a cultural being and every word he spoke reflected the culture that he was drenched in from before the time he was born. He spoke Aramaic, probably knew Hebrew and Greek, quoted the Hebrew Scriptures. He also was Galilean, which had a different perspective on Judaism than the temple/priesthood-oriented Judaism of the Jerusalemites. He had a different view on Gentiles than the southern Jews. His was not just a Jewish viewpoint, but a sectarian Jewish viewpoint. That was the culture he chose in his incarnation. And he was changed by that culture, he spoke both in and through that culture. And he challenged the mainstream cultures of his day through the viewpoint of the culture he was raised in, as well as his unique perspective.
What mystifies me is the demand for cultural unity in the church. Yes, I agree that we need to have a limited amount of doctrinal and ethical unity. Jesus is Lord and love is the law. But cultural unity? As if we should all be in the same worship service, worshiping the same way. As if unity can only be accomplished if we are all in the same worship service, singing the same songs.
My first problem with that is that the Jesus who walked on earth wouldn’t be comfortable with any of our worship. First of all, he didn’t speak the same language. Also, his manner singing would be more like a chant than our modern melodic songs. Some of the ideas might be familiar, but our theological language would be foreign to him.
But in an ideal of a universal worship service, which culture will we be communicating in? Some say that we will be communicating in all cultures. But there’s too many cultures for a single worship time. Thousands of languages, tens of thousands of people groups, each with their own style of communication, and a variety of rhythms and rhyme schemes. Not practical.
Certainly we could have a service with a variety of worship styles but that’s just another worship style. Multi-culturalism works for some, but not for others.
My real issue is cultural colonialism. Because when cultural unity is discussed, it is the minority cultures that get the back seat, that have to be relegated to a cultural ghetto. African music is “special” music, not the normal mode of worship as it would be in an African service. Whether Mennonite or Presbyterian, youth or seniors, Aboriginal or Indian, each of these groups have a mainstream form of worship, a cultural norm in which they can connect to God. And they deserve to have their opportunity, not just to be relegated to a single song or reading. For some cultures, worship needs to be three hours just to get going. Others have lost the sweet spot after an hour. And each should have their time with God, with others who appreciate that culture.
I am concerned about cultural colonialism when I hear a white person say, “Why do we have so few black folks in our congregation? We are a segregated church.” The reason you have so few black folks is because you have a white-culture worship. And that’s fine. Enjoy it. But don’t think that having more “ethnic” folks in your congregation makes you more spiritual. If an African American appreciates your culture of worship, great. But don’t expect them to. Don’t think there’s something wrong with your worship because it is mono-cultural. Here’s a secret: all worship is. Because all worship is embedded in culture, because we all are. And different people are a part of different cultures. And being multi-cultural is just one more representation of culture.
I have a church which is homeless culture. I don’t expect you to be comfortable there. People use foul language without thinking and take a break in the middle of worship for a smoke break. We eat around tables in the middle of service. They interrupt the preaching, and the sermons often go on rabbit trails off the text, being more of a discussion than a monologue. Sometimes a fight breaks out and we have to interrupt church to break up the fight. That’s our culture. That’s how we connect with Jesus and show love for each other. It’s not for everybody. But it works for those of us who are a part of this particular homeless community.
If you’d really like to experience multi-cultural worship, we’d be happy to have you come and join us. But don’t think that we are participating in a more “spiritual” worship if you have us join you in your service. Sure, your singing is nice, and your people are friendly, but you see, our culture is different. We can appreciate your style of worship, but we have a hard time connecting with God there. Frankly, some of you are too stuffy. And some of you are uncomfortably loud. And some of you think you should wear really uncomfortable clothing. And that’s great, for you. I’m not judging you. The most important thing is that you connect with God, and give him what you’ve got. We want to give Him what we've got. In a way we understand and is emotionally resonate to us.
But please don’t think that we’d be better off if we worshiped in your church, in your style. We’d be less distracted in your church, that’s true, but we can’t hear God above all the things that’s “wrong” with your church. Of course, there’s probably nothing wrong. But it’s different. And we just want to get back home, in our own culture, where God speaks to us in our own language. Maybe we’ll visit another time. If you thought that if you made a couple changes for us so we could be more "comfortable", we really wouldn't. We would just feel trapped in your culture. Peddled in.
We will be unified. We will serve together, we will support each other, we will stand up for our brothers and sisters who are outcast, no matter what culture, no matter what viewpoint. We will mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice. And we will also meet God with those who understand our way of meeting God. That doesn't mean we don't love you, just because we aren't in your church. It means you respect us enough to give us the opportunity to be ourselves.