Cultural Signs

My husband and I started ministry in two very small churches. One was in a town of 300 people. The other was an open country church. Even though we both grew up in Peoria, which may seem rural to people who live in Chicago, it is not. Neither of us had ever lived on a farm. We were not used to having to burn our garbage in a big barrel in the backyard. We had not used well water in our homes (wow, is that cold when it comes out of the faucet!) We were in a culture that was alien to us.

So, for instance, one day after worship, someone invited us to have dinner at their house the next Sunday. I asked them what time we should be there. They just looked at me like I was crazy, and then said, “Right after church.” I was still learning that dinner happens in the middle of the day, supper is the meal you eat in the evening, usually after dark; and lunch is a light snack meal whenever it is consumed. For instance, we were in a card club and about nine o’clock at night someone would say, “Well, I’ll get the lunch out on the table now.” We adjusted.

When I was a Presbytery Executive a few years later in that same presbytery, I had to help pastors new to the area learn their culture as well. If they had come from a coast, I had to tell them that they now lived in a place where a sweet, jiggly dessert is called a salad and sometimes has grated carrots and green olives in it. I had to remind them that if they were not five minutes early they were late, and if they ran 10 minutes late people would think they had been in an accident. And for rural pastors, I had to teach them about the one finger wave when you are driving your car.

Now, you may be familiar with a one finger wave as you drive around Chicago. This is not the same kind of one finger wave that you find in a rural area. Instead, the rural wave goes like this. You drive with one hand on the top part of your steering wheel to be ready to wave every few miles when another vehicle approaches you. From some distance you will be aware if you know the driver coming toward you because you know what everyone in that township drives. If they are unknown to you, as you get close to them you raise one index finger in a silent salute and nod your head slightly. You only make eye contact with the person if you actually know them. And, if you have something you need to share with them verbally, you might even pause there in the middle of the road next to their vehicle and have the conversation. I had a pastor whose call was ended partly because he refused to acknowledge other drivers. It was considered to be the height of arrogance and a sign that he could not adjust to the culture in which he now found himself.

Are you a pastor or chaplain or professor or counselor who is serving in a context that is somehow different from your culture? To what have you had to adjust? Are you a leader in a congregation that finds itself in a neighborhood that now has people who are not of the same culture as your church members? How have you adjusted your signage or your worship times or the language in which you conduct worship or any other of the dozens of ways you might make people feel welcome?

Small cultural signs can make us seem a part of the communities to which we are called or so alien that people will imagine that we cannot possibly have anything to share with them. We are not called to share the gospel only according to the way it was shared with us. We are called to look around as Paul did, notice something in the culture around us which we can use to begin the story of the gospel, and to build on it in order to bring hope in the name of Jesus Christ.

The Rev. Susan (Sue) Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Chicago Presbytery