Culture is an interesting phenomenon. For many people, the word culture refers to the arts including the visual, culinary and performing. More academically stated, culture has to do with values and behavior in society and is typically defined by three parameters:
Language, including slang, speech style, accents and words used;
Symbols, including verbal and nonverbal, written and unwritten;
Borders, sometimes defined by rivers, oceans and mountain ranges, but often as simply as a neighborhood or even a building.
In the movie “Scent of a Woman,” Colonel Frank Slade, played by Al Pacino, is blind and hires Charlie Simms, played by Chris O’Donnell, to escort and accompany him on a busy weekend trip to New York and a number of different locations. In one scene, Charlie and Colonel Slade walk into a building and the Colonel asks his young assistant, “What are we doing in a church?” Charlie hadn’t told the Colonel it was a church, but Frank Slade, while blind, could tell just by a number of cultural clues, such as the hushed talking, the distinctive echo of the building and the smell of the candles.
Christian subcultures are very interesting and can be just as pervasive in our modern nondenominational churches as they once were within our more traditional denominational churches. The advantage of a subculture is that it persistently and powerfully reinforces some values that the group embraces. Like an invisible hand, it arranges the language and symbols to fortify the culture. The disadvantage of a pervasive subculture is that it often communicates to people outside the group the wrong message and delivers an obvious barrier to entry.
Here in the west, many of our churches have been sensitive to the impact of overtly Christian cultural symbols and have eliminated to a great extent the most obvious barriers to entry. Most new churches and church campuses start in public school buildings, storefronts and are nondescript. New church buildings are often more about function and usage than about ornamentation. Signs, chairs and functional auditoriums have largely replaced crosses, pews and traditional sanctuaries.
However, all of these contemporary, nondenominational churches and traditional churches still have to beware of the subculture that easily develops around the language that we use as well as the patterns and rituals that very easily define our behavior when we gather together. Diversity or the lack of it is one of the major identifiers of culture. Diversity includes the young and old, rich and poor, as well as the more easily identifiable racial, ethnic and gender differences. Many churches have come a long way, but most of us can still learn about diversity from organizations like Disney, Marriott and McDonalds.
The use of words that are more branded than descriptive can easily become a barrier to people that are outside of the subculture. Modern churches often don’t have altars, but we often invite people to come upfront to the altar. Communion is offered in our churches sometimes weekly or much less frequently, but always needs to be described rather than performed. Activities, including children and student instructions, new-member orientation and volunteer appreciation are often clouded by our language and need descriptive sentences that help acculturate visitors. Brand-new attendees need neutral language and descriptions that help them understand and hopefully respond to what is being communicated. In addition, all too often, ‘insider jokes’ are a part of sermons, weekly announcements and even written communication. These anecdotes and mini-narratives are intended to be good-natured and often are, but they also communicate clearly that you are outside of the group if you don’t get the joke.
The best way to eliminate the barriers of entry that a Christian subculture may unintentional create is to intentionally extend the borders. Borders are the third defining element of culture after language and symbols. Borders, however, shouldn’t define the church. The Great Commission is about taking the Gospel to the people, and the true definition of the church is a people that are called-out. Buildings, auditoriums and comfortable chairs are great, but the kingdom of God grows when the people of God become the church and reach all people, subgroups and subcultures.
Ken Behr is an executive pastor at Christ Fellowship, Palm Beach Gardens, FL. www.gochristfellowship.com