by Raj Attiken, July 22, 2015: Management consultant Peter Drucker famously said that culture eats strategy for breakfast. He was, of course, talking about organizational dynamics. Culture ate theology, policy, and procedure in the Seventh-day Adventist Church for breakfast and lunch at the church’s 60th General Conference Session in San Antonio. Which leads us to ask: Given the global nature of the church, are we destined to live with the reality that our policies and ecclesiastical practices will be held hostage by the cultures that have dominant representation in our decision-making assemblies?
It was evident during the business session discussions that our “global family” thinks and acts provincially. This provinciality was not confined to nations and geographical regions. It was evidenced also in organizations within the church that are enclaves of insularity, and whose “culture” promotes a certain sequestration. In the decision-making process, it is understandable why individuals would insist on putting an imprint only on outcomes that align most closely with the indigenous culture of their place or organization. Hence, regional and sectarian identities asserted themselves on several agenda items in San Antonio. We functioned often as self-enclosed cultural entities that are mutually external to each other.
The identity of individuals, and groups of individuals, is inescapably marked by the particularities of the social and cultural setting in which they grow and develop. Their identity is linked to parental figures, peer groups, teachers, religious authorities and community leaders, and to particular languages, religions, customs, and the construction of gender and racial differences within their communities. As the church has taken root in diverse cultures it has also been profoundly shaped by the particularities of these different cultures.
Being a “global family” requires that we cultivate a “global mind” and know something about the reality in which our brothers and sisters live. To speak of global Adventism – Adventism extended in space and time – means simply that Adventism cannot be understood exclusively from one cultural perspective. The church must take seriously differences in cultures, ethnicity, gender roles, and social location, and equip its members to understand these differences, if it is going to be an authentic representative of the kingdom of God on earth. At a minimum, we must ensure that those who are selected to serve on decision-making assemblies of the church understand the cultural nuances that animate the life of the global Adventist family. In a global decision-making body such as a General Conference session, we are called to do not just what fits our culture to the exclusion of others, but what allows the church in all cultures to flourish.
I am not making a case here for a Western or American narrative to be accepted by all. No language or culture has a monopoly on God, the gospel, or theology. I am asserting here that all parts of the global Adventist community have narratives that those in other parts must seek to understand and respect. They also have contributions to make to the rest of the Body of Christ. No church in any culture may consider itself sufficient to itself and to its own culture.
Christianity has seen those eras when the Church saw little need to take other cultures seriously or to understand them on their own terms. Theology was viewed as a systematic set of universal truths that applied to all cultures and thus simply needed to be translated into local languages. Just as truth is universal, so too was there one theology for everyone in all cultures. The new era that the world has entered into, with its changing demographics of Christianity, has nudged us to recognize that Biblical interpretation involves text and contexts. Contexts, with their particularities of time, place, culture, and social location, give theologies their specific texture.
While we celebrate the wonderful diversity that characterizes who we are as a church, we must also be keenly aware of the tensions that exist when divergent cultures come together to address common interests and concerns. These cultural tensions will not simply go away, nor can they be fixed by merely voting policies or mandating practices. A system of decision-making about what is right or wrong, good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate that is weighted towards cultures that have the largest number of votes is a deeply flawed system.
Since Seventh-day Adventism relishes its identity as a fast-growing worldwide church and global “family,” we must nurture greater understanding of, and appreciation for, those who make up this family and how they influence and shape our identity. Yale theologian Miroslav Volf proposes that each church in any given culture must say, “‘I am not only I; all other churches, rooted in diverse cultures, belong to me too.’ Each needs all to be properly itself.”[i]
We must also design systems of decision-making that recognize and respect the distinctives and nuances in belief and practice of the church in the many cultures that make up global Adventism. In order to achieve this we must find ways to enhance the cultural competency of our leaders and members alike. That’s what it will take for us to truly be a robust, functional global community. That’s my take!
(I invite you to post your ideas on how cultural competency can be cultivated within the SDA community.)
[i] Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), p. 51.