A Way Forward...into Cultural Diversity

August 14th, 2018

As United Methodists ponder the future (part of which includes choices before General Conference about “A Way Forward”), there is one reality that must be faced. Cultural diversity is not only increasing but accelerating exponentially. Any decision about the Commission on a Way Forward’s report will occur in that context.

Unfortunately, I think church people face cultural diversity in much the same way they face global warming. It scares them to death, but they think if they just ignore it that it will go away. Unlike global warming, however, cultural diversity actually represents more opportunity than threat. In order to discover the opportunities, church people must set aside ideological polarization to understand the chasms between the cultural left, cultural right, and cultural middle. And they must find the courage to bridge those chasms with greater empathy for the contexts in which people live and work, play and pray, raise families, and quest for God in unique ways.

Whether United Methodists have the courage to do this is yet to be revealed. One of the most important admonitions of the Commission on a Way Forward’s report uses Arbinger mediation language:

“The condition of our heart to another person very much shapes the outcomes. If we have a heart at peace, we see the other as a person, with many needs, hopes and gifts. If we have a heart at war, we see the other as an object or an obstacle to our own desires and visions. In addition, a heart at war exaggerates the differences between persons in order to prepare to go to war with them. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

But the only way to have the courage to adopt a “heart of peace” is to first empathize with the cultural diversity and the many distinct and sometimes opposite lifestyles that are included in it.

Greater understanding is possible. I wrote Sideline Church: Bridging the Chasms between Churches and Cultures for that reason. Unless the church (denominational) and the churches (congregational) build that broader empathy, then nationally and locally it will be increasingly on the sidelines of American culture. Neither the left nor right nor middle will care a jot what the church thinks, says, or does.

"Sideline Church: Bridging the Chasm between Churches and Cultures" (Abingdon Press, 2018). Order here: http://bit.ly/SidelineChurch

Just like the issue of global warming, so also the issue of cultural diversity is more complicated than many church people think. I hear church people (and seminary professors) blithely talk about community context without detailed understanding of true diversity. Cultural diversity is no longer just about race, ethnicity, language, diet, music, or country of origin. Nor is diversity merely about gender, age, income, intimacy, occupation, or any other categorization. Generalizations have been swept away as society fragments into more and more lifestyle segments. That process started around 1981 when the personal computer made the internet mainstream and we began tracking digital footprints.

Contrary to what many perceive, cultural diversity is not primarily driven by immigration or education. It is now driven by technology. The digital world has created a whole new cultural complexity because it has fostered unprecedented sharing of ideas, perceptions, and behavioral norms. These in turn shape, and are continually reshaping, how individuals and groups find meaning in life. These are called “Lifestyle Portraits,” and these are now the basic building blocks for cultural diversity. “Lifestyle Portraits” are now used by every sector of society — corporate, non-profit, health care, education, media, entertainment, law, government, and even the military — but only sporadically by the church.

Consider what happened in American culture since I completed my doctoral dissertation in 1981 using a fountain pen and IBM Selectric typewriter. The former was introduced by the Fatimid Islamic Caliphate in 974, refined by Leonardo da Vinci in the last decades of the 15th century, and went mainstream in Europe in the 17th century. The latter was introduced in 1961. And then…

  • AOL popularized the first social media in 1983
  • Experian began tracking digital personal information in 1996
  • Facebook appeared in 2004
  • Twitter appeared in 2006

I first became aware of MissionInsite in 2008, and have subsequently written five books on lifestyle expectations for ministries and spiritual leaders since 2013 (with the technological assistance of Microsoft).

Every single United Methodist Conference subscribed to MissionInsite by 2016. Insights into lifestyle expectations for ministries have been available to local churches for strategic planning for ten years. Yet it is astonishing how church people still think they “know their community” without knowing the diverse lifestyles represented within the community. We still make broad, old-fashioned generalizations about age, race, gender, family, class, and religion that are no longer accurate. We still assume a handful of simplistic theological and ideological assumptions encompass all the nuances of moral choices and spiritualties among 71 distinct lifestyle portraits in America. Our indifference to the realities of cultural diversity has brought us to the brokenness we experience today.

I think it is important to understand what is at stake here. It is not merely the survival of the United Methodist Church, in whole or in parts, but the relevance of Methodism as a way of spiritual life among more and more emerging lifestyle portraits. This cultural diversity is growing exponentially. Technology (including social media) is not only tracking diversity, but energizing more and more diversity. Generations previously emerged every thirty years or so, but today new lifestyle portraits are emerging every single year. United Methodists used to worry about reaching the youth. Today they should worry that every emerging lifestyle segment is stepping further and further away from the institutional church. And it’s not because of the music or the coffee. It’s not even because of the theology or the ideology. It’s because the church refuses to understand, adapt, and bless them in the ways that encourage their unique quests for God.

Full disclosure: I am not a member of the United Methodist Church, but have a great admiration for Methodism. When I read the Commission on a Way Forward’s report, I had two reactions.

The first reaction is that of the options presented, only one faces the realities of cultural diversity. That is the “One Church Plan.” No doubt this plan raises a number of polity headaches about connectionalism, apportionments and appointments, and mission agency funding. But as an outsider looking in, it seems to me that the eternal value of Methodism is not that it is a set of religious rules but rather a way of spiritual life. It is an admirable way! For fifty years, United Methodists have navigated their practice of spiritual life with a quadrilateral that seeks truth through four sources (the entirety of scripture, the whole history of all the church, reasonable facts and fairness, and the constant presence of the Holy Spirit). If that occasionally leaves church leaders in a quandary over issues like gender equality, birth control, pacifism, marriage equality and more, so be it. All leadership entails risk in the midst of culture… and trust in the wisdom of God. With that in mind, I think the “One Church Plan” could be renamed the “One Tradition Plan.” One way, many churches, credible leaders.

The other options don’t face the realities of cultural diversity. There are too many lifestyle portraits — and many more to come. The complex organizational changes of the “Connectional Conference Plan” focuses the church inward rather than outward. The rigidity of the “Traditionalist Plan” simply reinforces the #1 criticism among all lifestyle portraits (progressive and traditional) that churches are just too judgmental.

My second reaction is that the claim by any church to even have a “choice” is, in a sense, a form of hubris. Churches don’t really have a choice. Churches today are caught between growing cultural diversity on the one hand and God’s urgency to bless all people on the other. You can’t build walls to keep culture out, and you can’t tell God what to do. The Commission report recognizes this.

“The matters of human sexuality and unity are the presenting issues for a deeper conversation that surfaces different ways of interpreting Scripture and theological tradition.”

But this is only one side of the eternal tension of Christian ministry. One can only pursue a deeper conversation about scripture and tradition if one also pursues a deeper empathy with cultural diversity and the profound religious questions different lifestyle portraits are really asking. We are called to answer their questions, not just develop our theologies. The recognition of cultural diversity is not a choice.

But understanding cultural diversity is not a popular task, and the choice for the “One Church Plan” may not be a popular option.

  • For those lifestyle portraits included in the cultural middle (which today I describe as the culturally passive), it requires work. Church people among the cultural middle are reluctant to leave the office and vacate the pew to really listen, learn, and love the strangers that surround them.
  • Extremists among church leaders of the cultural left and the cultural right (which today I describe as the culturally ambivalent and the culturally righteous) may not like this choice either. It means that they cannot force everyone to agree with their theological or ideological positions.

In short, the option to embrace cultural diversity means that self-interest and power-struggle are not options anymore. And standing up for that is, truly, an act of courage.

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