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Practical Theology in Church and Society
Excerpt:  Entering a Congregation's Culture

          Even after pastors have become well-established in their positions of ministry, dynamics of being cultural in-betweens continue to operate.  These dynamics serve both to authorize our ministry as well as to limit that authority. 


Welcome and Hospitality

          As a point of comparison, let us consider other patterns of introduction.  Communities establish cultural rituals for welcoming a newcomer into their midst.  In some cultures, these rituals of welcome can be very elaborate and very rich.  The welcome ceremony in Fijian culture is one such ritual, and it can provide a metaphor for understanding congregational welcome generally.  Two aspects of a Fijian welcome particularly highlight the dynamics of entry into a community--the role of the hosts in welcoming a newcomer into their midst and the challenge faced by the newcomer to a culture to understand the cultural nuance of being welcomed. 

          The indigenous people of Fiji often refer to themselves as "people of the land."  Upon entering a Fijian village or community, visitors are expected to present themselves to the village to be welcomed.  Traditionally, they do this ritualistically by presenting a gift of yaqona to the people of the land.  Yaqona is the root of a plant that is made into a beverage.   The presentation of the gift, the preparation of the beverage and the imbibing by hosts and guests together are all accomplished ceremonially.  Key to the ceremony of welcome is the role of the matanivanua―literally, "the face of the land."  This person serves as a mediator of communication--learning about the visitors in order to introduce them and their gift to the people of the land and, reciprocally, conveying the welcome and greeting of the land to the guests.  The matanivanua seeks to ensure that the ceremony proceeds well, that the important information is conveyed, and that hospitality is extended.  In other words, the matanivanua smoothes the way for establishing relationship between the newcomers and the welcoming community.[1]

          Not just in Fiji, I want to suggest, but in any culture or community and in any congregation, there are those who serve a role similar to that of the matanivanua.  It can help the new pastor in entering a new place of ministry to look for these individuals and to allow them to facilitate one's welcome and one's initiation into the community.  Sometimes this is formalized in congregations.  Official "greeters" at worship services do this for visitors and all attendees.  Many congregations also have a designated individual or welcoming committee to ensure visitors are warmly received.  A new pastor will likely be introduced to the congregation by the chairperson of the Staff-Parish Committee or the Lay Leader or another person in formal leadership in the congregation.  

          Individuals can also assume this role more informally.  Some people are very well connected in the congregation but may not be serving in a formal leadership role.  Everyone, at least potentially, can introduce you to their friends and family and cohorts.  One might do well to respect everyone in this capacity, but some individuals are particularly well-connected and can bridge between different communities.  In fact, those most involved in the neighborhood and the life of the community beyond the congregation's walls may shy away from formal leadership in the congregation because they are already very busy within the larger social network.

          Not just in the congregation but in the wider community--especially in the wider community-- who are the matanivanua?  Within the congregation, who helps to introduce the congregation as a whole to the wider community, and who helps to bring the wider community's concern to the attention of congregation?  Also, perhaps entirely outside of the congregation, what individuals and what institutions present the "face" of this community?   Again, this role can be formally established or more informally enacted.  There are usually public-facing institutions in any community, though, with individuals ready to interpret their role and purpose in the community.  The church is one of these, but so might be:  the chamber of commerce, the public library, the neighborhood association, the municipal or county administrative building, sporting clubs, singing organizations and jam sessions . . .  The list continues.  Informally, too, there are simply individuals who care about their neighborhood and show interest in their neighbors.    They can help us ground ourselves in the culture of the community surrounding the congregation.

          Of course, in both the congregation and in the wider community, there may well be individuals who are more nosy than helpful or who may have their own agendas.  One might not want to become too closely aligned with the first friendly face in either the congregation or the community.  But one does want to avail oneself of the opportunity to welcome and to be welcomed.  At both the formal level and at the informal level, I would look for these public-facing institutions and these welcoming individuals.[2]

          If a pastor is to lead a congregation into meaningful and faithful ministry in the larger community, that pastor does well to start to get to know that larger community from the very outset of the pastor's ministry--simultaneously with (or even before) getting to know the congregation itself.  Having grounded oneself in the community surrounding the congregation, one is actually better able to lead effectively within the congregation.  It is like the buttresses on the wall of a cathedral; the cathedral's walls stand to house the congregation because they are buttressed in the land surrounding.

          There are centripetal as well as centrifugal forces at work in the way we focus our energy in ministry; our attention is focused both within and beyond the congregation.  Because of the complexity of congregations, though--programmatically, administratively, emotionally--a pastor can easily become entirely focused internally on congregational dynamics and on one's own sense of belonging within the congregation.  This is a centripetal force on our attention as ministers.  But to lead a congregation effectively in ministry to the wider community, the minister needs to be rooted in that larger community and its culture.  Then we are better equipped to lead the congregation in an outward direction with the church's ministry.

[1] Ilaitia S. Tuwere, Vanua: Towards A Fijian Theology of Place (Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies, 2002),50, 72, 83.
[2] Carl S. Dudley and Nancy T. Ammerman, Congregations in Transition: A Guide for Analyzing, Assessing, and Adapting in Changing Communities (San Franciso: Jossey-Bass, 2002), 29-58.