Standing at Flinders Street Station with my very excited 14 year old son viewing the monitors for a connecting train, an announcement caught our attention with the information we were looking for, "A special service to the Showgrounds for the Supanova Pop Culture Expo will depart on platform 9 in five minutes." As we made our way down the escalator to the platform I felt as though we were entering another universe. Scores of pop culture fanatics were dressed in full costume bringing alive every imaginable comic, animated and science-fiction character from their imaginary worlds. To say I felt like a foreigner in another land would be an understatement!
From the train to the show grounds my feeling of cultural displacement reached new heights as I mingled in this imaginary world where my senses were overwhelmed by crowds of people of all ages passionately interacting with the exhibits of this pop culture. It was then that it occurred to me I was experiencing the same reality as those who enter the church for the first time where people dress, speak and act in a foreign manner. To an outsider, the foreign culture of a church must feel every bit as strange as Supanova did to me!
Through this surreal cultural experience I observed a number of parallels with the church:
- A strong cultural following elicits a high level of devotion by its followers
- Passionate people are prepared to look foolish to others to express their passion
- Like-minded people want to gather in community with others who share a cultural connection
- People are willing to invest a large amount of money into something they believe in
- There is a distinct language that can make outsiders feel disconnected within the culture
- A specific dress code may connect with insiders but dissociate outsiders
- Cultural expressions are often misunderstood without their associated meanings
I belong to a church that has its own very distinct subculture within the culture of Christianity, complete with a uniform, hierarchical structure, language, expression of worship and mission, rules and regulations, that can have a similar effect on outsiders as I experienced at Supernova. The challenge for The Salvation Army, and any other church, is to examine our distinct cultures through the eyes and experience of an outsider to assess how well we connect with those we seek to reach.
We may then consider changing, adapting or explaining our cultural expressions to minimise the cultural shock for those encountering our culture for the first time.