Imagine, if you will, the Ultimate Dumb American. You know, the big, loud guy in a Hawaiian shirt and plaid shorts, with black socks and sandals. Now imagine the UDA in a foreign, non-western country such as Japan, where he does not know the language or the culture, and he doesn’t care to learn them either. He travels to Japan and the trouble begins as soon as he’s off the plane (or before, if it’s a Japanese airline). He expects everyone to speak English, to have burgers and fries or pizza at every restaurant, and to have gigantic, American-size everything: hotel rooms, Big Gulps, etc.
Now imagine that the Japanese oblige the UDA. They learn English, they take on Western/American “customs,” they give him everything he wants in the way he wants it and on his schedule. If you can imagine this (admittedly crazy) scenario, you can imagine the state of (formerly) liturgical congregations in the United States.
The culture of the Church is a culture unto itself. Of course, like every culture, it is not static or unchanged by outside influences. But it does not take unreflectingly (or shouldn’t–why do I have to qualify every assertion in light of the American situation?) from the surrounding cultures, nor does it automatically morph into a clone of the surrounding culture. The culture of the Church is not a gecko.
The culture of the Church has its own language, customs, appropriate behaviors, expectations, and base of knowledge–all of which can be difficult to understand for someone unfamiliar with the culture. Some of these who are unfamiliar with the culture will politely observe, attempting to gain a handle on the often foreign culture into which they have entered. But many, many others–and often those who should be familiar with the culture of the Church are the worst offenders–are the equivalent of the stereotypical dumb American: they are Dumb Liturgical Americans (DLAs). These DLAs come into the foreign culture of the Church (and let’s admit that the culture of the Church is nearly as foreign to most people as Japan would be to me) and they expect it to mirror the culture to which they are already accustomed. They want everything as it would be “back home.” They want the Church to cater to them as individuals. They want the Church to speak their idiom and common language, rather than them learning the language of the Church. They want the Church to put up with their customs (shorts and Hawaiian shirts in the presence of the Almighty?). They want to be served the Food of the Church when and how they want, or they’ll get upset. If you are a professor of the culture of the Church and you do not serve DLAs at the Lord’s Table, even if they have no idea what it’s for or why they come, you will experience their loud wrath and snide comments.
Where is the politeness in a foreign culture and an unwillingness to assume that one’s own ways are better than the long- and battle-tested ways of the culture one enters? The arrogance of DLAs is everywhere, and it infects not only visitors and members; often it is exhibited by the very ones entrusted with the care and propagation of the culture. Ignorant pastors are worse than ignorant visitors. Where is the humility that takes for granted that an individual cannot just go anywhere he wants and demand to be accommodated in the exact manner to which he is accustomed? How juvenile to demand to be given the holy Food, no matter what the individual believes, as if it were hot dogs and apple pie!
The fact that the Church has a culture at all is unknown to our modern DLAs, and the concept is as foreign as learning Japanese to the UDA. So congregations adopt cultural idioms foreign to their essence and theology and expect their essence and theology to remain unchanged. But that is impossible. Would Japan be Japan if they spoke perfect English and served American food and did everything the way that Americans do things?
The solution to this clash of cultures is not to change the language and culture of the Church to make foreigners feel comfortable. That would be as absurd as the Japanese accommodating the UDA. Rather, it is necessary for those foreign to the culture of the Church to learn humbly and patiently those things that make the Church what it is. And it is up to those versed in the culture not to assume that everyone will know what is going on and to arrogantly refuse to help the uninitiated. Rather, those who are at home in the culture should humbly and patiently bring the foreigners in, to answer their questions, and to help them when they need it.
This process of cultural immersion will be sometimes uncomfortable and even shocking. It will take time and it will be challenging to those who are culturally illiterate–just as challenging as getting off a plane by yourself in a foreign country, not knowing anyone else and not knowing the language. But such a thought is perhaps beyond most people who are at home in a culture of instant gratification. Our ADD society may be unwilling to do what it takes to be assimilated into a new culture. That is why you see churches adopting every custom and idiom of surrounding cultures, however base they may be. That is why you see churches looking like K-Marts, like restaurants, like shopping malls. They have taken the worst consumerism of the American cultural milieu and made it their own. But they should not expect that the foundational culture of the Church, which is meant to support and uphold the essence and theology of the Church, to be unaffected and unchanged.
Churches are allowed to do whatever they want. But let them do it fully aware that they are changing the essence of the distinctly Christian culture. Let there be no tolerance for DLAs.