Understanding our local culture

All of our churches, for better or for worse, are influenced by our culture. Yet when I read my Bible I find that the biggest cultural pull on the church is the local influence. Corinth was famously multicultural and permissive of sexual sin, both of which became problems for the church that Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians. Philippi was a Roman colony whose residents wanted to be good Roman citizens – a recurring theme in Paul’s letter to them (1:13, 3:20, 4:22). One of the seven churches in Revelation 2-3, the Ephesians, over-reacted to the local opposition (cf Acts 19:9, 23-34) and were strong on truth, but weak on love. The city of Sardis was famous for having been captured by King Cyrus. His troops attacked from the rear whilst the city’s watchmen only guarded the front; the church in Sardis had also fallen asleep on their watch and let the enemy in. The city of Laodicea was famous for its riches and its unpalatable, lukewarm water – and Jesus uses the metaphor of the local water to remind them that despite their apparent riches, they are spiritually poor.

Throughout the Bible, it’s often local culture that has most impact on churches. Since that’s the case, we’re not going to be greatly helped by American books about Christianity and culture. We need to think for ourselves.

Looking back

This lesson is reinforced when we look at Wales’ recent history. It’s no secret that the visible strength of Christianity in Wales has plummeted. What caused the decline? One major factor is that the Welsh church unquestioningly allowed Welsh culture to infiltrate. Let me give you three examples from the last century.

First, Wales is known as a land of song and poetry. This creativity has been used by God, not least in the compositions of Williams Pantycelyn and Ann Griffiths. But many churches in Wales valued music and performance over the simple preaching of the gospel. The Gymanfa Ganu became more important than preaching rallies, the Welsh ‘hwyl’ more important than simple truth. These were nails in the coffin of Welsh gospel witness.

Second, there was a resurgence of socialism. Given Wales’ industrial heritage, and the sense of oppression that still lingers in the Welsh consciousness, this was hardly surprising. Caring for widows and orphans, and standing for justice is a Christian distinctive, not just a socialist one. Yet socialist concern became entangled with Christianity itself. This didn’t cause socialism to become more Christian, but it did cause Christianity to become more socialist – and it led to the social gospel which wreaked so much havoc in Welsh chapels.

Third, there was a renewed emphasis on the importance of higher education. The Aberdare Report of 1881 led to an expansion of higher education in Wales, and to the formation of the University of Wales. The benefits for Wales were significant, but the impact on the church was mixed, at best. In some circles it was more important that a minister had a degree, than whether he was called of God. Instead of producing godly men wrestling with the theological issues of the day, this over-emphasis on education produced a secular clerical elite more familiar with F.C. Baur and Karl Barth than with Paul and Luke.

Looking forward

None of this is to say that poetry or social concern or education are bad, or should be shunned. Nor is it to say that Welsh culture is inherently anti-Christian. The point is simply that both the Bible and our history confirm that it is often local influences that most damage the church. When influences come from a distance, we are naturally wary, and exercise discernment. But when they’re home-grown, they are harder to see. Most dangerous of all are those influences that are already part of us.

This means we need to ask ourselves a vital question. What are the local influences on us that could prove dangerous to the church? As we look at our culture, there are some things we can all identify with. Changing attitudes to alcohol, sexuality and authority are a concern for us all, but these problems are more international than local, and there are many places we can go to get help on them. I want to ask a more specific question. What are the home-grown, distinctive aspects of our culture that could prove dangerous to the church? Let me suggest three.

First, in Wales we strangely combine wild optimism with a lack of confidence. There’s no better place to see this than at a rugby match. We’ll fill the Millennium Stadium with eager Welshmen and women expecting great things from their team – but with that nagging doubt that almost certainly in the final minute we’ll concede possession and the opposition will snatch the victory from us – just like Australia did in December. And in June. Twice. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. We see the same thing in church life. We’re proud of our rugby heritage, but even more proud of our Christian heritage. We emphasise the power of gospel truth, and the vitality of the Holy Spirit – but with the nagging doubt that, almost certainly, if we speak that gospel to our friends and neighbours, we’ll drop the ball and mess it up, and they’ll reject us and the gospel alike. That too is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Second, in Wales we tend to look back instead of looking forward. Welsh glory days are always in the past. Our best rugby players were from the 1970s, our preachers from the 1700s, and princes from the 1300s. This perspective can cause enormous damage in the church. Younger people can be hurt by the implication that their generation doesn’t make the grade, and frustrated that the problems and opportunities they can see are missed by their elders. It’s right we value our heritage, but if we only look back, we make the gospel irrelevant to today’s issues.

Finally, we Welsh can be inward looking and independently-minded. We value our homeland, we value family, and we are a proud people – but sometimes that means we fail to learn from others, or even be concerned at what is happening elsewhere. Sometimes those who are not Welsh can feel unwelcome in our churches, for example when we start to believe our own jokes about Welsh being the language of heaven. Welsh churches, like Welsh villages, often have a strong sense of family and community. But in church, we must ensure that everyone, particularly newcomers, feel fully part of the family.

Looking out

The danger we face in Wales is the same danger that all God’s people face – that, without thinking, we will be influenced by our culture, for good and bad. But that third characteristic – our tendency to be inward looking – makes us more vulnerable to the damaging aspects of our culture, and goes some way to explaining why church attendance has fallen more sharply in Wales than in the rest of the UK. If the trend is to be reversed, we need a more critical assessment of our culture and traditions than our predecessors were able to give. Let each of us pray that God would give us all the discernment we need for that task.

This article was published in January 2013. Bookmark the permalink.