121 Cultures in One Room: Avoiding Cultural Group-Think

It is all-too-easy for us to osmosis-like take on the group norms of our culture. Patterns of thinking, informal norms of acceptable and unacceptable levels of emotion and conflict, unwritten shared assumptions about ethics — all of these exist within a culture (and sub-cultures) and it is easy for us to assume that “everyone” thinks like this or should think like this.  But this can easily become cultural group-think which inhibits creativity and fails to engage the richness of alternative approaches that may be found in other cultures.

Kakule, Gato, SamLast week I was at the Annual Gathering of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA), which is, for me, an annual exercise that avoids cultural group-think.  (The picture is of me with two of CBM’s Partners who were present:  Kakule Molo, who leads a denomination in eastern Congo, and Gato Munyamasoko, who leads a denomination in Rwanda.)  The BWA is composed of Baptist denominations from 121 countries.  Imagine putting leaders from those countries into one room and getting them to talk about various issues from a faith perspective.  Needless to say, any assumptions one has that flow out of your own culture are quickly confronted, as Christ-followers from different contexts come at the issue in  different ways, provoking and challenging and influencing and inspiring one another.

For example, in last year’s Annual Gathering I participated in a set of sessions that explored Christian-Muslim relations.  I’m pretty sure that everyone in the room agreed on a basic premise that the adherents of the different religions in the world need to live alongside one another in peace.  But one’s perspective on the realism of that ideal and how we might get there varies greatly depending on one’s situation:  a Nigerian leader who has had churches attached and burned by a fundamentalist Islamic group will engage this issue differently than a British leader who is seeking to welcome new Muslim immigrants and help them become a part of the cultural mosaic.  Our perspectives are shaped by our felt reality.

Another example:  in North American theology there is a growing re-engagement with the idea that God’s Kingdom is not just a future reality but is meant to transform life today.  But this kind of message can be “heard” very differently in a setting such as India where there is much poverty and where such a message could easily be interpreted as a “health and wealth” gospel.

A multi-cultural set of perspectives means that the discussions the BWA has are richer.  Also, frankly, slower.  And more complex.  But necessary.  And as a result, leaders are a bit wiser and deeper and nuanced than they would be otherwise.  I am thankful that there is a global context where Baptist leaders can gather to avoid cultural group-think and come to a deeper and richer understanding of their faith.

Postscript:  in 2015 there is the every-five-year BWA Congress, a gathering that is welcome to anyone who wants to come.  Several thousand people are expected to gather in South Africa.  Click here for a brief video introduction to the event.