Monday, November 05, 2012

Country Music and a Broad View of the World: Having a Healthy, God-honoring View of Culture.

I'm from the south, where the tea is sweet, the people are hospitable, the kudzu spreads like a wildfire in California, and where pickup trucks are considered essential for survival.  Even after living in the northeast for nearly a decade, my accent still quickly reveals my geographic roots.

One other important hallmark of my culture of origin is our love for country music--something that most people in the churches I serve are willing to tolerate in their Director of Missions.  Working with 9 different ethno-linguistic people groups who are in turn trying to reach the 51 additional people groups in our area will force you to appreciate cultural diversity, and I do.  But at heart, I'm still a redneck from South Carolina who often finds himself missing his home, but simultaneously loving the people God has surrounded me with here in Maryland.  And thankfully, a recent single in the country music world has hit airwaves and ipods everywhere that expresses this sentiment well, and also reflects a healthy understanding of our cultural roots juxtaposed against the cultural diversity that exists in this world our God has created.

The song of which I speak is "Southern Comfort Zone," written and performed by Brad Paisley.  Though I'm a big fan of his, this is the first time I've mentioned him on the blog.  For one thing, after 16 straight #1 hits and several handfuls of awards, Brad hardly needs a guy like me to promote his art.  But this particular song is spot-on in its description of how a broader view of the world is developed without abandoning or rejecting outright one's culture of origin.  And for anyone who is called to missions, this balance is critically essential.

Another colleague who oversees church planting in the northeast region and I were talking about three weeks ago, and anecdotally comparing profiles of the best--and worst--church planters we have worked with over the years.  And when we compared these guys solely against the broadness of their worldview, we came up with the following generalized taxonomy:

Best Church Planter:  Someone who is from the area where he wants to start a church, but has lived at least a part of his life in another part of the world.
Good Church Planter:  Someone who is from an area outside of where he intends to start a church, but has lived in at least one other part of the world besides his culture of origin.
Fair Church Planter:  Someone from an area outside of where he intends to start a church who has never lived anywhere else.
Worst Church Planter:  Someone from the area where he wants to start a church who has never lived outside that area.

Now, it should be stressed again that this taxonomy ONLY takes into account the issue of cultural exposure, and there are many more factors that combine with this to determine the propensity for success or failure.  I should also state that I've seen guys who belong in the "worst" category above who have done a fabulous job of reaching people with the Gospel and congregating them into churches in their own context.  But generally speaking, this is what we have observed.

And notice the difference between categories three and four.  Generally speaking, in my area I'd  have someone from the south who has never lived outside the south plant a church in Maryland before I'd have someone from Maryland who has only lived in Maryland.  And the reason for this is simple. The first guy will be forced by his new surroundings to become more culturally aware, while the second guy will more easily remain in his "comfort zone" and as a result, never effectively penetrate areas of lostness, even if those areas are located in surroundings that are very familiar to him.

In other words, exposure to areas and people outside one's culture of origin broadens your view of the world, and the broader the view, the more potent one's cross-cultural skills can become, and the more healthy, balanced, and God-honoring one's view of culture is likely to be.  Conversely, an unbalanced view of culture can easily lead to one of two extremes.  

On the one hand, there is the tendency towards cultural syncretism; a view of culture that assumes no ultimate standard by which all people and cultures should be judged and thus, which thoughtlessly accomodates even the unhealthy values and mores of a culture.  On the other hand, many evangelical Christians are more prone to cultural isolationism.  To a large extent, this is because of a confusion between "culture" and what the Bible describes as "worldliness."  "Worldliness" is simply a description for attitudes and actions that are opposed to the values of the Kingdom of God.  Greed, selfishness, sexual immorality, and other things which betray a disregard for God and His laws are, by Scriptural definition, "worldly."  But not everything that is cultural is worldly by that standard and, in fact, most things aren't!  As my friend Ed Stetzer has often stated, indiscriminately screaming at culture is like screaming at someone's house.  Its just where they live.

A balanced and God-honoring view of culture, by contrast, understands that cultures, like the people who create and maintain them, contain values, mores, assumptions, and practices that reflect the image and likeness of God, and also contain things that reflect the fall.

I have little doubt, for example, that the strong Protestant work-ethic, stress on keeping one's word, chivalrous views of how women should be respected, hospitality, and sense of community promoted by my culture of origin all reflect the image of God.  I'm equally convinced that our racist history, stubbornness, and tendency to feel culturally superior(among other things)  are a reflection of the fact that rednecks are fallen in sin too!  That awareness will bring an appropriate balance when seeking to bring the Gospel to bear on that culture.  

It will also keep us from a sense of cultural superiority.  I love my culture of origin, but it is no better than any other human culture on the planet.  On a micro-level, this means that while I personally appreciate biscuits and gravy more than kim-chee, I have no cause to feel superior to my Korean brothers and sisters in Christ.  On a macro-level, it means I will bristle at a phrase like "American Exceptionalism" when I know its being used to forward the idea of this nation as inherently superior to all other sovereign nation-states on the planet.  As a Christian, I believe in an eternal Kingdom that will one day supplant all earthly ones, including the United States of America.  So I don't have time for games of cultural and national one-upmanship.  The King is coming, and He expects me to have higher aspirations than this.

But that same King has also, through the Gospel, declared an ultimate standard by which all peoples and cultures will be judged.  Therefore, sin must be confronted wherever it is found, and in whatever culture it is found.  Striking this balance is not easy, but it is the essential work of those who presume to be active in God's mission of bringing the whole world back to Himself.

All of this brings me back to Paisley's newest single.  What I appreciate about the song is the way in which it aspires to the very kind of balance I've described above.  It is not only possible to be connected to your roots while simultaneously seeing the beauty of the whole world, it is healthy.  And when all of these observations are viewed through the lens of the Gospel, that balance leads to genuine worship.  I've personally had the privilege of engaging in missionary work on five continents, and our Association is involved in missions on every inhabited continent on the globe.  Through this exposure to the myriad of cultures that exist, I've seen the beauty of God's own image shine like a multi-faceted diamond.  Conversely, I've witnessed and experienced the ugliness of sin in a way that brings physical nausea, and I've become more convinced than ever of the truth of the  Christian Gospel.  Outside the Bible itself, nothing will give you a passion for God and His mission any more than being exposed to the world He created and is in the process of bringing back to Himself.

I love the culture of my roots.  Like everyone else, much of who I am is the direct result of my culture of origin, and those life experiences make that part of the world, and the people who live there very precious to me.  But many years ago God moved my family and me outside that "southern comfort zone" to experience people and places that have broadened our view of what He is doing in that world.  Revelation 7 declares that in the end, every nation, tribe and tongue will worship Jesus.

He loves them all, and so should we!  So take a moment and enjoy a taste of music from my culture of origin!  And in the process, internalize the lyrics you hear in a way that allows you a broader view of the world Jesus died to save.

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