When moving to a new culture it is normal to experience culture shock. This can be very surfacey things like the weather, or how people talk, but often the real shock is from discovering over time that people think in subtly but significantly different ways to you, and that their whole thought processes start from different assumptions.
One thing that I am just processing at the moment is how Christians see themselves in relation to the rest of the world. My observation has been that often American Christians seem to start from the belief that America is a Christian country. For sure, state and church are separate and are never seen to mix. But I often hear how the country was built on Christian principles and is heading away from them.
This then affects how people perceive their role in the world. If you start from the belief that the country is, or was, or should be, Christian, then as you read the Bible you see parallels between your country and the people of Israel, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. You see your fellow countrymen as people who were once part of God’s people, but have moved away from his commands, rejecting him. Your role as his faithful people is then to call them back to God’s way in much the same way as the Old Testament prophets did before the exile, or Jesus did with the Pharisees and other Jews.
My experience is that Christians in the UK are much less likely to see the UK as a Christian country. Yes, there is some link of church and state, but this is seen as largely symbolic and quaint, rather than being functionally significant.
The UK church then sees itself as very different from the rest of the country, and yet called to live within that culture. It is likely to see its role as similar to Israel during the exile, or Paul speaking to non-Jewish people who followed other religions and had never been exposed to the God of the Jews. This in turn affects the way the church relates to society.
In practice, I think these underlying beliefs can be seen in very practical ways.
An American pastor is more likely to call on his church to make a stand against the increasing secularisation of the country, speaking out against the rejection of God and his principles (much as the pre-exile prophets did, and as Jesus criticised the Pharisees). On the other hand a British pastor is more likely to call on his church to be a blessing in society, to live out the values of God’s Kingdom, to live distinctive lives in a foreign land and not to be overly judgmental of the world (much as Jeremiah advised the exiles in Babylon, as Jesus showed with the outcasts in his society, and as Paul generally did as he reached out to non-Jews who had never been part of God’s people).
American Christians are more likely to see the world as an evil and corrupting influence that has turned against God, and so to be careful in their interaction with it. British Christians are more likely to see it as a society that has never known God, and so needs Christians to live out the values of God’s Kingdom in society, and accept the fact that they will be misunderstood.
American Christians are likely to feel like they’re fighting against the tide of the current culture. British Christians are more likely to see the current cultural trends less as a barrier to the gospel and more as simply the environment in which the church is called to witness. The cultural trends are not to be fought, but to be subversively challenged by counter-cultural living.
American Christians are more likely to see themselves as conservative, holding on to the traditional beliefs when the rest of the country has moved away from them. This may be evident in many areas of life, from politics to philosophies on parenting, attitudes towards biblical interpretation and even English Bible translations. British Christians are less likely to be conservative, seeing themselves as a powerless (in a worldly sense) community of witnesses rather than the powerful guardians of the truth (philosophical and political as well as biblical) that the rest of the country is rejecting.
American Christians are more likely to make a distinction between mission (which is done in non-Christian countries) and a call to repentance (which is the appropriate way to relate to fellow-Americans). British Christians are more likely to see every interaction outside of the church, whether in the UK or overseas, as part of the same mission.
British Christians are more likely to start engaging with people from where they’re at and the questions they have (similarly to the wisdom literature of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job, or Paul’s message to the non-Jews in Acts 17). American Christians are more likely to start from the message of salvation in the Bible, starting with the answers provided by a biblical worldview (as the Old Testament prophets did, and as Jesus and Paul generally did when addressing Jews – for example Paul’s speech in Acts 13).
I’m learning that the way we see ourselves in relation to the culture around us has a huge effect on how we interpret the Bible, and how we apply it to our situation. Are we like the Old Testament prophets? Are we relating to people like the Jews in the Bible who think they are following God’s way but are straying? Or are we like Daniel in Babylon, or the Jews in exile? Are we like Jesus reaching out to the tax-collectors and prostitutes, or like Paul preaching to the Greek philosophers? We may not often think about these things explicitly, but they have a huge effect on which parts of the Bible we tend to read, how we interpret them, and how we apply them to our situation.
A couple of final points. Firstly, I am making huge generalisations, but I think that is the nature of trying to describe and compare cultures. There are certainly many exceptions to what I have described, in both countries, but these are my very general (comparative and relative) observations.
Secondly, as with all cultural analysis, I am aiming to be descriptive rather than assigning value or saying that one approach is better than the other. If it seems at times like I am painting a more negative view of American Christian culture than British it is probably because I’m at an early stage of culture shock! Generally the first stage after realising a difference is to feel that your own culture does things better, before eventually coming to the understanding that both have their good and bad points.
What do you think? Are these generalisations helpful? Do they help to explain some of the differences between the UK and the US church?