Cross Cultural Ministry in the US

Guy Williams has been blogging lately about ministry in the United Methodist Church, particularly on itineracy and matching churches and pastors. David Brooks’ column today sheds some light on the phenomena we’re seeing, particularly the gap between urban, suburban and rural churches.

Brooks describes the change over the past half century:

In the decades since, some social divides, mostly involving ethnicity, have narrowed. But others, mostly involving education, have widened. Today there is a mass educated class. The college educated and non-college educated are likely to live in different towns. They have radically different divorce rates and starkly different ways of raising their children. The non-college educated not only earn less, they smoke more, grow more obese and die sooner.

While Brooks’ focus is on the differences between Obama and Clinton in the presidential race, I think this difference impacts our ministry personnel and deployment as well. For just about the same period Brooks has in view Methodism has increased the educational requirements for clergy. If our culture has divided in two, then our church, mainstream American as it is, may also have become divided in two. But is our pool of pastors from both cultural segments, in proportions anywhere near the proportions found in the broader culture (or even in our churches)? I’d say not.

What are the consequences for ministry if Brooks is right? Here’s what comes to mind:

  • By maintaining high educational standards we are ensuring that most  of our pastors fit into one cultural segment and are at best uncomfortable in the other.
  • If we want to reach both cultural segments we need to find ways to recruit and train pastors and leaders without de-culturing them. Increasing respect for Local Pastors may be one way to do this.
  • We need to pay attention to culture – the culture of our congregations and the culture of our pastors. In my experience I’ve had some good fits and some really poor fits. As far as I can tell, culture never came into consideration.

I like being educated. My most effective ministry has been with those who are in that cultural segment. At the same time, I recognize the need for people who are not culturally like me – even in my current appointment – who can join in the ministry so we can reach the people of our area. This implies that when we think of multi-cultural ministry thinking of race and ethnicity alone is not enough.

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4 Responses to Cross Cultural Ministry in the US

  1. joan says:

    Wow! That’s a new thought.
    I’ve been thinking about where Jesus says
    let the children come unto me. I read some
    parenting books. If you think of the unchurched
    as children in spiritual matters, parenting books
    can give insight. One lecture I attended was on
    encouraging your child. That includes appreciating
    the accomplishments your child has made. In the
    case of your “unchurch”, that would mean appreciating
    where they are spiritually. …uh, why did I write
    that. I have ADD. I guess it fits in with what you
    were saying. Thanks for your blog.
    Springs of water in a dry land.

  2. joan says:

    I didn’t mean that less educated means less
    spiritual. not at all. could often be the
    opposite.

  3. Kim says:

    I consider myself bi-cultural. I realized this when taking an assessment lab for my PhD called “multicultural sensitivity in assessment.” I belong to the “blue collar comedy tour” type culture, and I belong to the “educated elite” as well. As a psychologist, I must live with one foot in both worlds in order to serve those I am called to serve. I have found that my particular PhD program promotes embeddedness in the culture because it does not require a move to another part of the country or world. Hopefully the internet will have this effect on other professions and degree programs as well.

    I don’t think less education for the clergy is the answer. I can think of other Protestant denominations that have required little or no education for their clergy, and sometimes this has the effect of the uneducated pastors perseverating on one theme (preaching the “plan of salvation” Sunday after Sunday with no deepening or enrichment), and sometimes it has the effect of developing oddball emphases and theologies that steer the body away from the whole of Biblical revelation. (Of course, a counterargument is that some of our educational institutions may generate the same effect). An educated clergy has in many instances (my own included) encouraged the education of the laity, especially in the children growing up under educated leadership.

    The clergy, like psychologists, need to be able to speak two languages: the language of their colleagues (and perhaps that of their highly educated flock), and the language of those with less education. Being bilingual means also respecting both languages. It means that the wisdom that comes from experience is respected as much as the knowledge that comes out of the classroom. It means knowing that depth of understanding can grow out of the concrete as well as the abstract.

    My oldest son quit college after his freshman year, and is working as a delivery driver. Who knows how long he will stay out of school … but I am not particularly worried that it will be a permanent hiatus. Education is as much a part of our family culture as chocolate chip cookies and music. And, whatever he does, and especially if he enters a helping profession, the year (or years) spent getting experience as a relatively uneducated person may be a crucial piece he brings to the table.

    I say, embrace education … and respect the school of hard knocks as well.

  4. Interesting article from Brooks. I definitely agree that the data he’s referencing seems very connected to what we’ve been talking about lately in terms of sub-culture breakdowns. The implications for current politics are fascinating, but the implications for the church seem compelling as well.

    Seems to me we need to find a way, as you say, of forming/educating persons intellectually that does not necessarily “de-culture” them at the same time. Raising the appreciation level for local pastors is definitely a part of that conversation.

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