We live in a time of multiple cultures. That seems like a very obvious and clear statement. But I believe this statement is the kind of fact which we know for sure in our heads, but have not allowed to penetrate into our hearts. We live in a time of multiple cultures.
I have become a student of the work of the late professor of mission, Lesslie Newbigin. He writes in his little book, “Proper Confidence”: “Although the word “culture” came to be used in a sociological sense in the nineteenth century, it was not used in the plural. There was one “civilization” and the various peoples encountered in other continents were on lower or higher rungs of this one ladder. They did not have different “cultures” (until the present century) but were considered either less or more civilized.”
One thing we have learned in the great world missionary movement of the late 1800s is that culture is plural. There are many cultures. The great missionary movement started with the great idea that we are sending Jesus and our culture to all the foreign lands. The Jesus which we sent out was all wrapped up in our culture. We completely assumed that when all the people, in all the foreign lands of the world, came to understand and believe in Jesus, they would naturally adopt our culture as well. These foreign people would get Jesus and our civilization at the same time; what a great deal, we thought!
What we have learned, and it is a remarkable lesson, is that the people of all the foreign lands in the world were glad to have Jesus but they did not want our culture. In fact, all these foreign people quickly learned what we did not know. That Jesus is much, much bigger than our western culture. The world has gone forward knowing, growing with and praising Jesus from within their own cultures. We have been taught an important lesson which we have not completely understood: culture is plural, “cultures”. There are many cultures in the world, and Jesus works very well, powerfully well, in all of them.
This means that all of our work in mission and ministry is cross-cultural. There are many different cultures and our task as church leaders is to cross cultural divisions in the name of Jesus. Of course, this influences that way we do world mission today. I believe this also influences the way we do ministry in our local churches. You – as pastors and church leaders – need to understand in a new way that the people in your churches are living in many different cultures. We need to understand the cultures our people are living in, and we need to take Jesus across those cultural boundaries. We can no longer presume that our people are in any way living in the culture of Jesus when they show up in our churches. Our ministry is cross-cultural. One of the things we must learn to do is understand the multiplicity of cultures which intersect in our lives at any given moment.
Let me name, for example, three different cultures which are very powerful today. Our people are living in these cultures; and our people come to church in these cultures.
1) The culture of consumption: Many of our people are living in the culture of consumption. Consider what the culture of consumption has done to our celebration of Christmas. Consider how many of our good church people are carrying enormous credit card debt. What happens when our very strong, solid church members, who happen to be carrying 5 or 10,000 dollars of credit card debt, are asked to make a financial pledge to our church? We face a profound clash of cultures.
2) The culture of entertainment. I can mention three names and I wonder if there is anyone in this room who has not heard of these people: Tiger Woods, Madonna, Mel Gibson. Or take, for example, a solid, hard working pastor who works 6, 8 or 10 hours a week crafting a worship service and writing a sermon. The sermon is preached with energy and conviction. In the receiving line after worship, one of the church members says to the pastor, “I really like your haircut.” That person is absorbed in a culture of entertainment. We have another clash of cultures.
3) Consider the culture of the American empire. We are the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. What happens when the Presbyterian part of our identity clashes with the U.S.A. part of our identity? The culture of the American empire is so vast and powerful that it is possible to visit a tiny nation like Honduras and never leave American culture.
Pastors and church leaders today must become students of culture. What are the values and goals of these different cultures? We need to become cross-cultural travelers, missionaries. Our people are bringing all these different cultural identities with them when they come into our churches. We can no longer presume that our people are living in and committed to the culture of Jesus when they enter our churches. Often because of the confusion of cultures and the clash of cultures, there is a new and growing anxiety in the professional life of pastors.
I have a negative and a positive conclusion to the thesis that culture is now plural. First of all, we must realize that “sola scriptura” is not good enough anymore. Sola scriptura is the classic doctrine of our church which believes that Scripture alone is all we need for teaching and preaching in the church. Phyllis Tickle has argued in her book, The Great Emergence, about the erosion of sola scriptura from a historical perspective. I am saying the same thing from this cultural perspective. Before we can preach the word, we must also understand the various cultures our people are living in. Jesus has the power to touch and transform lives in every culture, but we must also understand these cultures where our people are living. Our cultural studies must be as smart as our biblical studies.
Positively, what I am saying is a foundational emphasis of a new way of thinking theologically: missional theology. Missional theology is all about cross-cultural ministry. We seek to understand the cultures where our people are living, and we take Jesus right into those cultures.
May it be so in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen!