Originally posted June 28, 2011, at Pastor Keith Anderson. Republished with permission of the author.
People sometimes drive many miles to church on Sunday — but that’s not the only commute they have to make.
They also have to make a cultural commute.
They commute from our present-day culture to a church culture largely created 30, 40 or 50 years ago.
This kind of cultural commuting hit home for me on a recent trip to Springfield, Mass., and the Student Prince German restaurant.
Walking down Main Street, you immediately notice that downtown Springfield is a pretty racially and culturally diverse place. However, when you turn the corner at the Student Prince, what you see is a cluster of white people — more white people than we had seen on our whole walk down Main Street — milling around the front door.
Many were being helped by the valet service — even though it was a quiet day downtown and there was plenty of free parking.
Founded in 1935, the Student Prince is a downtown Springfield institution — and when we walked in, it was like going back to 1935.
German pottery, woodcarving and beer steins line the walls and fill every shelf. Men with ties and aprons staff the bar. It was totally old-school. And it was really cool — except that it was like entering an entirely different culture with a totally different group of people.
As we sat there sipping our delicious German beer, my friend Angela and I had the same exact thought: Hey, this is just like church! It is painfully true.
The cultural commute
When people drive into our parking lots and enter our buildings, they largely have to leave their cultural reference points, experiences, struggles and questions at the door.
For those of us who didn’t grow up in this church culture, it is a disorienting experience — like waking up and finding ourselves in Pleasantville — or the Student Prince. As my friend Elizabeth recently tweeted:
“Really, really trying not to quit going to church, but, honestly, it ain’t easy.”
Not always, but very often, this is the cultural commute that happens:
- from increasingly diverse neighborhoods and workplaces to a homogeneous congregation;
- from flat-screen TVs and smart phones to no technology at all, except for a decades-old sound system;
- from an increasing awareness and appreciation for the gifts of different ethnicities to a focus on one particular ethnic tradition;
- from everyday conversational language to specialized church language;
- from digital media and contemporary art to images, art and banners that are decades old;
- from contemporary, shared, cultural reference points to stories, events, images, music and movies that happened before we were born; and
- from a majority of society supportive of gay rights to conflict or silence about it in the church.
And the crazy thing is that fewer and fewer of us in the church have actually grown up in that church culture — but since that’s what church is supposed to be like, we support and participate in a church culture that’s not actually native to any of us! Why are we doing this!?
We in the ELCA need to reverse this commute. Rather than have people commute back to us, we must commute to them. Let’s start by:
- incorporating present-day stories, images and cultural reference points in sermons, confirmation and adult education;
- bringing contemporary artwork into the space or inviting our congregation to create something together;
- dropping the specialized language and trying theology as story;
- celebrating all the cultures present in the congregation — and not just at Pentecost!
- experimenting with technology and seeing what happens;
- having worship in other places — homes, pubs, coffee shops, parks, thereby letting real life surround and inform our worship, study and conversation; and
- ask a group of teenagers what they are watching, reading or texting.
What is your cultural commute like when you go to church? How are you, as a congregational leader, reversing the commute in your congregation?
Find a link to Keith Anderson’s blog Pastor Keith Anderson at Lutheran Blogs.