The Africa Cup of Nations and church culture

As I was scrolling through the news yesterday, I came across this story on the Guardian website (it’s not that I consider the journalism superior, it’s that I’m from Oldham and I’m left-wing, so I don’t like paying for things!) Anyway, I was drawn in by the fact that it was Jurgen Klopp speaking about Tony Yeboah and his impact on Germany more widely. It’s hard not to want to read that.

I was fascinated by this opening gambit from Jurgen Klopp:

I love the fact that we have so many African players … until the Africa Cup of Nations starts. Then it’s: ‘Oh my […]!’” says Jürgen Klopp, breaking into his famous guffaw

You might read that and shrug your shoulders. You might read it and have a little think about various African football players who have lit up the Premier League and remember Jay Jay Okocha, Didier Drogba or Yaya Toure (or whoever else you prefer) with a bit of fondness. But my thoughts turned to something altogether different. I couldn’t help but think it is a little encapsulation of how we often operate in the church.

Many churches want to laud the fact that they are multicultural. They love the fact that they have so many African members, or Middle Eastern, or South American, or Eastern European, or whoever. Those folks will inevitably end up on the pictures on the website and in any promotional literature they produce. We love the appearance of multiculturalism.

But, much like Klopp and the Africa Cup of Nations, other thoughts come flooding in when folks from different cultures actually expect to be able to express their culture. We love having them there, so long as they don’t start going off message and doing their own thing. We’re happy to have a few black and Asian faces on the website, maybe even up the front, so long as they don’t go getting any ideas and keep everything nice and comfortable for the white middle class folks.

The issue isn’t limited to non-British cultures either. The same is often true of working class folks entering majority middle class churches. We’re usually glad to have them there, we might make sure the dude in the joggers and baseball cap gets on a few pictures too, but if he starts getting ideas and doesn’t fully assimilate to the middle class culture, then we’re going to have a battle on our hands to drag him into line. Anyone is welcome to come, we say. All cultures are included. But then we act as though there is, really, only one culture that should actually be seen or expressed.

I have long been convinced that it is far easier to be multicoloured and multiclass than it is to actually be multicultural. Most of us are quite happy to have people of different ethnicities in the room and we’ve no problem with people from other social classes coming into the church. And if they stick around, we’re glad enough for that to happen. But the rubber hits the road when those same folks begin to wonder why Biblical culture so frequently ends up looking almost identical to the majority culture.

And, of course, we should all be aiming to create a Biblical culture. All cultures ought to be brought under the spotlight of scripture. The problem is that we don’t interpret the Bible in a bubble and our cultural assumptions and values will inevitably play a part in how we understand it. The misstep comes when we assume our cultural understanding of what the Bible demands is the same as the Biblical imperative itself. We are so quick to say, ‘this is what the Bible says’ when we perhaps should be more honest in saying ‘this is a legitimate outworking in our context and culture of what the Bible says’. But that would open the door up to other legitimate outworkings of those same imperatives, and that might lead to us having to do things quite differently, and we wouldn’t want that.

As it happens, I hold to something that closely approximates the Regulative Principle. Which means I think we should all be aiming for the same basic elements of our worship. But I also share John Frame’s view that the same principle that governs our corporate worship is the same one that governs the rest of our daily lives as acts of worship too. After all, if we are to glorify God even down to the minutiae of our eating and drinking (cf. 1 Cor 10:31) we can only know we are glorifying God in those things according to the rule of scripture. So, in certain respects, I expect us to look the same as we seek to fulfil the specific elements of worship Jesus asks of us. The duties Jesus lays on me – whether corporately in the church or individually at home – are the same for every New Covenant believer, wherever in the world they happen to be from and whatever their particular culture.

But, at the same time, I would expect the form of those elements to look quite different. I don’t expect to see villages churches with 100% white British populations translating their services into Pahari nor do I expect them sing songs in Farsi. We might do that, but it would be strange for them to do it. The imperatives to preach the Word, pray, sing, administer the ordinances and fellowship together will all be there. But the form those things take will be legitimately and wisely different to us, yet no less to the glory of God.

But (and you knew it was coming), just as sticking more tightly to the eldership criteria than we often do should cause us to broaden, not limit, our understanding of who is qualified to be an elder, so sticking more closely to what is actually an element or requirement of our worship should free us up to broaden, rather than limit, our cultural inclusion. It is when we bind eldership criteria and elements for worship specifically to any given culture – in our case, usually middle class white British culture – we are necessarily limiting our ability to be culturally inclusive and welcoming. And we do so in a way that Jesus doesn’t demand.