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Is your church ready to embrace interculturalism?

Workshop offers evaluation tools for bringing about change

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo courtesy of Worship Sincerely Media via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Using a question-and-answer format, a longtime Presbyterian pastor and an inquirer in Sacramento Presbytery offered a workshop Saturday during the 2020 Intercultural Transformation Workshops.

The Rev. Dr. Aart van Beek, a former missionary who led an intercultural congregation in Sacramento for 23 years, and Rino Tiwa, an Indonesian born to missionary parents in the Philippines, led the online workshop as part of the online conference, which continues Saturday.

During their “Gauging Your Congregation’s Readiness for Intercultural Transformation” workshop, van Beek and Tiwa addressed three tasks congregations must undertake if they’re serious about becoming more intercultural: looking at the congregation’s culture, looking at how that culture operates within the congregation, and evaluating the congregation’s culture of communication. During the recorded portion of their presentation, Tiwa asked the questions and van Beek provided the answers. The two also answered questions during Saturday’s workshop.

Sometimes, van Beek answered Tiwa’s questions with questions: “Who holds the power? Are we ready to move that around for other people? If this is going to mean we move around the furniture in a metaphoric way, do we have the wherewithal to do that? Are people on board with that?”

“Take a donated communion table,” he said. Maybe some members of the congregation want to replace it to allow more people to gather around Christ’s table. “That can become a huge problem because that communion table has symbolic power in the congregation,” he said. He suggested making a list of everything in the church that has symbolic power — even the color of the carpet  — and then deciding “would you be able to adjust it, or are you saying no, this would upset too many people.”

What has the deepest meaning to most worshipers in the church? For many Presbyterians, it’s the spoken word, hymn-singing, the youth group or outreach efforts, he said, but for some it’s cherished fundraisers or certain social events “If you’re honest, if you change them, you will have a big shift in meaning,” van Beek said.

Should the church be a “social unit,” he asked, or perhaps an outreach unit, or all about doctrine or liturgy or music? “Those competing worldviews need to be looked at so you can determine how flexible they are,” he said. Other competing worldviews are the way the church spends money, the importance of the building, congregational outreach, “and how you view the world around you.”

He lined out four obstacles to be gauged regarding a church’s culture of communication:

  • Anxiety, including the time before and after a pastor leaves or the unfortunate circumstance of “someone causing problems … If you’re becoming an intercultural church, people will feel anxious about it” because “they will have to talk to strangers and adjust to different foods and different ways of doing things,” van Beek said.
  • Triangulation, in which people won’t speak to one another directly and instead use third-party methods for communicating. He recommends “keeping your ear low to the ground to find out which people aren’t talking to one another or to the pastor.”
  • Differentiation, what’s needed when people become too dependent on one another. “If you have small groups resisting change, that can cause bigger problems,” van Beek said. “We want everyone to differentiate, to distance themselves and be able to talk to everybody.” In a church striving to be intercultural, “everyone tries to develop a relationship with everybody. No cliques.”
  • Boundaries. “We don’t like to tell people not to do things because we don’t want to chase people off,” he said. “But churches need clear boundaries of what’s OK and what’s not OK.”

Tiwa said he’s part of a nesting congregation in which his congregation worships in the building of another. “After the service, dining is a very big thing,” he said. “The dynamic of cultural differences is something we have to realize and work with. When we meet with the wider church where we are nesting, that’s what’s needed for us to engage.”

Workshop participants said that while their own congregation may not be quite ready to become an intercultural church, they appreciated what they learned on Saturday.

“It doesn’t come through events or practices,” one participant said, “but through relationships. You are giving people the opportunity to love one another and say, ‘This is truly who we are.’ We may like our practices, but the relationships are at the heart of the long-term practices.”

“It takes time,” said another. “You hear a new song [from another culture] for a while and it becomes part of your experience. Music that seems strange at first becomes familiar.”

“We need to be focused about who lives around [the church],” a third person said. “There’s diversity in the larger community.”

The 2020 Intercultural Transformation Workshops continue Saturday. Find more information here. The presbyteries of Sacramento and Stockton and Charlotte, the Presbyterian Intercultural Network and the Presbyterian Mission Agency are the sponsors.

The workshops and accompanying study guides are available here.

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