This is probably the one of these points that doesn’t need as much explanation as others. In order to be successful, the church system needs to match the culture of the community around it. Now, it could be argued that the system needs to match the culture of the church. However, for a church to be successful, the culture of the church needs to match the culture of the community, so we can skip the whole culture matches the church matches the community thing and just go straight to culture matches the community.
Culture is such a broad topic that it is frequently misunderstood the be the physical features of a society. Some may read that I advocate for matching a church culturally and think that I’m talking about being flashy and entertaining. That isn’t it at all. I’m thinking more about the intangibles of the community. What are the demographics and psychographics of the community, and how can we structure ourselves to best match them. How does the community relax? What do they value? What are the heritage traditions that hold the community together? What is the education level? Knowing this information will be key to being culturally relevant.
Here’s an extreme example: I remember watching the video The Peace Child about an amazing story about missionaries that worked diligently to reach a tribal people. The video ends with some clips from the current situation in the tribe. I was shocked to see that ‘evangelism’ involved building a church building, complete with pews and a pulpit in a community that had no structures other than some thatch roofs and no furniture. It also involved getting tribe members who wore simple loincloths to put on nice button down shirts and slacks to go to the worship service. It is completely possible to teach people about Christ without having to change their culture to do so.
Granted, most of us don’t have to worry about tribal evangelism, but the differences in culture between the inside and the outside of church can be significant. Does your church culture value outsiders? Most would say it does, but can a person that has never been in your building before know where to go? Do they know the schedule? Do they know why we stand up for some songs and sit down for others? Can they find the bathrooms? If not, you can assume that you haven’t created a culture that welcomes others. Instead, you’ve created a culture that says only insiders can know what is going on (high context culture).
The issue of worship music and sermon type comes into this as well. You need to pay careful attention to the education level of the community around you as well as the use of speech and language. If the community has a low education level and a low discourse level, you shouldn’t use the King James Version of the Bible, sing “Night With Ebon Pinion” or “Here I Raise My Ebenezer”, or focus on sermons that lecture or use Greek to communicate. You’ll do nothing but alienate the people you are trying to reach. However, if your community is known for Shakespearean theater, music majors, and classical studies doctors, you may find that using the above mentioned items to be intellectually stimulating for people.
Being culturally appropriate will go a long way to removing barriers to participation. If coming to church requires people to learn a new culture, they’re more likely to stay in their comfort zone rather than suffer the necessary culture shock to belong.