Friday, July 15, 2016

Culture Matters

My friend Terrell Carter is something of a “renaissance man.”  A former police officer and now artist, entrepreneur, pastor, and academic, Dr. Carter has a new book coming from Wipf and Stock in the fall entitled "The Lord Gave Me This: Understanding the Historic Leadership Development Practices of the Black Church in Order to Prepare Its Leaders of Tomorrow.”

Carter explains that preaching, community, and calling are the key requirements to become an effective pastor in the African-American church and, therefore, are important to the pastor’s preparation for ministry. The centrality of story-telling and an oral tradition in the African culture makes proclamation a true sign of one’s divine call. The call is affirmed by the community and the gift of proclamation is nurtured in community.

This approach sharply contrasts to the western model where ministerial identity is shaped through reading, writing, and reflection in a community apart from the church where one may have “felt the call” to the ministry.  This is a more “professional” approach to ministry formation.  Carter argues for the vitality of the African-American model and the challenge for established theological schools to understand this. In fact, the African-American model is often seen as inferior and ineffective.

Carter is not anti-education.  He serves as Assistant Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Contextualized Learning at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas, where he seeks to implement an approach to theological education that values and builds upon the learner’s culture.

If we take seriously his observations, we will understand that this concept applies to other settings as well.  Central Seminary has programs for Koreans, Burmese, and other ethnic groups.  How do members of those groups learn?  What concepts of western academia are transferable and which need to be translated for a different cultural milieu?

I encountered this in June when I taught a Doctor of Ministry seminar that included a minister from Myanmar (Burma).  He graciously explained that some western concepts like personal autonomy had to be tempered in his culture where community life and tribal connections are paramount.  The Burmese struggle with our practices of individualism and ego-centrism which seem very “foreign” to them.

Culture does matter. The way we perceive reality is shaped by our experiences and expectations.  When we ignore that truth, learning becomes not only difficult but unlikely.  Accommodating culture while still nurturing effective Christian leaders is one of the significant challenges of our time.

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