A few years ago I was asked to write a monthly column for a secular, successful, and fairly influential magazine that serves the Filipino-American community here in Phoenix. The married couple that publishes the magazine had attended a seminar that I had recently taught that focused on cross-cultural marriages. The seminar was designed to help the participants understand the many potential landmines that exist when a person from one culture marries someone from another culture and then give them some tools that might be helpful for avoiding and/or resolving conflict that was the result of cultural differences.
I titled the column “Cultural Halo-Halo”. If you don’t know what halo-halo is, I’m sure you know a Filipino that could explain what this sweet, but strange to our American tongue, concoction. If you know what it is, I’m sure you recognize why I came up with the name. I had a 500-word limit for each column so what I’ve included below was actually published in 6 different columns and I’ve extracted the bridges of review that usually took up the first paragraph of each column.
If you’re wondering why I’m posting THIS, there are two reasons. First, I’ve had a crazy-busy week which included attending the state of Arizona Refugee Resettlement conference in Tucson. Second, I received some encouraging feedback from many couples that were in cross-cultural marriages, and not just Filipinos married to Americans. So, I figure there might be usefulness on a larger scale, maybe even for pastors who might be engaged in counseling cross-cultural couples in their church, especially marriages between Americans and Asians or even Middle Easterners.
And finally, I’m assuming that it shouldn’t be too difficult for the majority of you to discover biblical principles that would either encourage or challenge these cultural traits.
Listening to the lyrics of popular songs is one of the easiest and most enjoyable methods of learning about the culture of any group of people. What people sing about is an expression of what they value, what they hold dear, and what they believe life could and would be like if it was lived in the proper way from their perspective–which has been shaped and molded by the culture in which they were born and raised. Because this is true, I’d like to examine a specific song that I’m sure you’re familiar with.
Like countless other countries over many years now, the Philippines has an unquenchable thirst for various types of American music. While my family and I lived in Cebu City from the late 1980’s through the early 1990’s, Whitney Houston topped the music charts on a regular basis in both America and the Philippines. One of her hits was so big that it was heard on hundreds of radio stations, was the backround music in department stores all over the country, was sung by hundreds of Filipino nightclub bands from northern Luzon to southern Mindanao, and was the favorite karaoke song and the most popular song performed by students in literally thousands of schools. Filipinos just couldn’t get enough of the “Greatest love of all” by Whitney Houston.
What was so interesting to me was that the song was one of the clearest expressions of the value of the “self-esteem” cultural trait that is at the pinnacle of American culture. That cultural value, sung about so wonderfully by Whitney Houston and then by literally millions of Filipinos, is in almost complete opposition to the foundational Filipino cultural trait of “assigned/acribed-esteem” and many other Filipino cultural values. Here are the lyrics of this anthem to “self-esteem,” which also reveals other American cultural values with such clarity:
“The Greatest love of all”
Performed by Whitney Houston
I believe the children are our future, Teach them well and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside,
Give them a sense of pride to make it easier
Let the children’s laughter remind us of how we used to be
Everybody searching for a hero, people need someone to look up to
I never found anyone to fulfill my needs, A lonely place to be
So I learned to depend on me
(CHORUS) I decided long ago, never to walk in anyone’s shadows
If I fail, if I succeed, At least I live as I believe
No matter what they take from me, They can’t take away my dignity,
Because the greatest love of all, is happening to me
I found the greatest love of all inside of me
Tthe greatest love of all, is easy to achieve
Learning to love yourself, It is the greatest love of all
And if by chance, that special place that you’ve been dreaming of
Leads you to a lonely place, find your strength in love
Hopefully, I’ve been effective in giving you an understanding of the foundational cultural trait of “self-esteem” in Americans, and “assigned/acribed-esteem” in Filipinos. Over the next few columns, we’ll take a more in-depth look at this song in order to learn more about the other American cultural traits I mentioned in my last column. Many of those traits are found in the song and are the logical by-product of a “self-esteem” based culture.Let’s take a look at the first American cultural value that is expressed in this anthem to self-esteem:
I believe the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way
Although it’s true that children are the future of any society and they should certainly be taught as well as possible, it’s uniquely American to believe that they are capable of leading the way for their people as a whole. Almost all of the world’s cultures, including Filipinos, place a high value on older people. In fact, the older a person is the more they are treasured by society as a whole and considered a source of great wisdom due to the depth of life experience they possess. The older a person is, the greater respect they are given and they are sought out for counsel when difficult decisions need to be made. As strange as it sounds to most Americans, in the majority of other cultures gray hair is not something to be avoided at all costs. In fact, to most people in other cultures, gray hair is viewed as something desirable because of the higher status and respect the group assigns to its senior citizens that possess the gray hair. The older a person is, the more they are valued because they have so much more to give to the group as a whole. In summary, in most of the world’s cultures, getting old means gaining greater significance and provides the opportunity for greater impact for the group.
In contrast, as is clear from the song, American culture is incredibly “youth” focused and is very open to the idea of finding leaders as young as possible. Americans generally envy those that are younger than themselves. There’s a belief that because young people have their whole lives in front of them, they still have the ability to choose from a number of different options to obtain that which matters most–making yourself happy and thus feeling good about yourself. Americans believe that the younger you are the more freedom and options you have to do whatever will bring you pleasure and cause you to be happy with yourself and the less likely you will be to have anyone or anything restrain you from being whatever you want to be. Why would older Americans envy the young in such a way? Because that is exactly what they would do if they could reverse the passage of time and go back to their youth again.
This difference between how youth is viewed by the two different cultures is very clear when it comes to expectations for retirement age. For the Filipino, retirement means more time with the children and grandchildren and more opportunity to pass on the many things learned from a long life to those that you know and love. For the American, retirement means finally doing what you want to do such as fishing, golfing, traveling, and so forth. For the American, retirement means finally being free from a group of people, like your employer and fellow employees and maybe even your family, and finally getting to do that which pleases you. Those that have that kind of freedom– to do what they want, any time they want, are highly envied.
A little further into the song, the lyrics say this:
“Everybody’s searching for a hero, people need someone to look up to…”
This is true of people in every culture on planet earth. Every ethnic group that exists or has ever existed has its heroes. Heroes and the stories of their lives are the primary method of passing on the virtues and moral standards that sustain any and every culture. Many of the traditions found in cultures are the result of a specific act or deed done by one of the heroes of that group of people. This universal understanding of the need and value of heroes is why every Filipino child is taught about the life and service to their country of people like Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, Emilio Aguinaldo, and Ninoy Aquino.
When I was growing up in Southern California in the 1960’s, all children in both public and private schools around the U.S. were taught about the heroics and great character traits of people like Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Crispus Attucks, Abraham Lincoln, and even a guy named Johnny Appleseed, (not his real name.) But by the mid 1970’s, American culture’s view of heroes and their importance to society began to change. By the mid 1980’s, the extent of that change had become easily recognizable. Look at the next portion of lyrics in this song from 1986:
I never found anyone to fulfill my needs, a lonely place to be, so I learned to depend on me….
The “self-esteem” cultural value has become so pervasive that even the country’s heroes are measured by whether they can “fulfill my needs.” In this mindset, a person’s highest priority is to have their own personal needs fulfilled. What is good for the group isn’t the priority, personal needs are. So, according to this new cultural value, if the heroes that served such an impacting purpose for the culture as a whole throughout history can’t meet a specific person’s needs right now, they really aren’t heroes, and new heroes need to be found. Looking at things from this perspective–having no heroes who can meet an individual person’s understanding of their own needs, then truly, looking at things through that filter, life really is a “lonely place to be.”
According to the “self-esteem” cultural value, what should a person do when their unfulfilled needs have brought them to this seemingly terrible place of loneliness? Of course, they need to learn to “depend on me.” They must understand through a process of learning, that the answer to their self-perceived miserable condition is found within. Personal happiness and fulfillment are found in dependence upon the self, not in depending upon any other person or group. From this perspective, value is assigned to others, even heroes, by whether what they have done or said can be used to meet the needs of an individual person. If the individual determines that their own needs can’t be fulfilled by anyone else, then the self-loving thing to do is to depend on themselves to be their own hero.
The first few lines of Whitney Houston’s mega-hit, “The Greatest Love of All,” clearly express two unique aspects of American culture that can easily create conflict in a cross-cultural marriage. An overarching focus on youth and a dependence on self to find fulfillment and meaning and to cure loneliness permeates American culture. What happens when a person who has those values ingrained in them marries a person from another culture whose values in these two areas almost exactly the opposite? It’s fairly obvious–CONFLICT will abound!
Here’s an example of how this happens. Someone who has grown up in a culture focused on youth will try to build a home life that is child-centered rather than husband-wife centered. If they marry someone from their own culture, then both of them, without even thinking about it, will build a home life that is child-centered. What do I mean when I use the word “child-centered”? I mean that there is an intentional effort made to structure family life around meeting the perceived needs of the children. Those perceived needs of the children then take the place of highest priority for the parents. Keeping the children happy, challenged, excited, and prepared for the future of their choice takes precedence over everything else. Whenever there is a conflict between what is needful for the children and what might be needful for the parents in their husband/wife relationship, the needs of the children are met first. In most cases, this willingness to sacrifice, or at least not prioritize highly the husband/wife relationship, is never discussed. It just happens. It’s the outgrowth of cultural norms that have shaped both of them and it’s how almost everyone else they know structures their family.
It’s fairly easy to see that when a person who believes in building a child-centered home marries a person who believes that a home should be husband-wife centered, there are going to be problems. For a family to function properly, goals and priorities need to be understood by both husband and wife. When they are understood by both, then the sacrifices necessary to accomplish those goals and who should be making those sacrifices also need to be agreed upon. If they’re not, then trouble is definitely ahead. One person will think the husband/wife relationship should be sacrificed in certain areas, with the children’s needs ALWAYS taking the highest priority. The other person will think that the opposite. It’s a recipe for constant conflict and can lead to a disaster.
What can be done to avoid cross-cultural marriage conflict resulting from two radically different views of how a home should be “centered”? As is almost always the case in marriage conflict of any kind–the most basic answer is COMMUNICATION.
Regardless of the way your family has been “centered” so far, sit down with your husband or wife, (without the children present,) and talk about what each of you see as the highest priority for your family. What should be the greatest/highest goal of any marriage? Is it a healthy, loving, husband/wife relationship? Or, is it raising successful children? Ideally, both things should be able to be accomplished. But in reality, one will always receive the greatest amount of attention, and that’s usually based on the culture we were raised in.
And, if you think about it all, you’ll see that one will actually precede and produce the other. Specifically, if the husband/wife relationship is given precedence, healthy/well balanced children are more likely to be produced. We all know people who are now old enough and life-experienced enough that will tell us that they wish their parents would have put more time and effort into their relationship with each other rather than into them and their brothers and sisters when they were growing up.
“So I learned to depend on me“,
This is the last phrase Whitney Houston sings before launching into the chorus of the mega-hit song “The Greatest love of all.” Self-dependence and the independent mindset that it produces are viewed by the majority of Americans as some of the highest virtues of American culture. Most Americans credit these traits with being part of the essential greatness of America. The United States of America is truly the place where a proverb like, “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” is an accurate summary of a highly valued cultural trait. This trait makes perfect sense when a person understands that the pinnacle cultural virtue is self-esteem.
But what happens when a person who has been taught that self-dependence and independence are essential marries someone from a culture that teaches dependence and especially inter-dependence are essential? Clearly, major conflict is likely to arise! The reasons for the conflict can probably best be seen and understood by analyzing the thought process that a person from each culture uses in making major decisions.
For people in both cultures the first question that needs to be answered in making a major decision is, “What is it that I desire?” In other words, the person is basically considering, wanting to discover what it is that will bring them pleasure; make them happy; bring joy and satisfaction to themselves. Once that question has been answered though, the radical cultural differences become incredibly evident.
For the American, the next question will be, “How do I obtain that desire?” A massive amount of mental energy, time, and planning, will be expended in plotting the course that will make that desire, that dream, a reality. Once conclusions have been arrived at regarding these two issues, the only remaining question is whether or not the person will proceed to satisfy the desire or just give it up because the cost of achieving it is too high or actually obtaining the desire just isn’t realistic. The whole thought process revolves around considering what will pleasure to the person thinking these thoughts.
But for the Filipino, after deciding what it is that they believe would make them happy, discovering what they really desire, their next question will be radically different. Their next question would be something like this, “How will actually obtaining what I desire affect my relationships with my family and how will it affect their status in the eyes of the larger family and their relational community?” Before proceeding with a strategic plan on how to satisfy what the believe will please them, the Filipino must wrestle with something that the American doesn’t even consider. If the Filipino has concluded that satisfying their own desire will create tension or conflict in their relationships or negatively affect the status of their family, they now have a major, tension inducing decision to make. They must decide if the trade-off is worth it! In other words, is obtaining their own desire and the satisfaction derived from doing so, of a greater value than the strain in relationships and status loss that they themselves and their family may receive? If both doing what they want and maintaining good relationships and status for their family won’t be the result of pursuing their desire, which of the two should be chosen? If they pursue their desire, will it be worth the trade-off?
In comparing the decision making processes of the two cultures, the differences between a self-dependent/independent culture, in contrast to a dependent/interdependent culture are obvious. Because this is such a major issue, we’ll explore it a little deeper level next time. For now, just knowing that these kinds of differences exist in the thinking process that leads to decisions should prove helpful for most people in cross-cultural marriages.
My wife and I have been to beautiful AT&T Park in San Francisco to watch the Giants play on two occasions. The first time there, we weren’t too many rows above third base and many people had a mitt with them – they were anticipating some foul balls coming their way. The second time found us high in the right field upper deck seats and virtually no mitts were to be seen. We had gorgeous views of McCovey Cove, the Bay Bridge, and the upper skyline of the City, but had no expectation of any balls coming our way.
Close to third base, I needed to watch every pitch because something could have come my way in a second. But high in the upper right field seats, I didn’t expect anything to come my way. Up there, I was at the game, but not in the game. We see something of this dynamic in Martha’s life in John 11. After Lazarus died, Martha went from being near third base to the upper right field seats. She went from expecting something from Jesus to expecting nothing from Jesus. She took herself out of the field of play. Her faith deteriorated into hope. This is what happened to Martha and it’s what can happen to you – you can find yourself sitting in the cheap seats with Martha. How do I know it can happen to you? Because it happened to me. I’ve experienced how faith can deteriorate into hope. I’ve taken that long walk up the ramp to the cheap seats where I don’t expect much to come my way.
“If only You had been here, my brother would not have died.”
You know the story – Lazarus is dead and buried. Jesus delayed His arrival and it was now, after Lazarus has been in the tomb four days, that Jesus finally showed up. Not only were Martha and Mary grieved by the death of Lazarus, they were shaken by the seeming indifference of Jesus who hadn’t come in time to heal their brother.
Martha’s faith took a hit. She didn’t lose her faith – but she did lose the fervency of her faith. She still loves & believes in the Lord, but her faith isn’t as vibrant & vital as it had been. She is disappointed with Jesus and tells him so.
On a lesser scale, I know exactly what this is like. My faith has taken numerous hits. I have been gun shy about promoting various ministry opportunities because they have been largely without effect in the past. Poorly attended concerts have made me reluctant to want to promote and participate in other similar events. I just can’t be certain Jesus is going to come through for me. Ineffective outreaches leave me not so gung-ho the next time because I can’t be sure Jesus is going to show up. Mediocre ‘body life’ services have made me think twice about scheduling others. Where was Jesus at our ‘body life’ service? I have thought many times that Jesus has been late and left me with a funeral to arrange.
From our vantage point, we know what Jesus had in mind. Jesus assured Martha that her brother would rise again. Jesus meant resurrection today, but Martha couldn’t go there with Jesus – she said that he would rise in the resurrection on the last day. Her expectation migrated from today to the last day. This is precisely where Martha takes the cheap seats. This is where her faith deteriorated into hope. This is where she left her seat just above third base and took the long walk up the ramp to the cheap seats.
Faith says that Jesus is with me today. Hope says that Jesus will be with me tomorrow. Obviously, hope is a good thing to possess. It’s one of the Big Three – …now abide faith, hope, love… But when hope abides without faith, it takes you out of the game and relegates you to the cheap seats. When hope abides without faith it robs you of today and shifts everything to tomorrow. Martha had no expectation her brother would rise today. The deadline had come and gone and Jesus had not come. Faith says that Jesus is with me today. Since He is not with me today, all I have is tomorrow. All that’s left is hope. She went from faith for a miracle today to hope for one on the last day.
This is one of the devil’s greatest, subtlest tricks – not to deny the power of Jesus, but to relegate it to another day – to make faith deteriorate into hope – to rob me of today and shift everything to tomorrow. A tomorrow Jesus is a great hope, but I need a today Jesus.
Indications of a valid, but not a vital faith
Disappointment becomes accusation – 21 – If You had been here…
When I am disappointed, I am overcome by the Ifs of life – the would have beens/could have beens/should have beens of life. I am not elated by what could be, I am deflated by what is. I no longer look forward to the miracle I expected, I look around at the mess I am left with. I shift all my expectation to heaven. And the expectation of heaven is good, but not at the expense of a faith that says Jesus wants to move in power today.
Confession becomes profession – 22 – Martha said, Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, He will give You…
It’s true, He will – but we know she doesn’t really believe this. Her confession of faith was a mere profession of truth. When faith deteriorates into hope, the dynamic of faith becomes the rehearsal of doctrine. When faith deteriorates into hope I take refuge in truth, not in the Lord and the strength of His might. I retreat from a passionate personal faith into a propositional doctrinal one.
Faith becomes hope – present anticipation becomes future expectation – 24 Martha says that Lazarus will rise again on the last day – not today.
22-28 Martha’s present faith is replaced by traditional theology. She is fearful of believing too much. She takes refuge in hope, not faith
Martha is in a place where she needs to rededicate her life to the Lord
Rededicate? Why? There’s no sin in her life – and there is no life in her life, either! And it’s more than the death of her brother – it’s the death of a dream. She was more shook up by the seeming indifference of Jesus than the death of Lazarus. It is one thing to give yourself to the Lord in the excitement and passion and idealism of youth. It is another thing to give yourself to the Lord in the realism, the brokenness, and the disappointment of unfulfilled expectations. So much has happened, so much damage has occurred, so many opportunities have been missed, so much sin has done so much harm, so many regrets have been accumulated, so much disappointment has taken a toll on the soul. Possibly, without even realizing it, you find yourself next to Martha in the cheap seats and need to give yourself once again to God. No, you haven’t backslid – there is moral purity and doctrinal integrity, but something has died within you. Yes, your calling is still intact, but the passion of your calling, that intensity you experienced, that expectation of Jesus moving in power today is a thing of the past. Disappointment has robbed you of passion and anticipation. You’re sitting in the cheap seats surrounded by thousands of others who may be cheering, but when you look closer, they aren’t wearing any mitts, either.
Jesus seeks to reignite her staggered faith – to restore her gutted faith
Jesus wanted to move Martha and wants to move you from the cheap seats back into the place of action – from doctrinal profession to personal confession, from future hope to present faith, from tomorrow to today.
Do you have an “if only” faith or an “even now” faith?
Martha had gone from, “If only You had been here,” to, “Even now God will give You what You ask.” And even though she really didn’t believe that, you can. Is He Lord only before bad things happen or is He Lord even now, after bad things have happened? If you have an ‘if only’ faith, it will turn into mush as did Martha’s. You do not have an ‘if only’ God, you have an ‘even now’ God. An ‘if only’ faith cannot fully trust an ‘even now’ God. Even now, God can comfort; even now God can restore; even now, God can use you; even now God can heal; even now, God can deliver; even now, God can bless.
Abraham had an even now God – and even after his ability to sire children had expired – even now God can bring forth children of Abraham. Joseph had an even now God – and even after years of imprisonment and loneliness and servitude – even now God exalted him to the right hand of Pharaoh. Joshua and Caleb had an even now God – even though the Canaanites had cities walled to the heavens and the Israelites were like grasshoppers in their eyes – even now God would drive them out of the land. Martha, Mary, and Lazarus had an even now God – even though Lazarus was dead for four days – even now Jesus is the resurrection and the life. You have an even now God though ministry has battered and torn you up. You have a Jesus who is the resurrection and the life today! May your hope become faith, may your tomorrow become today, may your profession become confession, may your expectation of an even now God become glorious reality as Jesus shows up in your life and in your ministry. It’s time to get up and change seats.
This blog post is more of an unraveling of some thoughts that I have been wrestling through over the last few years. I am not sure that I will complete it in one post, but I look forward to the journey of attempting to express some thoughts of mine. Hopefully through this exercise, I will be able to sort through some of my thoughts.
Almost six years ago I became a father. This changed my world and my perception of the world. I began to see things that I never saw before prior to being a dad. The first thing that jumped out at me was our culture’s view of children or friendliness to families—or lack thereof. Obviously this format precludes me from addressing this subject as a whole, so I want to limit it to the church context. I immediately discovered there is a pectrum of hospitality towards children in the church.
As a pastor, I like visiting other church during off times for the sake of being ministered to, without having to be “the pastor.” After Grace was born, we suddenly realized that Grace wasn’t welcome to visit all churches. This created a little bit of an inconvenience for us we desired to create a culture of family time and worshiping together. I was somewhat stunned to find that there were churches that literally forbid children under 12 in the sanctuary. I am sure this has been going on for a long time in a lot of churches, but I never noticed before as it didn’t affect me. This began to shape me as a young pastor restarting a church. What would be our policy? How would I handle this as our young church started to develop and come to life?
I don’t think I have a conclusion at this point, but I have discovered some pressure points that I am working between. I will address them in bullet form.
1. Children are a blessing from the Lord (Psalm 127:3-5). Clearly the Bible speaks highly concerning the gift and value of children. While our present culture may not value them, the church must view them as God views them. As I am exposed to families with multiple children, I begin to see some negative thoughts/feelings expressed towards them that are not in alignment with the scriptural teaching the children are a blessing from the Lord. With this point, I hope to cultivate a climate in the church that values the blessing of children.
2. Parents are responsible for making disciples of their children (Deut. 6:4-9). Ultimately the onus of making disciples of children lies on the parents. I have noticed that Christians conclude differently on the process of teaching their kids about the Lord. I have also noticed that parents often think their way is the best way and should be used by everyone. On this point I am convicted to help parents as ultimately they are responsible for teaching their children about God and walking with Him. God is not something that “they are to discover on their own” as many in our culture state, but parents have the responsibility to introduce their kids to Jesus. I want the parents to feel and understand that they are responsible before God on this point, and I want to help equip them for the task.
3. Jesus welcomed children to sit in on His teaching, even when the disciples had tried to shuffle them away (Matt. 19:13, Mark 10:13-16, and Luke 18:15-17). Elsewhere in the New Testament children are addressed in the text–it seems safe to assume that children were present in the teaching context. As an under-shepherd of Christ, I must aim to teach as he taught. On this point it means welcoming children in the Sunday service. Also, I want to encourage parents to worship with their children. As the pastor, I have the responsibility to encourage a climate of hospitality to the young ones in our service. This is a main reason why we include all the kids in the main sanctuary during the worship, which leads into my next point…
4. Sunday School. People learn at different levels and with different attention spans. We have no Sunday School during our first service, but I am not opposed to have one. As the teaching pastor, I have become more aware of a prominent group with in our culture–the single mom. While my wife is obviously not single, she is on Sunday mornings. I am acutely aware of her struggle with a six-year old and two-year old Sunday mornings all alone. Throughout the Scriptures we learn that God has a special place for widows and orphans (James 1:27). The unfortunate reality is there are many young women out there with children and an absent father. I am burdened to help these ladies grow in the Lord.
Also, we live in a fallen world. There are many people who don’t know the most basic things from Scripture and don’t really even know where to begin when coming to church in search of God. There are many people in our culture who have not disciplined their kids and life is pretty much out of control. I am not speaking down to these people–for I was one of them not long ago.
5. There is a difficult balance to strike between a child making a minor noise and a child that is disruptive to the service. The body should be gracious to the parent who is resolving an issue with their child, while the parent with the child must be sensitive to the the distraction their child is making. In my experience, it seems the parents are far more accutely aware of every peep and are far more uncomforatable when their child makes some noise. The goal is to raise the bar on the child, not lower it to turn the sanctuary into a preschool classroom.
So for some people, having a Sunday school (say children under 12) option for them is good in growing them and their children spiritually.
Here are my conclusions so far:
1. Children should be welcomed in church. Having multiple generations together is good for all.
2. Families should be encouraged to disciple and worship with their children.
3.We live in a less than ideal culture and we need to help those who are not ready to make disciples, but rather need to be discipled and Sunday school is a viable option.
4. This is not a simple or easy endeavor, but is well worth it!
I was reading on Forbes.com a couple of weeks ago about the proposed buyout of Motorola Mobility by Google. The author, Eric Jackson, views the move by Google to be a misstep by current lead executive (and Google co-founder), Larry Page. At one point Jackson writes…
Academic research clearly shows that some of the riskiest strategic shifts for companies happen in a new CEO’s first year on the job. They want to put their mark on the place. They’re also much more self-confident than they probably deserve to be.
I must qualify what I write by making very clear that the senior or lead pastor ought not be viewed as or act like a corporate CEO. Plenty of pastors have made terrible mistakes by an overestimated view of themselves. Be that as it may, this quote resonated with me as I inherited an established ministry nearly 4 years ago, and have counseled a number of guys on their “first steps,” as they do the same. As long as I’ve been in vocational ministry I’ve served under a pastor lead model for church. Such a model affords a senior pastor a significant level of authority over the ministry, which has both it’s pros and cons.
There are unique realities when taking over an established ministry, which should be considered before the new lead pastor endeavors to make significant changes. The more I consider these uniquenesses, the more attractive birthing new works becomes, as new works are far more flexible. The culture of a church is, in many ways, established in the first 3 to 5 years of it’s life, and course corrections are more difficult for a church with an established culture. This being the case I think that it is very important that incoming lead pastors, taking over existing works, take to heart the truth behind Erick Jackson’s quote; even if it isn’t directed at pastoral ministry.
It is certain that there are changes to be made when a new pastor takes over a church. Many of those changes can be made without much grief or pushback within the first 12 to 18 months, as that is something of a honeymoon or grace period for a new pastor. Longstanding “members” of the fellowship will be more forgiving and gracious, even if they’re not fully in step with the alterations. In some ways I think that the body views such moves with a good level of openness saying, “Well, he’s the new guy,” or “He’s just learning; still a little young/green.” Whatever it is, it’s easier to get away with in the first year and a half.
When initial changes are made, some people will leave. Generally speaking, the people who leave in the first 6 months of a transition would probably have left anyway. Unless they themselves had taken over the church. The alterations that are made serve as a nice smokescreen for why they left. It’s a whole lot easier to say, “I really didn’t like the change they made to the service order,” than “I don’t like the new pastor.” Not everyone will be able to connect with the “new guy” as the transition takes place.
Over the last four years I’ve discovered that the church is like a wife. I realize that this is not a totally insightful observation; she is called the “Bride of Christ.” I want to say what I’m going to say as delicately as I can, because I’m sure someone is going to misunderstand what it is I’m trying to say. A church, like a wife, desires security. The pastor is not the groom, clearly Christ is the groom and the church His bride. Be that as it may, the church still desires a level of security and consistency. A senior leadership change affects the consistency and can shake the security, so I’m convinced that making frivolous moves to to put the mark of the new leader on the place, which amount to nothing more than cosmetic window dressing, are unnecessary (e.g. “Let’s change the name to something cool”).
My counsel for new guys is simple.
- Be strategic. Be calculated. Think through the ramifications of the changes, as ideas and adjustments have longterm consequences.
- Fundamental changes to the vision and mission of the local body should only be made if it is clear that the church has been off course or without vision.
- Vision/mission corrections should have firm Biblical basis (e.g. What is the mission of our church? To make disciples by equipping the saints).
- Larger changes ought to be done incrementally. If a new [smaller] church plant is like an agile speedboat, an established larger church (or cultured church) is more like an aircraft carrier, which takes time to turn. So, instead of making a hard 90º turn, it may take six 15º moves to go in the new direction.
It’s definitely characteristic of youthfulness to desire to do things quickly, but when taking over, it’s good a good reminder… take your time.
When I speak with church planters, I always want to find out about the area that they are ministering. I ask them about the community, its values, its style, the demographics, etc. I find that oftentimes men haven’t taken the time to do any cultural exegesis. At first, this took me aback. But then I remembered that when I planted the church in New Brunswick, I did barely any cultural exegesis. I was a young man with a Bible who knew that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. I had seen the Lord change my life and I had a passion to see people experience that same change. So I set on out, without thinking much about where I was, the uniqueness of the area, etc. Even when we first began, although I was saying all the right things about my understanding of the community, the reality was that I didn’t really take the time to understand the average person in New Brunswick. I didn’t love the community enough to want to really know and understand them. The ministry suffered because of this. Not because I didn’t teach the Word, but because I did but not in a way that anyone could understand. It suffered because I exported the ministries that I had seen at the church that I was an Assistant Pastor at, rather than seeing my area for what it was and tailoring the ministry accordingly. So now, we’re going to look at ways of understanding our ministry context as well as some of the pitfalls that church planters face.
The Most Important Thing about Contextualization
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is unchangeable. It is fixed. It cannot be altered and still be honoring to God Himself. But how we communicate these truths need to be changeable. They will change as the times do and as the culture does. The reason that I say this is the most important thing about contextualization is that many people don’t want to contextualize the gospel because many people change the Gospel to reach a culture (this is called syncretism). This is wrong. But you can package the gospel in such a way as to keep people from actually being able to hear it. Imagine if you were interested in using a new computer. You go and talk to a ‘professional computer guy’ and he speaks to you in very technical, computer geek language. Within a few minutes, you are completely lost and your eyes glaze over and you decide that learning about the new computer is not for you. Is it that you weren’t really interested in learning or was it that the computer guy just shot soo far over your head that you just couldn’t get it? I’m sure a lot of our churches are like this. So in any discussion about contextualization needs to begin and end with the unchangeable gospel that God asks each of us to package specifically for our target audience, our community.
The Scriptures are Completely Contextualized
This was a mind-blowing realization to me. There are four Gospels. Each one has a different audience. Matthew, writing to Jewish people, quotes extensively from Scripture and is constantly looking at the fulfillment of prophecy in the life of Jesus. Mark’s Gospel has very little of this, as he was writing to a different audience. You’ll notice in Luke’s Gospel how he is always clarifying things to explain things that the average Roman wouldn’t understand about Jewish culture. Each of Paul’s epistles are contextualized to a specific area. The Galatians were struggling with the Judaizers, so Paul spoke to them about the necessity of faith apart from works. The church in Corinth was simultaneously spiritually gifted and carnal. So Paul shared to them the unsearchable riches of Christ within their context. Although all of this is God-breathed, it was inspirationally directed to a specific group of people. Not only were the words and concepts inspired, but also that those words and concepts were to be directed to a specific target audience! Jesus was incarnate into first century Judaism. He looked and dressed as they did. He understood how they were raised, as He was raised the same way. He spoke their language. If the Lord would have been incarnate say today in New York City, the Gospels would contain the same truth, but in drastically different packaging. One of the keys to understanding your context and ministering effectively within it is to ask the simple questions (with radically important answers), “If Jesus were to be incarnate today into (insert your location here), what would His ministry look like?” “If the Apostle Paul was doing his missionary work in (insert your location here), where and how would he do his ministry?” Then you should ask the question, “Why aren’t I doing these things?”
Demographic Research Is Not Unspiritual
I had always thought that it was unspiritual to look at demographics. As if using demographics somehow made your calling of God of a lesser effect. I had heard people speak ill of Rick Warren for surveying the area that he hoped to plant in to find out about what the people’s experiences with church and their perceptions of what would be the type of church they would attend. He found, among other things, that people wanted sermons that had real life application to it and they wanted a church that really valued their children. I believe that God wants these things as well for His church. Wikipedia defines demographics as ‘Demographic or demographic data refers to selected population characteristics as used in government, marketing or opinion research, or the demographic profiles used in such research. Commonly-used demographics include race, age, income, disabilities, mobility (in terms of travel time to work or number of vehicles available), educational attainment, home ownership, employment status, and even location. Distributions of values within a demographic variable, and across households, are both of interest, as well as trends over time.’ Demographics are simply a compendium of who lives in your area. It was completely illuminating to read the US Census Data for Mill Valley, California where I currently serve. The people here are 90% Caucasian. 60% of the people have a college degree and one in three people have an advanced degree. The average per family income is more than twice the national average. This simply teaches me that the people here are primarily Caucasian, wealthy, successful and very well educated. This has profound implications for ministry style and approach. Would it be wise to come into a primarily Caucasian area and harp on the need for the ministry to be multicultural? With the education of the area that I am in, I have to make sure to anticipate the intellectual arguments of very well educated people and pepper all messages with this. Demographics are a snapshot of the makeup of your community. You want to know who you are trying to reach and make sure that your approach takes into account the people you are trying to reach and not just your own personal preferences.
We Absolutely Need to Understand the Average Person in our Community
Now I hate to say this but you won’t understand the average person in your community reading Bible commentaries and listening to your favorite pastors. Don’t get me wrong, you need to study to show yourself approved and be edified. But this will not help you understand your missiological context. Are your neighbors reading Bible commentaries? It is doubtful (although we wish they would). Do your neighbors really care about what some group of Christians are doing in some place that they’ve never been that you don’t agree with? Again, it’s doubtful. But oftentimes, this is what pastors do.
I have found that in order to understand the people that you are called to minister to, there are certain things that you can do to aid yourself.
1) Purposefully vary your people context.
Make sure that you spend time with non-Christians and find out what is important to them. It is really easy for church planters and pastors to spend all of their time with folks from within their congregation. It is essential and a disciple to vary your people context. Find out where they get their information from, the books they like, the movies that seem important to them and what they laugh at and why. Talk to them about sports and politics, but not to argue with them, but to understand them.
2) Read their information sources.
Read your local newspaper if it is popular and widely read. Read magazines that are targeting a population that is similar to your own. Read the popular books in your area. You can go into the local large bookstore change and ask them for their list of the most popular books that the store has sold. It’s a good idea to buy a book or two and read it with a mind to both understand your target population and also have a point of contact to begin dialoguing with people about (like Paul’s ‘Unknown God’ reference in the Book of Acts). I have found that magazines are easier than books as they are shorter and not as involved/time consuming. Also, if your area is strongly of a certain political flavor, you want to really understand their worldview so listen to their pundits, even if it makes you a bit nuts. If you want to understand whom you are trying to reach, you’re going to have to make some sacrifices.
3) Find the Points of Commonality
As you speak to people and as you digest their information, find the areas that you can agree on with the culture at large. Most people are used to Evangelicals being completely adversarial in their approach. It turns them off, just as it would us, if we were in their shoes. In almost every culture, there are things that there is agreement on. It’s important to find those points and use them as a relational bridge.
4) Proximity Breeds Accountability
I always encourage church planters to live directly in the community that they are called to. You want to live in the same context as they do. People will consider you irrelevant if you are living in the suburbs and trying to plant a church in the middle of a city ghetto. Your contexts are different and they will see that. You want to shop where they shop, work out where they work it, have the same weather, etc. And by all means, if you move into an area, change your cell phone number to have the same area code as everyone else, there is nothing that says ‘outsider’ more than having a cell phone number from some unheard of area code. And on that note, get your license plates changed ASAP if you move across state lines.
5) Teach As If Your Community’s Seekers Are There
If all of your messages are directed at evangelical people and are concerned with evangelical sub cultural discussions, then the only people who will be interested in them are evangelicals. But in most of our communities, there are less and less evangelicals and more and more people who don’t go to church. If you ever hope to reach your community, you want to make sure that you are teaching to an audience (whether you are in actuality or not) who includes those who are not yet Christian. Don’t just invalidate the average concerns with mockery. Those are real people’s concerns. Teach the Scriptures and show the community God’s love from them by lovingly addressing their most common concerns and explain to them how that concern is either unfounded or way more important than they realize. When you teach, teach as the average person in your community is there, and Lord willing, one day they will be and there will be conversions in the church.
6) Make Sure that You Really Love Them
Love is always relevant. I often think of Jesus eating with the tax collectors and sinners. He was nothing like them, at all. But yet He loved them and spent copious amounts of time with them. Even though He was distinct from them, He was there with them and no doubt, they knew that He loved them. We need to make sure that we love the community that we are trying to reach. We need to beg God for His heart for the people. He loves them. Jesus Christ died on a cross so that those who would come to Him might have life and have it more abundantly. God give us your heart of love for our communities.