the danger of mimicking American churches
September 23, 2010
(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.