There is no one-size-fits-all culture. This is a very important dimension of our understanding that we, as God’s New Humanity, need to be very sensitive to. And in our North American scene it is a reality that we are slow to come by. Fine-tune that a bit more and wake up to the reality that every generation produces its own cultural characteristics. Part of our equipping to be mature followers of Christ should be that of cultural analysis. Our incarnation as the followers of Christ requires that we be sensitive to the particular culture in which we operate.

At one point in my life I was asked to come and teach the pastors of the Protestant church in the tiny Kingdom of Lesotho in southern Africa. (Lesotho is a tiny kingdom that exist in the middle of the Republic of South Africa, and has a unique history. It is also the only nation on the continent that is composed of only one tribe: the Basotho.) I had to quickly learn the protocols and the expectations and the customs of the Basotho people. In public appearances I had to always extend my greetings to the king and to the tribal chief, etc. I had to learn how they socialized. I had to learn their thought processes, and their understanding and expectation of the church. In short, I had to become culturally discerning.

This is no less a necessity for those of us in this country who are serious in the effectiveness of our Christian presence. I bring this up, because all too much of the Christian community is still captive to the cultural expectations and patterns of generations now in their twilight. I, for instance, am a product of that generation formed by the Great Depression and World War II. That period was at the end of the remnants of a culture that was focused in localities, villages, lack of much mobility. People in Boston or New York could hardly conceive of those who lived in remote Appalachia. That culture is no more.

The church itself was the product of the era of Christendom that extended back a millennium and a half. Its patterns were formed mostly in Europe and Great Britain. Its institutional customs, its hymns, its form of worship pretty much came with the immigrants and were unquestioned.

But then, following the traumatic events of the Great Depression and World War II, there was a surge of optimism, and the older generation sought to see the church prosper in the newly acquired prosperity, and so planted denominational franchises in the expanding suburban communities—all patterned after what had always been assumed to be the form the church should express. Then they also produced the next generation: the Boomers. The Boomers are a schizophrenic generation, with one foot in the culture of their parents and one in the new era of technology and communication they were developing. They were both attached to tradition forms of the church, … and questioning at the same time. The Boomers produced another generation: Generation X. The Gen Xers were/are a tentative generation who were seeking to learn how to function in a culture more and more formed by media, technology, and the birth of computers. They also had a streak of pessimism, an indifference to former mores, … but a spiritual hunger that looked elsewhere than the church for answers.

Then came the huge Millennial Generation, and the emergence of the Silicon Valley revolution: Gates, Jobs, Page and Brin, … and the internet which produced a culture unimaginable by previous generations. This was followed by the still emerging iY/Generation Z phenomenon, captive to their iPhones and their laptops, who redefine culture dramatically. These are each studies in themselves. And the church that is seeking to cling to institutional patterns of the past, with its focus on elegant houses of worship and gifted clergy … is destined to ossify and fade into irrelevance. New cultures require new wineskins that are capable of communicating to cultural communities that are, … not that once were (to be continued).

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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