Culture is made of many different streams. These streams are like creeks and rivers, in that they flow in, around, and through the pond that makes up your church’s ministry setting. Cultural streams come in various sizes, from the tiny trickles inside your church, to the larger creeks in your neighborhood or town, all the way up to the wide rivers of American society. We call this phenomenon “cultural confluence.”
Your discovery team might decide to begin its process by examining the broadest of these cultural streams, the “macroculture.” Think about the value that U.S. society places on independence, “my rights,” individualism, democracy, being number one, even baseball and apple pie—not to mention something called “economic opportunity.” These examples all point to the presence of a large-scale culture that exists to one degree or another across the United States. Macroculture is that aspect of American life with which everyone in the country must deal, whether they know it or not, understand it or not, like it or not. Many of these macrocultural artifacts and espoused values flow right into the culture of your congregation, shaping you in ways you may not even realize.
What might it mean, for instance, if your church is in an area where local businesses can no longer survive because of a factory closing? What would it mean if your church were located in an area of offshore drilling, where fishing or tourism was a primary way of making a living? What happens to the church when members who have taught school for years find their salaries cut, their benefits reduced, and their job threatened due to budget cuts? What happens to your congregation if many members can no longer find employment in your town? Each of these scenarios is related directly to macroculture. Sometimes changes from this large-scale stream race like a tsunami through your church, reshaping its reality. Active waiting allows time for you to identify these external elements and to consider together how they affect your church’s ministry.
However, the macroculture is not the only stream that lives and moves outside your congregation. Between the macroculture and the local culture immediately surrounding your church location exists a scale of cultures that are in between large and small. We call these “mesocultures,” from the Greek word meso, or “middle. Out of these streams flow distinct cultural presences from a variety of sources. For instance, the various regions of the United States have developed certain cultural characteristics that distinguish them from one another. Our country’s many ethnic groups maintain treasured traditions stemming from their nations of origin. The cultural world of old family wealth is very different from that of families and communities who are “just getting by.” Generational differences between groups of Americans create distinctive streams at this middle-level of culture. The baby boomers who came of age in the 1960s questioned the practices and values of their parents’ “silent” generation. Now, our society is increasingly shaped by the children of boomers, a generation that has grown up in another kind of world—post-civil rights movement, post-Cold War, less idealistic, awash in nanotechnological savvy, and perceiving life through the Internet instead of the morning newspaper.
No congregation can thrive in ministry and witness without paying attention to mesocultural streams. They affect (often very subtly) the ways in which your congregation understands similarities and differences among those who are part of your community. The specific presence and configuration of these streams in your local community will change over time. If your church is to be both hospitable and responsive to change, it will need to keep all sorts of mesoculture on its radar.
In your in-between time, you will want to use your active waiting process to imagine how any particular stream of culture is either flowing through, or being log-jammed by, the culture of your church. Here are a couple of extended examples to help you see how crucial your attentiveness to these streams will be for your church’s vitality.
As a woman of the South, I (Beverly) know what food means to the culture of a Southern church: Food is caring. If a family experiences sickness or death, they can expect an onslaught of casseroles delivered to their door. If you are a new pastor in the South and nobody brings you a pie or a cake, watch out! Of course, the food choices vary from region to region. Folks coming into Southern churches from other areas of the country might be dismayed to see tables filled with greasy fried chicken, gravy-laden creamed potatoes, and loads of carbohydrate-filled casseroles and tempting sweets. George always grins when he’s asked if he wants his tea “sweet or unsweet”; his response is a dead giveaway that he is “not from around these parts!” Southerners can always tell a Yankee when they make faces at our ordering of grits, or begin to pour sugar or milk on them—yuk! George grimaced the first time he saw fried green tomatoes. Imagine that!
Let us also think a little more about the effects of the generational stream on your church. You have probably noticed that older adults in your congregation tend to prefer more traditional worship, while teenagers and young adults outside your doors are often looking for something very different. For these younger generations, music that is faster, sometimes dissonant, with guitars and percussion, feels more like their world. Unless these differences are uncovered and discussed, they can logjam the many streams flowing into and around your church. You then risk dealing more with conflict than possibility, for years to come.
A congregation may become dismayed when its new pastor comes in using fancy theological words that don’t mean much to most of its members. This new pastor may not realize that the culture tends to place more value on stories and real-life examples. Streams of culture that flow out of “orality” share wisdom through proverbs and learn through stories. Communities that are primarily oral in culture don’t respond to abstract terminology. At the seminary where we teach, we often encounter students whose home congregations send them to seminary with some trepidation, afraid that those students will lose their voice as they earn their theological degrees. They worry that these young will forget where they have come from and their words will lose their meaning. Yet those same congregations have much to offer if their pastors can learn to honor the oral culture. Stories and proverbs give real life to technical terms.
Paying attention to these various streams of culture and discussing them together will help your congregation understand why some folks respond in ways that don’t seem to match your expectations. An “oral culture” congregation might better understand the need for active waiting if it is expressed through the metaphor of planting and harvesting. Rather than abstract conversations about the need for new “vision,” such churches do better with down-to-earth language—something like, “We need to take time to find out just what God wants us to do to help our neighbors." Culture is complex—because the communities that people create are complex. Once you learn how to pay close attention, you will be able to use this discovery process for every transition you encounter. So, get ready to dig even deeper. You are preparing to discover the sources of energy to be found at the deepest level of your church's culture.
Adapted from Grace for the Journey: Practices and Possibilities for In-Between Times by Beverly A. Thompson and George B. Thompson, Jr., copyright © 2011 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Grace for the Journey: Practices and Possibilities for In-Between Times
by Beverly A. Thompson and George B. Thompson, Jr.
Every community of faith journeys through periods of transition. In Grace for the Journey: Practices and Possibilities for In-Between Times, authors Beverly Thompson and George Thompson invite congregations to open themselves to the grace-filled possibilities that accompany these in-between periods. Drawing on biblical examples and contemporary experience, the authors invite the community of faith to see transitional times as an opportunity to develop deeper spiritual awareness of God’s call on its communal life—a call that open up fresh potential even as it calls us to consider what familiar things may need to change.
Church on the Edge of Somewhere: Ministry, Marginality, and the Future
by George B. Thompson, Jr.
Many congregations today exist in the "middle of anywhere," living comfortably with the surrounding culture and focusing their energies on serving the needs of members. These congregations have many strengths and gifts that they can exercise without changing a thing. But Thompson envisions a deeper, more prophetic call for congregations: a church on the "edge of somewhere," one that is deeply engaged in ministering to the community while calling on others to commit to doing the same.
The Hidden Lives of Congregations: Understanding Church Dynamics
by Israel Galindo
Faced with crisis, lack of direction, or just plain “stuckness,” many congregations and their leaders are content to deal only with surface issues and symptoms—only to discover that the same problems keep recurring, often in different, and more serious, ways. In The Hidden Lives of Congregations, Christian educator and consultant Israel Galindo takes leaders below the surface of congregational life to provide a comprehensive, holistic look at the corporate nature of church relationships and the invisible dynamics at play.
Scattering Seeds: Cultivating Church Vitality
by Stephen Chapin Garner with Jerry Thornell
In Scattering Seeds: Cultivating Church Vitality, Stephen Chapin Garner and Jerry Thornell share the story of their home congregation, the United Church of Christ in Norwell, MA. This average congregation has approached congregational life in a not-so-average way. Garner and Thornell don’t claim to have the secret to church growth and vitality, but in sharing the story of their simple church in New England, they give hope and innovative ideas to congregations in regions all over the country.
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