Thursday, February 2, 2017

What counts as a cultural group in the US?

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Mission is about boundary crossing. While traditionally those boundaries were usually thought of in geographic and religious terms (i.e., mission was going elsewhere to convert non-Christians), recent trends in missiology have tended to emphasize cultural boundaries. This shift to a focus on culture reflects a variety of influences, from post-colonial critiques of Euro-centric mission to Donald McGavran's church growth theory.

If mission is, at least in part, about crossing cultural boundaries, then this raises an important question: What counts as a cultural boundary? Or, in other words, how do you know when someone is part of a distinct cultural group from your own? What counts as a distinct cultural group?

These questions are particularly thorny in the United States because of the influence of evolutions in society and marketing in the past half century.

In the early to mid-20th century, much of American consumer capitalism and the marketing that went with it was focused on creating mass markets, which were predicated on a shared set of consumer tastes and values. In effect, this helped emphasize a national culture which supplemented and to some extent displaced American regional cultures.

Moreover, up through the 1940s, there was frequent interaction between youth and adults, and prior to the 1960s, most marketing was targeted at adults, with little age segmentation. Thus, youth and adults shared a common cultural framework.

Both of these features of American culture, however, have changed significantly.

The 1960s saw the widespread rise of American youth culture, a set of attitudes, values, symbols, and ideas possessed by youth and young adults but not by older adults. While the rise of youth culture had its roots in sociological changes in the structure of American society and the rise of the Baby Boomers, it was heavily reinforced by marketers who discovered that they could increase sales by playing to (and helping create) the particular tastes of American teenagers.

Baby Boomers gave rise not only to the prevalence of a distinct youth culture but to the sense of distinct generational cultures, a trend that has continued with subsequent generations. Thus, youth culture is not a constant thing in America. Instead, each generation has its own youth culture, which then evolves into an adult culture: the Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millenials, etc. Different generations are no longer assumed to inhabit the same cultural worlds.

The second revolution that has affect the composition of American culture has been the rise of identity politics and long-tail marketing. While the mid-20th century saw an emphasis on creating an American mass culture, in recent decades, the emphasis has been on cultural particularity within the United States. The civil rights movements of the 50s and 60s and the rise of postmodernism both emphasized the particular cultural and life experiences of those who did not (and could not) fully participate in American mass culture.

These insights were eventually picked up by marketing firms, especially after the widespread adoption of the Internet and social media. Instead of focusing on mass markets, more marketers began to focus on the "long tail," small groups with intense and specific interests. Marketers discovered they could successfully market to these small groups by creating products that supported a culture and lifestyle associated with each group, whether that was goths, classic car enthusiasts, cosplay fans, hipsters, truckers, or Civil War reenactors.

The combined effect of these two transformations is that, to some extent, American living in different generations and with different interests no longer inhabit the same cultural worlds as each other.

The catch, though, is in the phrase "to some extent." No one would argue that there is no shared American culture which is distinct from other national cultures. Culture, like an onion, has layers. All of these distinct cultures are smaller layers within the larger layer of American culture.

What makes identifying cultural groups in the United States challenging, however, is not the layered-ness of culture but the fact that American cultures tend to have indistinct boundaries. While truckers and cosplay enthusiasts may be different cultural groups, it is possible to be part of both cultures in a way that it is not with ethnically or tribally defined cultures.

Herein lies the challenge for Americans doing mission within their own national context. If mission is crossing cultural boundaries, then how do you know if you've crossed those boundaries when they are so indistinct?

Part of what is at stake here is what counts as mission. One aspect of this question is the distinction between mission and evangelism, which are often delineated by mission being to other cultures and evangelism being within one's own culture. Yet if you're a 49-year old suburban Republican hunting enthusiast and you're trying to communicate the gospel to a fellow American who is a 22-year old urban Democratic anime fan who is your same race and lives in your same county, are you engaged in mission or evangelism? It's not clear.

Perhaps in the end, the distinction doesn't matter. Perhaps what matters is that the gospel is communicated, not whether or not we call it mission or evangelism. Yet much of the structure of our denomination and our theological education system are predicated on this distinction. Moreover, the distinction might matter significantly for how the gospel is communicated. Thus, it behooves us to ask the question of how to define cultural group within the US context.


  1. I would suggest (from the standpoint of Cultural Intelligence studies) that we simply see the US as a realm of cultural complexity in which those in ministry need skills in identifying shared and dissimilar values and behaviors and responding to them. So instead of identifying specific cultures (some of which are created artificially for marketing purposes) we should be aware whatever dimension of cultural difference confronts us in ministry.

    One need only look at the thousands of varied opinions about who so-called millennials are and what they need to see how useless this particular cultural identifier (much loved by the church) really is.

    The real problem for parish ministry is the distinctive culture of the denominational hierarchy still caught up with meaningless distinctions between mission and evangelism. Ministry requires no such distinction. Inviting and initiating people into God's reign is what we're called to do. What we call it is more or less irrelevant.

  2. Very thought-provoking. Picking up for United Methodist Insight.

  3. Fascinating article, David. Couple of observations: (1) Robert is correct that boundaries these days have to do less with geography than with difference, as Robert Schreiter pointed out in New Catholicity. That said, this claim needs careful contextualizing, since it will not apply tout court in other parts of the world, where cultural and geographic boundaries (often coinciding) do matter a great deal as markers of religious identity. (2) Mission theology over the past several decades has put to rest, one would have thought, the bogus distinctions between mission (overseas) and evangelism (at home). Yet, as you and Robert indicate, it remains a staple in theological schools, for a variety of reasons, many of these having little to do with theology. Bottom line: If the church is missionary by its nature, and if mission is about sharing the good news, then evangelism and mission coincide everywhere the church is. Mission just is crossing boundaries in living out the good news.