church and culture

All Things to All People: The Church and Culture

Ordained Minister’s Online Guide to Mentorship, Pastoring, Ordination, Personal & Leadership Development


A new (old) perspective on the church and culture


By Michael Mooney


"I am made all things to all men, so that I might by all means save some" (1Co 9:22 MKJV).


This is a powerful statement from the Apostle Paul, yet also the source of quite a bit of confusion.  In this passage he says that he became a  servant to all, a Jew to Jews, under the law for keepers of Moses’ law,  outside the Moses’ law for those who do not observe it (under the Law to Christ), weak to the weak, and all things to all men.


What he did not mean:


Sometimes it is easier to find the meaning of a passage by ruling out what that did not mean.  It seems reasonable to assume that Paul was not saying that he was a chameleon who went about pretending to be like every person he encountered.   Most people have met others like this and it is usually jugged as a frustrating and insincere encounter.  Many times people who do act this way, do so because the really don’t know who they are as individuals.  Contrarily, Paul did not struggle with his identity.


Neither did Paul imply that Christians act like the world.  He made it clear that he was free, but that he always kept the law of Christ in his encounters.


What he must have intended:


Paul must have been speaking of culture and personal preferences.  After all, the “law of Christ” makes no solid connection with culture being a matter of holiness.  Lets now consider culture.  Culture is an interesting word. Its mere utterance is sure to fill the imagination with all sorts of images, and none of them are likely to be the same from person to person. For this reason defining it proves to be quite problematic. Kroeber and Kluckhohn once collected more than 160 definitions for this term. Their findings show extensive perspectives ranging from heritage to protocols, and goods to behaviors. These elements are more specifically visible in ideals, ethnicity, thought patterns, ethical norms, social environments, religiosity, and ambitions. Therefore, culture has a general definition that alludes to various elements of societies, yet there seems to be no concrete thing that can be identified as culture (Cohen, 2009).  Rather, it seems that culture is indeed an abstract concept consisting of the manifestation of harmonized ideological elements.  These characteristics are what unites and or separates groups of people.  In Paul’s time such separations were that of races, tribes, and tongues.  In our modern times we now recognize these categories as societies.  Societies are made up of cultures, even sub-cultures within organizations (such as churches).


(Stay with me, we are going somewhere with this)


Communicating with and within cultures:


Globally speaking, there are two major communicatory types of cultures: high-context and low-context. Robbins and Judge (2009) define high-context cultures as relying “heavily on nonverbal and subtle situational cues in communicating with others” and low-context cultures as relying “essentially on words to convey meaning” (p. 374). High-context cultures are indigenous of communities with long-term relations that have developed customs with regard to everyday activities. People in these cultures are very close to one another within their villages and towns. Many of the hold very traditional values like respecting the elderly, etc.  In contrast, low-contxt cultures tend to be legalistic, with more short term relations that rely heavily upon verbal exchange (Satterlee & Robinson, 2008, p. 44-45).  Generally speaking, America is a low-context culture that prefers verbal communication. Businesses are operated under written contracts, and attorneys are employed to uphold them. Clearly, verbal communication is paramount to the American audience; whereas body language may say more in a Japanese culture.


Organizational Culture


Cultures within organizations (like churches) hold close connections to their structures. Although cultures are usually unique to the organizations where they exist, there is a common similarity in that they represent expectations in organizational behavior, protocols, and goals.  Cultures influence attitudes, ethics, quality, and performance; all of which ultimately determines turnover (parishioners leaving their churches).  Therefore, culture is essential to parishioners roles and their motivation toward organizational goals. (Mahal, 2009).  

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