As they swam past each other, one fish asked another, “How’s the water?” The other fish replied, “What’s water?” The point of the story is that it is easy to forget what surrounds you and fail to examine it because it is what you know. To an outsider, those same surroundings might seem strange.
We are immersed in culture with its artifacts, values, and assumptions. Unless something happens to challenge those givens, we rarely think about the culture we find ourselves in.
For those of us who work with churches, the term “culture” has at least two meanings.
On one hand, culture is the larger environment in which we live. For Christians, culture can be both a gift and a challenge. Our culture--language, political structures, customs, relationships--provide a stage on which we perform our ministry. Early Christians like Paul discovered how to use the Graeco-Roman culture to communicate the Gospel. As missional Christians, we have to decide what aspects of the culture help to fulfill the mission of God and when we must be counter-cultural to do so.
Second, there is the culture within our particular church and denominational “tribe.” These include the doctrine, practices, and rituals handed down to us and the way we relate to each other through a common terminology, ways of relating, and values. Some of these aspects are clearly identified and espoused, but more are like the water in which the fish swims: we don’t see them until something changes. In fact, much of the culture within our organizational structures is submerged and invisible like the larger mass of an iceberg.
For example, many churches have accepted specific roles for women and men in their particular setting with little or no overlap. In recent years, however, those roles have changed and we have to consider questions such as, “What is the role of the pastor’s spouse when the pastor is female?” and “Since over half of our congregation is female, why don’t we have more women in leadership roles?” or “Are we teaching the Bible in such a way that the gifts of both women and men are affirmed?”
If we want to change our churches, we must understand both the internal and external culture. Not everything happening in the larger culture is immoral, although it may be different. The way we have always done things in the church may not reflect the intent of the Gospel.
In a recent blog post, Seth Godin wrote, “We have far more ability to make an impact than we expect. The only people who can change our culture (and thus our future) are us.” Perhaps we need to put on the hat of the sociologist, examine our cultures, and identify the best way forward.