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By John D. Pierce

A college introductory course in sociology of religion was very mind opening for me. It helped me to see how belief systems and institutional religious practices are shaped by cultural contexts.

Factors other than the movement of God’s Spirit are at work from worship times and settings to theological conclusions and religious expressions. None of us has a purely biblical understanding apart from cultural influences.

Repeatedly, for example, studies show that views of God are impacted by education, economics and other experiential factors. Pat Conroy picked up on that in his novel South of Broad. He wrote of passing tiny white churches in remote Appalachia “where they worship a fiercer Christ.”

God’s reputation as being more loving or more wrathful has ties to the believer’s educational and economic standing. Honest students of the Bible have an awareness that they see through cultural lenses in pursuit of timeless truths.

Awareness of a cultural-influenced religion doesn’t invalidate one’s faith. Rather it helps in understanding that which is divine as opposed to common cultural assumptions and practices.

A reading of James D. Smart’s 1977 book, The Cultural Subversion of the Biblical Faith, cast some good light on this subject for me as well.

And George Braswell’s seminary course on cross-cultural communications added tremendously to this understanding. It increased my awareness of “speech communities” — something many Christian leaders fail to grasp.

They use the same language and insider code whether speaking to their congregations or a local school board or civic clubs or the media. But audiences are not the same — and organizations don’t all have the same purpose as a church.

Therefore, our communication is not effective unless we speak in ways our audience can understand. Taking the same assumptions into different settings is unwise, ineffective and often disrespectful.

Several years ago, while studying at the United Theological College of the West Indies, I was invited by the dean to deliver the Sunday sermon at a Baptist church in Kingston, Jamaica. A deacon picked me up from the campus and drove toward the church.

Soon we entered a narrow alley where people slept under old pieces of tin roofing. A woman angrily asked my driver what he was bringing a white man in there.

The church received me warmly , but I’ve never felt so unprepared. The message that would resonate well with middle-class Americans was not what these faithful persons needed to hear. I pray God’s Spirit did say something meaningful — without a whole lot of help from me.

The more we expose ourselves to varied cultures the better we realize how our religious faith and practices are culturalized. Social issues from alcohol consumption to women’s roles to homosexuality vary greatly within the same denominational traditions worldwide — often shaped by cultural factors. Baptists, Anglicans and others can attest to that often-painful fact.

Assuming these observations should have points, I’ll make these three in summary:

One, it is helpful to be aware of the cultural influences on our faith and practice. It might prevent us from being so defensive when encountering others whose faith and practice — though reading the same holy book and bearing the same brand — are different.

Two, it is beneficial to be attune to the different audiences with whom we speak of our faith. Not everyone knows the language of our speech community. And what communicates effectively with one audience may not work so well with another.

Three, often listening is better than dumping one’s culturalized faith on all others as being universally authoritative.

front_porchRecently, I saw one of my favorite episodes of The Andy Griffith Show. A visiting preacher from New York City drops in and delivers a Big Apple sermon to the Mayberry congregation.

He admonishes them to slow down their busy ways — recalling with fondness the days when communities enjoyed band concerts and other relaxed activities.

Then he scooted quickly out of town for his next hit-and-run sermon although he was supposed to be on vacation.

In response, the Mayberry faithful — who knew how to do Sabbath already — turned to rushing, bickering and frustration in a failed effort to pull off an evening concert. The Lord’s Day evolved from rest into chaos.

The visiting minister would have done well to kindly refuse the offer to preach. Instead, he should have asked the host pastor to introduce him to life in Mayberry — where he could get to know the people and learn from their ways of living.

I should have done the same thing in Kingston. Sometimes those called upon to do the delivery are the very ones who need to discover a fresh word from those whose experiences of life and faith are quite different.

“Hey, Barn. Think I’ll go down to drugstore and get some ice cream for later.”

“I can go.”

“No, I’ll go.”

“I don’t mind going.”

“Why don’t we both go?”

“What’s the hurry?”

John Pierce

About John Pierce

John D. Pierce is editor of Nurturing Faith Journal — the signature publication of Baptists Today, Inc. He is also publisher of Nurturing Faith Books and Resources. Previously he served as managing editor of The Christian Index and as Baptist campus minister at Georgia Tech and Kennesaw State University. A native of Ringgold, Ga., he is a graduate of Berry College (B.A.), Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div.), and Columbia Theological Seminary (D.Min.). He speaks frequently in churches, consults with congregations concerning communications and holds interim pastorates.