Lowering Barriers to Worship: Culture

The poll I recently did on class and faith, as well as what I’ve learned from similar conversations elsewhere (links) pointed out culture (not theology or practices) as the primary barrier for someone with fewer privileges. I expect to write 4-5 blogs on various aspects, and will start with social interactions, then address practices, and end with thoughts about theology/faith/beliefs and how we talk about them.  

In this post I’ll talk about some of the practical steps we can take regarding social interactions to lessen the impact of privilege in our faith communities, and in my next post I’ll talk about assumptions many of us make that contribute to making cultural differences into barriers (differences could be enjoyable or just dispassionately interesting).  

Steps for individuals to consider 

1. During coffee hour, look around the room. If someone is standing alone, go and visit with him or her if you think he or she wants to talk. (Thanks to John Punshon for reminding me that some people actually prefer to be alone.)

2. In conversations with someone you don’t know well, try to seek balance in how much each person listens and each person talks because this can be an important signal about privilege and power. In a relationship between equals, your conversation partner will know as much about you as you about him/her when you walk away from each other. (In my experience, well-meaning liberals ask too many questions and don’t  reciprocate with information about themselves. Talk about your denomination, but be aware that giving unsolicited information can seem condescending.) 

3. Talk about the things that tend to matter to all people, regardless of class, ethnicity, culture, education, skin color, sexual orientation, etc. As I mentioned in an earlier post (link), this is often about family and relationships, but be prepared to move on gracefully if this turns out not be a safe subject! For some people it may not feel safe to talk about it (e.g sexual orientation), and/or it may be painful (e.g infertility, divorce, death, being unmarried), and this topic may actually belong in my next category.

4. Avoid subjects that presume something on the part of the listener, such as education, work, or political leanings, shared culture.  

3. Read the article about inessential weirdnesses (thanks to Jeanne for drawing this to my attention). Let each of us examine whether there are things we can change in the interest of lowering barriers for people who might otherwise want to worship with us. (Example – at the risk of giving you too much information about me: Norwegian women don’t usually shave their legs, but I changed my habits to meet American expectations after moving here.) Though this article is about class, many of the same things seem weird to people from other cultures, too. (I plan to write a blog post on “inessential weirdnesses” in religion soon. For now, look at #6 below.)

5. By all means speak about the things that are important to you, and even voice some disagreement with something you disagree with if you must, but speak respectfully of the view with which you disagree and the people who hold them. For instance, criticize the lack of good health care insurance in the USA if you must, but don’t speak disparagingly about Republicans who favor the current system. The person you’re talking to may be a Republican and think the USA has the best health care system in the world.

6. Do talk about your faith from an experiential perspective, after all, this is a faith community, so we can presume a shared interest in faith. However, stick to YOUR religious experience, and  avoid comparing beliefs or using religious language that has negative connotations. (Liberal Quakers have an unfortunate habit of describing our faith in terms of what we don’t believe.) The person you’re talking with may hold the very beliefs you’re being negative about. Don’t use language that could place you on one or the other side of the American “Culture Wars”. Jim Wallis says “Don’t go left. Don’t go right. Go deep”, and that works well here. (More on this in a future post when I address theological barriers to worship.)

7. Avoid denomination-specific jargon during social hour and announcements. Do not use alphabet combinations (FGC, FWCC, AFSC, FCNL, EFI, FUM to name a few Quaker things) without explaining what they are. Don’t talk about denominational events or places without explaining what they are (e.g “I just got back from Pendle Hill, it was wonderful!” Instead, insert, “a Quaker study and retreat center.”) Denomination-specific language can have a place in committee and decision-making meetings, but even then it might be helpful to explain what we mean in lay person’s terms.) 

Ideas for and/or about committees

8. Don’t conduct committee business during the social hour. That can keep long term members from interacting with newcomers or people who might be feeling left out.

9. I wish it weren’t so, but the reality is that one of the best ways of being included in the life of liberal faith communities is by joining a committee (I’ll pick this theme up again later when I get to muse about theology). Since that is the sorry truth about us, make sure there are committees that are open to newcomers. In my overburdened small faith community, our members are so overstretched that we have laid down every non-essential committee. The unfortunate side effect is that the committees left are the ones on which only members with longish insider experience can serve (Oversight, Ministry & Worship) and we have no intermediate steps for people who are getting more involved in the life of the community.  

10. Put on regular events like “Stump the elders” or “Stump Ministry & Worship” – opportunities for new people and more long-term participants to ask questions without feeling like they are drawing atttention to their lack of knowledge. 

11. Have a variety of pamphlets and literature available. Too often, literature places us solidly on the “liberal” side of the Culture Wars rather being neutral. If they had been more neutral, they could be more inviting and contribute to peace-building in the American Culture Wars.

Queries for prayerful consideration:

Do I, in my heart, mind, and actions, really seek a peaceful end to the American Culture Wars? Is it possible to take one side AND expect people from underrepresented groups feel welcome in my group? What sacrifices am I willing to make in order to end the American Culture Wars?

3 thoughts on “Lowering Barriers to Worship: Culture

  1. Thanks, Chris. I’ll look forward to hearing hearing your thoughts and insights if/when the time is right. And I hope I didn’t sound too whiny in my other blog… It was just hard to strange how much traffic and commenting was going on while I talked about the problem, and how little interaction there was wen I started coming up with solutions. But that’s often the case, isn’t it, and isn’t necessarily something I need to take personally.


  2. You wrote on your other blog about not getting much response to this post. Well, my response was “hidden”: I printed out the essay, so I could re-read it more slowly and carefully, “in real time” so to speak. And I saved it in my bloglines reader so I could come back to it. I still don’t have more direct comment, but I wanted you to know I paid a lot of attention!

    Chris M.


  3. One frustrating thing I also ran into exploring Quakerism was an inability to listen while saying “We Quakers believe in this or that.” The royal We seems to negate somehow what the speaker is saying, even if he or she (or me!) am not doing something in a Quaker way. Of course I’m not doing it in a Quaker way… I’m new to Quakerism! The royal We is very off-putting and makes someone new to Quakerism feel like an outsider, when really Quakerism (from my understanding) is an open theology that the new person brings new things to. The royal We creates an establishment where there is not supposed to be an establishment.


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