One of the greatest challenges in ministry is connecting the gospel to the surrounding culture.
I wonder if there was a time in US history when this was an easier task, back when the nation was young. In such a time, a one-size-fits-all approach worked fairly well. IOW, a Methodist church in one place could look very much like a Methodist church in another place.
Now, because there are far more cultures in the world, and even in the US, a one-size-fits-all approach no longer works. A United Methodist congregation in one place should look/feel different in one place than another United Methodist congregation in another place — because they are connecting the gospel to their own unique culture. I think this, at least partly, if not largely, explains the decline among mainline churches in North America.
The challenge for leaders is to become cultural anthropologists. We must observe cultures, other effective models, discern God’s heart for our local culture, and then, out of that mix, find ways to connect the gospel to the culture.
I recently talked about ethnocentricity, which prevents us from being observant/open toward other ways of doing things. Ethnocentricity leads us to believe that our culture, our way of doing things, our model is best.
This attitude often carries over into the business world, too, and here’s a great example of that here in Korea. Until recently, Wal-Mart had 16 stores in Korea, but apparently, Koreans didn’t like shopping at Wal-Mart.
A Korean shopping chain has done well here, though, since the early 1990s. Recently, they bought Wal-Mart’s 16 stores (bringing their total to 83) and have overhauled them into places where Koreans want to shop. An article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette tells E-Mart’s story. There are some great lessons for Christ-following leaders …
For all its Korean character, the E-Mart chain has thrived in part by emulating successes just like Wal-Mart. In 2001 and 2002, almost a decade into E-Mart’s life, Mr. Chung joined a group of merchandisers and buyers on a tour of stores around the world, looking for ideas to update the chain’s format. “We came out with a Korean model of a discount store that took elements from the U.S., Japan and Europe,” he says.
At one point, Mr. Chung spent two days hanging around Wal-Mart’s store in Bentonville, Ark., taking notes on such details as when produce is restocked and when the floor is swept.
The lesson here is to learn from others and then contextualize it — i.e. turn a successful American model (like Wal-Mart) into a successful Korean model (like E-Mart).
Churches, to be effective, must do the same. Learn from other effective models, then contextualize it for their specific culture. All too often, however, we’d rather just copy what another church is doing, because, well, copying is much easier than contextualizing!
We visited an E-mart store yesterday. It’s a nice store — household items, personal items, etc. (as well as Starbucks) are located on the main floor, and the food department is located in the basement. I was especially fascinated with the shopping carts. Because all 4 wheels turn, it was a lot of fun to “drive.”
We discovered, too, that the groves in the wheels kept the cart in place on the escalator. In fact, the reason I was in front to take the photo of the cart on the escalator is because I *thought* I was going to keep the cart from rolling down the escalator! (See photos from E-Mart below; I recommend clicking on the first one, then clicking “next” below the photo; also look for the description of the photo in the lower left corner.)
One more observation about E-Mart: Throughout the store, many workers are available to help customers and to promote items. As is common in the Korea culture, many of these workers bow as customers pass by, including the greeter, a young man in a suit and tie. The meat department is especially lively, as the guys who work there, yell out prices (we assume).
Anyway, back to contextualization. We must become cultural anthropologists so that we can discover ways to connect the gospel to our own unique culture. God set the model for us. John 1.14 states, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”
Churches must also take God’s Word and connect it to the surrounding culture, “the neighborhood.”