Last modified: Mar 13, 2017

I believe ethnocentricity in any church — whether it’s an Indian one or a Hungarian one or an Antarctic one — is bad. I don’t believe that appreciating one’s culture is bad. Rather, I believe that placing culture as an idol is. And whether we like to admit it or not, a lot of the ethnic-specific churches and ministries around us idolize culture. This is a problem.


The Loser

It was an early Saturday morning race and the water was being whipped around by the powerful strokes of determined swimmers. As the crowd looked on, there was a thick silence in the air. A lingering one. Like something inevitable was unfolding.

To call them swimmers and not machines on this day seemed almost unfair. In each of the eight lanes was a masterclass athlete who would, for what seemed like separate eternities, get lost in the currents produced by his glides—only to come up for a split-second to catch a breath.

A split second here. A split second there.

Never breaking stride. Never slowing down. It was all so fast. All so mechanical.

These swimmers were the best of them all. Olympians, in fact. Seven men were aiming to be crowned the champion.

The eighth? He was a phenom aiming to be a legend.

But his coach watched in horror as his star American pupil faded quickly at the start of the race. He seemed like he was no match for the older, bigger Serbian in the next lane, who was a whole second ahead of him and cruising toward his first Olympic gold.

And then came the turn.

As all the swimmers hit the wall at the 50-meter mark—one after the other like domino pieces—the Serbian maintained a strong lead.

But something magnificent happened. As if something had just awoken. As if the fuse had finally been lit under him. The phenom hit the turn and disappeared under the water like the rest of them. But when his strokes resumed at water’s surface again, he was no longer a whole second behind the leader’s pace. He was just a fraction of a second behind him.

His coach got up and clenched his fists, throwing his arms up wide.

Not in celebration. But in sheer surrender to all that was defining this moment.

And then came the drama.

It didn’t matter where you saw the end of the race that day. The final 25 meters were a blur. Cameras flashed and water was splashed around in a desperate final push from all eight masterclass athletes.

The phenom, though, just didn’t look like he had enough in the tank to take a lead. He was putting up a good fight, but the Serbian was just too good tonight.

At the finish, the phenom soared across the final meter or two of water with one last effort, uselessly trying to chip away at that fraction-of-a-second lead his Serbian peer was going to finish with.

And in the chaos of the moment, nobody noticed the phenom’s hand hit the wall right when it did.

There was silence first, but then, the crowd exploded in a deafening din.

The clock on the screen showed his name in the top position. First place, by one one-hundredth of a second.

0.01 seconds.

The phenom roared out of the water like a creature of the sea, took a deep breath or two, and pulled his goggles up from over his eyes. He stared long and hard at the screen above him to make sure, but he knew it when he heard the familiar voice of his coach through the thunderous cheers. Not words. Just cheers.

In celebration. In sheer surrender to all that was defining this moment.

The phenom was now a legend.

The Serbian? The loser by 0.01 seconds.


The Liar

That actually happened.

Anybody remember Michael Phelps’ epic finish in his historic run at the 2008 Summer Olympics? Here’s a refresher:

This isn’t a sports piece. And it definitely isn’t a swimming piece. (No offense to any pool aficionados out there.)

This is a piece about culture and why it has no place in the mechanisms of Christianity. At least not in the way we’ve been pushing it.

I was reminded of the Phelps story when I talked to a mentor of mine recently. It was on a train ride back home from work. I was exhausted and I wasn’t ready for one of those epic life-altering conversations after a long day of work, but if you know James Mathews, you know that epic life-altering conversations are inevitable around him.

He was telling me how he couldn’t see how ‘Indian church’ in America could survive in the long-term with closed-minded vision—or no vision at all. I’d been saying this for years already! But he put it in perspective.

You’re either 100% for the pursuance of every lost soul, or you’re not. If there’s even a 0.01% misapplication of culture thrown in there, you’re not 100% for the pursuance of every lost soul. Culture has no place in the mechanisms of Christianity.

And, then he added—without using these same words—that I’m a liar.

I was pretty surprised to hear that, and so I asked him what he meant.

He explained that I stood on the middle ground too much. He knew that I had strong convictions, but I would hedge my bets by always using softer words than I ought to. He knew that I had bigger things to say, but I would hold back out of fear of offending people.

And I grinned and nodded. Because he was right.

I wrote an article in 2013 that exploded online. It was basically just a bold critique of the failings I saw in the Indian church at the time.

But my world immediately crumbled right after the article went live.

There was hate mail, there were cold shoulders, there were overly-offended. Some of my long-term plans got shattered in the aftermath.

I remember that season well not just because it was a brutal one; it was also a cathartic one.

The leaders at my church saw the article and decided to do something about it, and in the 15 months since, we’ve been able to launch a multi-cultural community church service and branch out into huge community-driven projects.

So amidst all the rubble and the hate thrown my way for being honest, there were changes afoot. There were powerful testimonies of youth groups that were being rejuvenated in their local churches to stand up and ask questions. There were text messages to pick me up again.

Somewhere along the way, it’s true that I got softer about things. Hate sucks. And being hated for being honest is even worse than all of that.

The biggest lie you’ll hear is from friends and church leaders who beg for your honesty; usually, what they’re looking for is for you to agree with the norm.

But James called me out for being an even bigger liar than that.

So, here’s the deal. From now on, I’m willing to be honest, because I know I must be. No matter what.

Bob Dylan said it best:

The times they are a-changin’.

The potential for change far outweighs the potential for people ripping me to shreds.

I’m no longer pulling punches.

The ‘Indian church’ must die.

Ethnocentricity - Times Are Changing

Whether You Like It or Not

Let’s take care of the criticisms first.

When I tell you that the ‘Indian church’ in America will self-destruct in a few years, most critics immediately respond with:

The church is the body of Christ, so it can’t self-destruct or die or wither away!

I agree.

But the moment your local church buys the building, incorporates the name, applies for tax exemption, gets clergy parking placards, and then sets up a para-church organization… which also incorporates the name, applies for tax exemption, and looks for perks… You’ve made this a business venture.

Here’s the thing. I’m all for churches as non-profit entities. Churches should take advantage of any opportunity to grow its numbers and its stature if the end goal is driving people right to the Kingdom.

But don’t give me the ridiculous notion that, no matter what you do as a church entity, the vision is solid, the members are being cared for, and the Kingdom is being promoted. No matter what.

The church will surely last forever. Yours? It may not last past 5 consecutive missed mortgage payments. Try it. See if I’m lying.

So, fundamentally—whether you like it or not—there’s a difference between THE CHURCH and your church. One is definitely the body of Christ; the other is what you’ve structured and positioned to advance the Kingdom. The former can’t fail, but the latter? Absolutely can.

So stop.

The second criticism?

We can’t abandon culture. It’s part of who we are. We can’t just forget about it even though we’re in a new place.

Nobody’s telling you to abandon culture. It’s just got no place in church.

But you’ve got it wrong! Of course culture has a place in church!

It doesn’t. You don’t impute your culture on your workplace. You don’t impute your culture on your schools. What makes you think you can impute your culture onto church?

Whether you like it or not, THE CHURCH is post-culture. I’ll get to that a little later.

But people in India go to Indian churches, right? Are they wrong for doing that?

They don’t call it ‘Indian church’ in India. It’s just church. We call it ‘Indian church’ here in America. There’s something wrong with that.

So, no, they’re not wrong for going to church with people who share the culture where they happen to reside. They’re not imputing culture. They’re just there, going to church, and experiencing/sharing the culture that’s already there.

Us? We’re wrong for imputing culture on church here.

Ok. Fine. The one thing we really fear is that our sons and daughters will run off and marry out of our culture, and then the world will crumble, and our lives will be ruined.

Interracial marriage is still a big deal in 2015? I thought we were over this. But ok.

Let’s say that your church service on Sunday lasts a whole 2 hours. Let’s say the stuff during the week at your church takes a total of 4 hours.

That’s still 34 whole hours less than a normal 40-hour work week. And still plenty of hours short of a school week. What makes you think that guarding your children for 6 hours a week at church will protect them from what’s beyond church?

Wait. What are you protecting them from anyway?

Oh, and that verse about “unequal yokes” has to do with religious stance and not cultural upbringing or race.

So stop.

The ‘Indian church’ must die.

And, honestly, whether you like it or not, yours might.


Culture and the Bible

Let’s talk about what the Bible says about culture.

Paul? The guy who wrote half the New Testament? He constantly wrote that a relationship with Christ—that church, even—was a head thing and not a culture thing.

In Galatians 3:28:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

And in Romans 10:12:

“For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him.”

He even spends Romans 12:2 reiterating that the world’s really got nothing to do with the grand scheme of things:

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Ok, so Paul says this. What about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? He must’ve said something, right?

Quick Bible lesson. Back in Jesus’ day, Samaritans and Jews weren’t on good terms. They could both trace their family tree back several generations to Joseph’s two sons—one got blessings of abundance and the other didn’t—but they were mortal enemies.

So did Jesus perpetuate the culture war? Naw.

First, there was the classic parable where he did the total opposite of demonizing Samaritans. Then, there was the moment at the well where he engaged the wretched Samaritan woman in a conversation that taught her what redemption means and would alter her life forever.

And if that wasn’t enough, Jesus threw a curveball at the Pharisaic construct of what getting to heaven looked like, saying:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”

So, at the core, culture means nothing. I know that’s a tough pill to swallow, but it’s true.

I don’t mean we shouldn’t respect where we come from or what our parents did or what their parents did before them. But in the grand scheme of things, God sent his son to die on the cross so that more than just sandal-wearing, shawl-draped, beard-growing, long-haired Jewish men and their cultural counterparts could see the Kingdom.

The Bible doesn’t tell us to impute culture onto church.

And so, the ‘Indian church’ must die.

Jewelry in the Bible

Ethnocentricity Makes Us Hypocrites

Outside of—oh, you know—Jesus and Paul not commanding you to do so, do you know why it’s ridiculous to push culture onto church?

Because it makes us hypocrites.

First, we’ve become such agenda-pushers that what our culture actually does in churches in India doesn’t match up with the agendas we’re pushing in America.

I grew up in a church where the pastor would pause right before Holy Communion to warn the church that they couldn’t partake in the sacrament if they had jewelry on.

Every single week. Without fail.

Because of culture, really. Biblically, every ‘doctrine’ could be refuted by something better and more profound. But it was for the preservation of culture that this practice stayed alive.

Over the years, there have been friends and family who would come visit the church, hear that refrain, and be gravely offended or mortified or annoyed enough to never want to come back ever again.

The friendly anti-jewelry reminder is ludicrous because there are churches in India—in the same denomination—that allow members to have jewelry.

In India. There are churches. Where the members wear jewelry.

The same church has also always refused to set up a children’s church-esque service on Sundays, because—according to leadership—since they’ve always been doing Sunday service without children’s church-esque services, they didn’t need to change now.

And meanwhile, thousands of miles across the Atlantic? There are churches in India with children’s church-esque services.

In India. There are churches. Where children actually get something out of church.

At some point, this no longer was a preservation-of-culture thing. It became a Pharisee thing.

It is a Pharisee thing.

The second reason why we’re hypocrites is because the moment we set foot on Third World Country soil, we learn their songs, engage in their cultural practices, and evangelize. And yet, we can’t embrace the fact that American soil has its own culture—albeit a mind-bending amalgamation of cultures, really.

So it’s not that we can’t be mission-minded and live harmoniously despite cultural differences. We’d rather just be Pharisaic.

Archaic fundamentals indistinguishable from legalism and dressed up as preservation-of-culture.

This is the ‘Indian church.’

Your youth are marginalized, forgotten, or completely disregarded. And when they abandon your four walls, you throw a fit.

They’re leaving so they can wear jewelry at other churches!

Not really. They’re just appreciated elsewhere.

They’re leaving because they don’t want accountability and they want to just live without knowing about the consequences.

Not really. They’re leaving because your church smells foul and is dying—but THE CHURCH is still alive and well elsewhere.

Here’s the deal.

If you have no place for the young people in your churches and their culture and their ideas and their forward-thinking, your church will fail.

In fact, your church deserves to fail.

What other business entity do you know that can survive on 60-year-olds making all the decisions in the short-term and long-term for that organization? And, again. Don’t give me the whole “Our church is God’s church” bit, because those church facility mortgage payments add a definite wrinkle to that statement.

We already went through this: THE CHURCH is different from the “Indian church.” While your church is a part of the Kingdom-builders here on earth, the real question to ask is:

What are you doing to build the kingdom?

I grew up in and know of too many churches more concerned with keeping an older ultra-conservative generation happy. More concerned with looking the part. More concerned with keeping culture a part of everything.

If you answer the question of what you’re doing to build the kingdom with anything but a resounding “EVERYTHING”, then your church will die.

Because if it’s not EVERYTHING, that 0.01 percent is going somewhere.

I’m betting that the 0.01 percent is going towards culture.

It will kill you.

Ethnocentricity and the Church

Leave

The Book of Joshua starts off with a profound line. Translated simply:

And Moses died.

It’s one of the most incredible moments in the Bible. Moses, the leader of the Israelites who had just churned through an entire generation, had led his people through desert and void just to reach the land that was promised to them.

But it was absolutely necessary that his people reached their next step without him.

He had to die.

Theologically, there’s much to talk about with regards to Moses and why he had to die, but the point here is that there is a passing of the torch that happens. Not just from Moses to Joshua, but from John the Baptist to Jesus… and even from Jesus to the Holy Spirit.

You cannot tell me your church is fine the way it’s been running for 80 years when all God does throughout the Bible is establish order and then set rules for succession when there’s a better conduit for him to work through in light of some changed future context.

The ‘Indian church’ must die.

Is there a solution?

I’ve been saying this for years: no.

When your church has “India” imprinted into the brand name, logo, bylaws, and board member brains, your vision is and will be limited. I don’t care how many singers you have in your choir, how many people are on your sound team, or how often you have VBS in the summertime. You’re probably heading straight for a wall.

The ethnocentric churches that do survive the next few years will be the ones that start listening to young people, start integrating them into the church vision and projects, and start realizing that preservation-of-culture has nothing to do with THE CHURCH that’s called to go into all nations and make people realize who Christ is.

If you’re a young person, and you’re just going to church to please your folks, or because you don’t care enough to say anything about it, it’s time to stop feeding into this reckless cultural strategy.

Call together your leaders and ask them in complete seriousness what their vision is for you, your younger brothers and sisters… and the community. Ask how your skills can be optimized to fit that vision.

And if there’s no vision? Leave.

Go.

Be optimized somewhere. If you’ve got music skills, max it out somewhere. If you’ve got design skills, max it out somewhere. If you love working with older people, there are churches that have a vision for you.

Don’t stay in a crumbling church because you’ve got nothing better to do. The blood of all the people that still haven’t heard about Christ around your church is on your hands. Find a church that actually cares about loving neighbors instead of sticking with one that only cares about making sure their ancestors would be happy with their decisions.

And if you really honestly don’t care to see change in your dying churches AND you don’t want to try to be optimized somewhere, why bother being Christian? Save your Sundays for football and sleep in. Do something else with your time.

Just don’t waste your time lingering in neutral. Neighbors will never hear about salvation and toil in eternal damnation if you don’t care enough to step up and do something about it.

I’m tired of it. You should be, too.

I’m tired of hearing about Malayalam songs being taught to church youth groups in America. Keep culture at home and keep church in church.

I’m tired of young people saying they’re okay with the status quo but complain that they’re not being heard. Step up or shut up.

I’m tired of hearing about youth organizations like PYFA that have no idea what the phrase ‘brand pivot’ means.

The ‘Indian church’ has gotten away with stagnancy for far too long. It’s gotten away with diminishing the call of Christ to care for other people.

And it’s not just about it being ‘Indian’. The same could be said of many ‘Korean churches’ and ‘insert-nationality-here churches’.

But THE CHURCH? The actual CHURCH?

It’s bigger. It’s different. It’s thriving.

It’s better.

The Dying Church

What Does the ‘Indian Church’ Do Now?

Be ready to hear your youth out.

Enough of the pretenders in leadership, worrying about honesty being preached and culture being marginalized.

Honestly, I don’t really even care if your church survives. It’s probably best that THE CHURCH keeps growing, thriving, and reinventing what it means to be a Christian in the 21st century. Your church? If you haven’t thought about anything but culture in the last decade, you probably just deserve to miss a few mortgage payments and be on your way into the proverbial sunset.

Do I want to see your church survive? Not necessarily.

I want to see THE CHURCH transform the city. The country. The world.

I shared the following with my dad the other day.

His parents—just like many of our forefathers in India—knew Christ through a limited understanding of the Word, believing what their gut told them was right. That whole generation had blind faith. And there’s a certain shimmer to that.

My dad’s generation? They knew more about the Word than their parents because of the opportunities afforded to them.

My generation? We know more than the previous generation. Not just because of Google and information at our fingertips, but because we’ve been exposed to the dirty, gritty people that don’t look like us, who didn’t grow up in church, and who have different ideals than us.

When we’re accepting of cultures and people and lifestyles with the intention to love our neighbors and lead them to Christ? It’s the same kind of behavior that drove the Pharisees mad and got Jesus crucified.

My dad’s generation cowers when the word ‘prostitute’ is mentioned. But Jesus? He hung out with them. To change their lives.

Pastor Perry Noble has a great point to make for the people that dress up God and Christianity as something safe and easy-go-lucky: God’s not safe!

It’s best explained in an excerpt from CS Lewis’ classic Chronicles of Narnia:

Aslan a man? Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the woods and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh!” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and make no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about being safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

So yeah, my generation may seem off-the-rocker and crazy, but Jesus was the most radical human being to ever set foot on earth. He wasn’t safe. God wasn’t safe. And the world needs to know that this isn’t some cookie-cutter faith we’re trying to show them.

I’m not even kidding you when I tell you that my generation knows more about the Word—inside and out—than the previous generation. And we’re prepared to do stupid things like Jesus was prepared to just to see the world get shifted on its axis.

Trust us when we say we want to help the ‘Indian church.’ We are visionaries, thinkers, creatives. And we deserve to be listened to.

The next generation will look even more like Christ expected the church to.

And that’s okay! That’s great!

Get ready for that.

We’re gonna change the trajectory of history whether you like it or not.


What Do Young People Do Now?

Share this post.

With everybody.

It doesn’t matter if they’re 16 or 26 or 36. They need to hear this so that the travesty of the ‘Indian church’ finally dies. Just like it’s supposed to. Because THE CHURCH is better.

This isn’t a condemnation of churches in India; they’re doing church, not culture. Here in America? We’re doing culture, not church.

And that way of thinking needs to be dismantled. Either on its own as an older never-bending generation fails to assimilate the young people into the church’s vision… or from the exodus that’s necessary—and even inevitable—to see this change realized.

I’m blessed to be in a church that has optimized my skills and seen the needs of the youth and community, readjusting the vision as necessary. If you’re not in a church like that, you need to be.

If you’re tired of the status quo, let me know.

If you’re tired of terrible biblical-interpretation, let me know.

If you’re ready to be a part of THE CHURCH, just do it already.

If it’s all or nothing, then start giving it everything you’ve got.

Don’t worry about the ‘Indian church’. Don’t listen to the folks that tell you that you need to stay for the little kids or because they’d have no worship leader otherwise. If the church’s goals are even fractions of hundredths off from being fully committed for the lost, don’t stay.

THE CHURCH is post-culture.

The ‘Indian church’ must die.

In fact, it will.

And the world will be better off for what we do instead. ■