It is all too easy for us to take on, osmosis-like, the group norms of our culture.
Patterns of thinking, informal norms of acceptable and unacceptable levels of emotion and conflict, unwritten shared assumptions about ethics—all of these exist within cultures (and sub-cultures), and it is easy for us to assume that “everyone” thinks like this or should think like this.
But this can easily become cultural groupthink, which inhibits creativity and fails to engage the richness of alternative approaches that may be found in other cultures.
I attended recently the annual gathering of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA), held in Izmir, Turkey, this year, which is, for me, an annual exercise that avoids cultural groupthink.
The BWA is composed of Baptist denominations from 121 countries. Imagine putting leaders from those countries into one room and getting them to talk about various issues from a faith perspective.
Needless to say, any assumptions one has that flow out of your own culture are quickly confronted, as Christ-followers from different contexts come at the issue in different ways, provoking, challenging, influencing and inspiring one another.
For example, at last year’s annual gathering in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, I participated in a set of sessions that explored Christian-Muslim relations.
I’m pretty sure that everyone in the room agreed on a basic premise: that the adherents of the different religions in the world need to live alongside one another in peace.
But one’s perspective on the realism of that ideal and how we might get there varies greatly depending on one’s situation.
A Nigerian leader who has had churches attacked and burned by a fundamentalist Islamic group will engage this issue differently than a British leader who is seeking to welcome new Muslim immigrants and help them become a part of the cultural mosaic.
Our perspectives are shaped by our felt reality.
Another example is found in North American theology, where there is a growing re-engagement with the idea that God’s Kingdom is not just a future reality but is meant to transform life today.
This kind of message can be “heard” very differently in a setting such as India, where there is much poverty and where such a message could easily be interpreted as a health-and-wealth gospel.
A multicultural set of perspectives means that the discussions the BWA has are richer. Also, frankly, slower. And more complex. But necessary.
And as a result, leaders are a bit wiser, deeper and nuanced than they would be otherwise.
I am thankful that there is a global context where Baptist leaders can gather to avoid cultural groupthink and come to a deeper and richer understanding of their faith.
In 2015, several thousand people are expected to gather in South Africa for the BWA Congress. This gathering, which takes place every five years, is welcome to anyone who wants to come.
Sam Chaise is the executive director of Canadian Baptist Ministries. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Cut to the Chaise, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @SamChaise_CBM.