When I lived in Wisconsin, I learned quickly that I was different from many around me. As a pastor at a Wesleyan Church, I had committed to abstain from alcohol. No problem for me, but certainly a regular part of life there. My wife and I felt like outsiders at lunchtime, wedding receptions, and more. The average person, though, had been raised to not blink an eye at its consumption. They had been enculturated, whether they knew it or not. We were the weird ones.
This is one small example of a process that occurs in every area of our lives, from religion to politics to eating habits to exercise. You name it, you learned it through enculturation.
I was introduced to the concept of enculturation by John Westerhoff in his book, Will Our Children Have Faith? He defines it as “the process by which an individual learns the traditional content of a culture and assimilates its practices and values.”
Enculturation assumes a process. Individuals, whether they are newcomers to a culture or have been a part of it for their entire lives, are still undergoing, whether consciously or unconsciously, enculturation. No one person embodies the values and practices of a culture completely. This is the assimilation component. No one drops their previously learned and lived values and practices completely, but rather adds to them.
In the church, as we seek to make disciples, we are calling people into the kingdom of God, into God’s values and practices. Just how do we do that? Westerhoff mentions eight areas. I list them here along with questions a small group leader could ask as they pertain to groups. This could apply to a church as a whole or to our families, also.
- Rituals—repetitive symbolic acts (word and deed) that express and manifest the community’s sacred narrative.
- What can people expect to hear and do at your small group every time? How do those things shape them?
- What is missing on purpose?
- What is missing on accident?
- What do your words and actions symbolize? Does everyone know it?
- How do your words and actions express the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus?
- Environment—all that people see, taste, touch, smell, and hear.
- How do you arrange furniture in your space?
- Are people sitting in rows or a circle?
- Are you physically positioned as the one who knows all or the one who facilitates?
- Are you ever able to eat food that fits with the study for the night?
- Calendar—how people remember significant events.
- How does your small group celebrate Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Passion Week, Easter, Pentecost?
- What other significant events do you celebrate, such as people’s birthdays and anniversaries? Kids’ events?
- How does the school calendar affect your group? The national calendar? Are they given more weight than the Christian year?
- Time—how people are encouraged to spend their time, energy, talents and resources.
- How do people involve themselves in the group beyond attending?
- How does your group help people become more involved in the life of the church?
- In what ways do you call people to actively care for one another?
- Do you ever choose to ask people to spend money on projects or missions?
- Relationships—decision-making, settling differences, living together.
- Do you make all the decisions, or are others allowed to help make decisions?
- What do you do when people disagree doctrinally or otherwise?
- How do you love one another, as Jesus commands?
- Role Models—those who the community establishes as examples to be emulated.
- Are you living as one to be emulated?
- Do you lead people to Jesus rather than to yourself or your way of thinking?
- Do you confront negative role models our culture has accepted?
- Behavioral Activities—those disciplines practiced regularly by the community.
- What are you expecting of those in your group during the week? Prayer? Bible reading?
- Similar to rituals, what things do you do over and over in your group?
- Language—the way we name and speak of things.
- How do you speak of God?
- Of Scripture?
- Of humanity?
- Of the world?
- How do you joke?
Ask the questions of your group. Let them change the way you lead and facilitate conversation.