The Cultural Commute

September 6th, 2011

People sometimes drive many miles to church on Sunday—but that's not the only commute they have to make. 

They also have to make a cultural commute.

They commute from our present day culture to a church culture largely created thirty, forty, even fifty or more years ago.

This kind of cultural commuting hit home for me on a recent trip to Springfield, Mass., and the Student Prince German restaurant.

The Student Prince

Walking down Main Street, you immediately notice that downtown Springfield is a pretty racially and culturally diverse place. However, when you turn the corner at the Student Prince, what you see is a cluster of white people—more white people than we had seen on our whole walk down Main Street - hovering around the front door. Many were being helped by the valet service—even though it was a quiet day downtown and there was plenty of free parking.

Founded in 1935, the Student Prince is a downtown Springfield institution—and when we walked in, it was like going back to 1935. German pottery, woodcarving, and beer steins line the walls and fill every shelf. Men with ties and aprons staff the bar. It was totally old school. And it was really cool—except that it was like entering an entirely different culture with a totally different group of people.

As we sat there sipping our delicious German beer, my friend Angela and I had the same exact thought: hey, this is just like church! It is painfully true.

The Cultural Commute

When people drive into our parking lots and enter our buildings, they largely have to leave their cultural reference points, experiences, struggles, and questions at the door. For those of us who didn't grow up in this church culture, it is disorienting experience, like waking up and finding ourselves in Pleasantville—or the Student Prince. As my friend Elizabeth recently tweeted:

“Really, really trying not to quit going to church, but, honestly, it ain't easy. #Churchofthe1950sSucks”

Not always, but very often, this is the cultural commute that happens:

  • from increasingly diverse neighborhoods and workplaces to a homogeneous congregation
  • from flat screen TVs and smart phones to no technology at all, except for a decades old sound system
  • from an increasing awareness and appreciation for the gifts of different ethnicities to a focus on one particular ethnic tradition
  • from everyday conversational language to specialized church language
  • from digital media and contemporary art to outdated (and often cheesy) images, art, and banners
  • from contemporary shared cultural reference points to stories, events, images, music, and movies from before we were born
  • from a majority of society supportive of gay rights to conflict or silence about it in the church

And the crazy thing is that fewer and fewer of us in the church have actually grown up in that church culture—but since that's what church is “supposed” to be like, we support and participate in a church culture that's not actually native to any of us! Why are we doing this!?

Reverse Commute

We in the church need to reverse this commute. Rather than expecting people to commute back to a church stuck in the 1950s, we must commute to them. Let's start by

  • incorporating present-day stories, images, and cultural reference points in sermons and classes.
  • bringing contemporary artwork into the space or inviting our congregation to create something together
  • using today’s technology as a tool for communicating the gospel
  • dropping the specialized language and trying theology as story.
  • celebrating all the cultures present in the congregation—and not just at Pentecost!
  • experimenting with technology and seeing what happens
  • having church in other places—homes, pubs, coffee shops, parks and letting real life surround and inform our worship, study, and conversation
  • ask a teenager what they’re watching, reading, and texting about

What is your cultural commute like when you go to church? How are you, as a church leader, reversing the commute in your congregation?

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