the danger of mimicking American churches

September 23, 2010

In a brilliant paper analyzing research in the behavioral sciences titled The Weirdest People in the World? (HAT-TIP to Richard Beck) it is pointed out that

(A) recent analysis of the top journals in six sub‐disciplines of Psychology from 2003‐2007 revealed that 68% of subjects came from the US, and a full 96% of subjects were from Western industrialized countries


In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the premier journal in social psychology—the sub‐discipline of psychology that should (arguably) be the most attentive to questions about the subjects’ backgrounds—67% of the American samples (and 80% of the samples from other countries) were composed solely of undergraduates in psychology courses. In other words, a randomly selected American undergraduate is more than 4000 times more likely to be a research participant than is a randomly selected person from outside of the West.

This group is called WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) because, not only do they point out that not all studies on this group can be universalized, but in comparative research it would seem that this group generally lie on the extreme many different aspects which research has been done on. You can find many examples in the paper.

In a growing conversation over the past years many of us have become skeptical of the easy way in which we buy into American church models and ideas. Think about our models for youth ministry, mega-churches, emerging churches etc. Think about all the times George Barna statistics is quoted, usually with a disclaimer such as “we know that this is America, but we are only a few years behind them”.

Although this article doesn’t talk about church, it does raise the suspicion concerning the effectiveness of American church models even further. It compares Westerners to non-Westerners, only to find that Westerners are somewhat weird in the world, being the extreme in different aspects of their being, and not the universal example. The Americans are compared to the rest of the Western world, just to find that in many respects Americans are the extreme with the Western world. Other comparisons are also made, and some things which do seem to be universal is also pointed out.

Reggie has been pushing me on this point over the past years, and I’m more convinced than ever that he is correct: We need to do local research on church, society and theology. This do not mean we ignore American research, we can learn a lot from the vast amount of research that is being done in America. But the findings cannot be assumed to be true for our own context. Furthermore I would suggest that it would be almost impossible to engage American dialogue partners whom are unable to recognize the contextuality of their own approaches to church and theology (and sadly many of the American books on the shelves of our Christian bookshops, and speakers we fly in to “teach” us do not seem to have the necessary skills to recognize this, although they might mention “this is how it work in my context” a few times when talking).

If their is truth in the study in behavioral sciences, and if the behavior of a group influence the forms of church which gets created (not such a far-out assumption to make), then many of the typically American models of church created speak not only to a context which is different from the context in which I need to work, but are born from a context and speak to a context which is really on the extreme of society in the world. This might be the last place where we should look to if we were to find universal ideas on church.

This is not a total rejection of American diologue partners. I have learned a lot from American voices, but just a call that we listen to Americans as Americans. A country somewhere out there which seem to be quite strange when compared to the rest of the world. I am from South Africa, and this country is also quite strange when compared to the rest of the world. So let’s find ways of engaging our own strangeness.


6 Responses to “the danger of mimicking American churches”

  1. Tom Smith Says:

    Thanks for this Cobus. I think the conversation can lead to real conversions when we listen to our brothers and sisters in SA.

  2. Shannon Says:

    Hear hear. Have thought it strange for a while how often I hear American religious voices brought up in South African contexts. Our churches are responding to uniquely American issues and challenges. Every community’s churches should be doing the same.

  3. Baie goed gestel Cobus! Die Amerikaners het die kuns vervolmaak om hul kultuur uit te voer.

    Die probleem wat ek egter het is waar anders kry ek inligting/leiding? Ek is daagliks so besig om bediening te doen (en kop bo water te hou) dat die moeite om antwoorde te soek verder as die beskikbare bronne (Amerikaans) net te veel tyd en energie vat. Dalk soek ek kits oplossings…

  4. You have to wonder about alternatives though. The reality is that (at least in evangelical circles in SA), you can walk into a lot of churches and not know you were in South Africa. Perhaps a church like that might be able to learn more about ministry from the Americans for their own WEIRD context than a more ‘normal’ South African context. Similarly, I have spent some time in the states and I’m pretty sure that a lot of the churches I visited are not WEIRD (at least not rich, western or educated). Maybe we should be careful about asking who we can really learn from. Which academic’s context is most like my ministry context. I can think of several American churches that are more like my own church here in SA than, for instance, your own congregation. What do you think? Maybe we should make a series of acronyms that define our own church and cultural contexts and see what to look for when we look for role-models.

  5. I think my own church might be made up mostly of MEMS!

    MULTICULTURAL, EVANGELICAL (in the biblical interpretation meaning, although this means different things to different people in our congregation – I am certainly not a fundamentalist!), MISSIONAL, SMALL-TOWNERS. I don’t know who is writing for this group, but it might just as easily be an American as a South African.

  6. Steve Says:

    Excellent point.

    And you also often hear South African preachers (particularly white Pentecostal ones) preaching in phony American accents.

    Not quite in the field of psychology, but not entirely unrelated either, is this survey of the blogosphere Tell them what you think | Khanya. Please encourage South African bloggers to take part, so it doesn’t reflect only American viewpoints.

    Though it’s not the same field, it’s based on the same assumptions — the opinions of American technogeeks and celebrity cultists are probably 4000 times more likely to be heard than anyone in the rest of the world. Let’s tell them that it isn’t so.

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