I was standing in front of about one hundred people in the Social Hall of my congregation. As I looked around the room at the folks who had stayed after worship to hear my presentation, I could sense their excitement. Afterall, I had promised them a slide show of pictures from South Africa and Hong Kong, and to this well-traveled group, that was like catnip.
But I knew that we had bigger topics to talk about. I told them that one of the key learnings for myself in my program, especially in cross-cultural settings, is that we all have a culture. I looked out at the group and said, “you have a culture” but I doubt they believed it.
Sprinkled around the room of members of my congregation were some people who everyone would agree “had a culture”. They were Korean or Chinese or even from Uganda. But for the majority of White folks in the room, this statement seemed incongruous. In her excellent and practical book, Being SMART about Congregational Change, Diane Zemke writes about working for change within churches, and the impact of culture in particular.
She cites a definition for the word culture by Edgar Schein, writing, “that within a group, culture creates a way of being together that is learned, shared, and passed on to new members. Culture enables group members to get along with each other since it defines appropriate behaviors. And, it enables the group to interact with the larger culture.”
In this case, Zemke is describing congregational culture, as that is the focus of her work, but it also describes our cultures of origin. Sometimes in a place like a mainline denominational church in the United States, it can seem as if only those from exotic, foreign locales have a culture, but it turns out that everybody does.
Understanding one’s own culture, individually, and within a church is one of the key steps for how congregations can grow in welcoming and integrating newer people from various racial/ethnic backgrounds. The majority white church needs to do the work before it seeks to engage with the other.
Zemke writes, “note that culture is created by what problems the congregation chooses to address, how they solve problems important to them, and what choices they repeat over time.” This is an insight that applies to many local church contexts. What are the fights worth having, what are the societal issues worth tackling, what are the topics that get onto the agenda of decision-makers, and which are the ones that are not addressed. All of these choices contribute to the building of a congregational culture, and often, they reflect the racial/ethnic culture of the church as well.
For example, I recently visited a Spanish-speaking Presbyterian church in San Jose, California, where the pastor is from Colombia and most of the congregation work in restaurants, car-washes, and cleaning services. At their mid-week worship service, the two concerns that came to the surface were about the recent immigration policy changes and the need to hold onto God’s truth in the midst of a changing world. They are a church that is directly impacted by government policies toward immigrants, and they are also a church that sees itself as a haven and bastion of true faith in a place where that is not the norm (the Bay Area). Their distinctive congregational culture is shaped by the people who are in the room.
By contrast, my own congregation is made up of highly educated, white collar professionals. While the church cares about social issues like immigration in an intellectual way, it is not directly impacted. In the same way, because people have reached a certain place in life, they do not have that ongoing fire and fervor for upholding the one true faith. Instead, the concerns of the congregation turn inward, toward questions about musical choices, seating arrangements, leadership flow-charts, and budget priorities. Again, as Zemke has pointed out, a congregation’s culture is developed and grown from the shared experiences of those within the group.
I met this past week with the pastor of a second generation, English speaking, Korean church. In his congregation, the culture that they inherited is very particular, it is the classic “Korean Church”, which expects morning devotional prayer, lunch together at church every Sunday, and a pastor whose family is the exemplar to all. But he shared the struggle of moving from that cultural base, into a new season where their members will extend well beyond the Korean community.
Zemke’s book is a resource that I would pass on to a pastor like him, or to leaders within my own church. It is set up as a kind of practical resource, an easy to use handbook for church clergy and lay leaders alike. She intentionally writes it to have broad-based appeal, across denominational lines and into different settings. In her opening remarks, she draws the reader in by describing the different reasons that someone may have picked up her book. It ranges from those in declining congregations to those seeking revival, to those who are hopeless, to those who are frustrated, to those with big dreams! This book is worth the read.
Diane Zemke. Being SMART About Congregational Change. (2014) location 79
Diane Zemke. Being SMART About Congregational Change. (2014) location 81.