• Richard Thor Collins

What's culture?

What does the word ‘culture’ mean? It’s used a lot nowadays.


Not theatres, art galleries and sculpture, a different kind of culture. That thing in the petri dish? No, not that kind either.


French cheese, German engineering, Italian fashion? No, try again. What about Spanish punctuality, quiet Australians, ugly Italians . . . and you guessed it, British irony?!


Nope. The other kind.


The kind of culture when you say, ‘today’s culture is challenging for the church,’ or ‘the culture of our society encourages behaviours which are so damaging.’


That kind of culture.


Here’s a definition: Shared values and beliefs expressed by the behaviours of a group.

Understanding that meaning of the word can be very fruitful. Sadly, we often start at the wrong end of the sentence. We observe the behaviours first and critique them. Why do teenagers walk around staring at their phones? Why are elderly people often abandoned? In the 1950s, why did cinema-goers in Britain stand for the National Anthem before watching the film?


Out comes the judge in each of us and then, if we’re honest, so does the guilt. Surely it’s more helpful to start by looking at the first part of the sentence.


The values and beliefs. Why?


Because behaviours are driven by values and beliefs. They’re driven by the things we hold dear. They’re often driven by the lies we believe. And to top it off, our behaviours are driven by our beliefs and values, regardless of whether we can identify them or not.


Why is your teenage daughter uploading selfies to Instagram? Because she holds certain beliefs about herself and the value of physical beauty. Along with other beliefs about belonging, attraction and group identity. And she shares these beliefs with her peer group. That’s key. Culture expresses shared values and beliefs. We hold them along with others. That’s what binds us together. The sharing of beliefs and values.


Which then lead to our behaviours.


What do British people do on November 11 each year? They remember. They march. They sing. They honour. Why? Because together they hold shared beliefs about the sacrifice of their countrymen and women.


So what about a church? What is the culture of your church? It would be easy to state that it's based on our denominational statements of faith. That’s not what I’m asking. A church culture is only partly based on its religious beliefs. The church is full of all kinds of people with a variety of other values and beliefs, while also being affected by the wider culture of our country.


Consider these questions:


Why do Africans and South Americans often hold four hour church services?

Why do American Christians favour pot-lucks? And why do they often attend Adult Sunday school?

Why do South Korean Christians readily submit to their church leader?

Why, in some denominations, do people all pray at the same time?

Why do some Christians say ‘I’ll pray for you,’ then walk away, while others say ‘I’ll pray for you,’ and then place their hand on your shoulder and immediately start praying?


Shared values and beliefs. That’s why. And one person in your church affects the culture more than any other.


The leader.


Yes, you, the leader, with your values and beliefs which you communicate to your congregation each Sunday. Your people watch you, listen to you, and pick up on the choices you make in your life. Of all the people in your church, you are the one who has the greatest ability to change a culture.


What priorities do you have?


Do you value family? Sport? Long hours? Children? The elderly? The disadvantaged? Music? Do you inspire your people to live in a certain way? Do you model a godly life? Are you guided by the Spirit?


And here’s one to get you thinking. Do you understand how your own beliefs and values influence the choices you make? In other words, how is your emotional and spiritual health? That’s for next time.


For today, do read Marcus Honeysett’s article on being 'An Agent of Change - Part Two.' And be encouraged. You are never alone as you seek God’s will for your life in ministry and for your people.

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