Most Western cultures tend to be time-oriented. This means they respect others by respecting their time, by prioritizing the clock. Most Eastern cultures tend to be event-oriented. This means they respect others by respecting their participation, by prioritizing their access the key parts of an event.
Both cultures value respecting others. It’s the how in respecting others that often results in a culture clash.
Think of a typical church small group in a university city. This group meets once a week for fellowship, bible study, and prayer. Let’s say our hypothetical group’s participants are made up of both Westerners and those from the global East, perhaps Indian grad students and business professionals.
All of the members of this small group have agreed to a start and end time for their meetings, 7:00-9:00 p.m., and they have consensus as to the parts of the gathering: fellowship, study, and prayer.
The evening for the group’s meeting arrives and some of the participants are on time. However, after 5-10 minutes, the Westerners feel the urge to begin the meeting. This doesn’t sit well with the Easterners, because several members of the group have not arrived yet. They feel like it would be very unloving to start the meeting without all the participants present. The Westerners for their part want to start because they feel it would be very unloving to not end on time. There are other things scheduled after the meeting, including the bed times of small children!
The meeting gets started eventually and the discussion goes longer than expected. Because it’s almost 9:00, the Westerners suggest that they skip the prayer portion of the event. After all, they want to honor everyone’s time by finishing on time and keeping their word. But the Easterners once again protest. It’s more honoring to make sure the group gets to pray together and fulfill all the key elements of this event, no matter how late it goes!
This is a classic collision of time-orientation vs. event-orientation, West vs. East.
You can see how different understandings of respect could lead to some uncomfortable disagreements in a group like this. But things could get even worse if any members of the group begin to elevate these cultural preferences to become matters of godliness. A Western brother might say that it’s more godly to manage time responsibility – redeem the time and keep your word, that’s what Christians should do, regardless of culture. An Eastern brother might differ that it’s more godly to prioritize people over schedules – love for others is how the world will know we are Jesus’ people, not by our rigidly managed schedules. And why do you let the clock cause you to neglect the great duty of prayer?
How do you get past this kind of impasse? On a practical level, it’s helpful if there are participants who can point out the cultural dynamics that are going on. Being aware of these differing cultural values of time-orientation and event-orientation help keep the conflict at an appropriate level – one of preference and not one of faithfulness. Pulling back the veil on the cultural elements at play helps to defuse the conversation, as many from each respective culture simply may have never heard before that there are others who approach respecting others in these different ways. It’s helpful to frame it as more like a personality difference and less like an issue of disobedience. This can inject some grace and readiness to listen into the conversation.
It’s also key to focus on the common and biblical virtue, respecting and loving others, that both groups are pursuing. They are working for the same biblical principle, but are applying it differently. This means the conflict falls in the realm of Romans 14-type issues. “The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God” (Rom 14:6 ESV). In Romans 14, the same biblical principle of honoring the Lord and giving him thanks can be applied either by eating or by abstaining from eating. There’s a spectrum of faithful applications of this principle. This is also true of the other issue Paul raises in this chapter, honoring certain days over others.
Some biblical principles are given along with a narrower prescribed range of biblical applications, such as the Lord’s Supper. But many, many biblical principles are given to us with a broader range of possible applications. When we assume our own personal or cultural applications are the same as the biblical principle (sometimes we even do this in the name of fighting relativity), we tend to trample on Christian liberty and fight about the wrong things. We can divide the body of Christ over silly things like food, just like Paul warns about. Instead, we can join Paul in asking, “Will you, for the sake of honoring the clock, destroy the one for whom Christ died?”
If the conflict has made it this far, recognizing the cultural clash going on and identifying how the biblical principle and possible applications relate, they still have some work to do. How should the group actually proceed given these seemingly-exclusive preferences? Context plays an important part in making a game plan at this point.
Is one group the overwhelming majority of the attendees? Then it’s likely that the small minority should, for the sake of love, shift their cultural preferences to that of the majority. Is one group more able to shift culturally, more able to see both sides of the issue? Perhaps the younger members of the group would be more able to forgo their cultural preferences whereas the older members would risk violating their consciences. If so, the younger may be called on to make that shift for the sake of the others. Perhaps there is a way that both groups can prefer one another and meet in the middle with an intentional compromise. Or, perhaps different gatherings can prioritize the culture of the respective groups. This could even become fun: “First and third week of the month, we’re meeting Western style, second and third, it’s Eastern all the way! Prepare accordingly.”
Whatever practical solution our hypothetical small group decides upon, it’s likely that they will have grown simply by getting greater clarity on these differences and by working for an intentional solution. Too often cultural conflicts occur without the participants understanding what’s actually going on. Often, the majority just continues to do things its way and the minority feels like they weren’t heard or understood. Or, these conflicts get mislabeled as black and white issues of faithfulness when they were really just grey issues of preference.
These kinds of conflicts actually represent an important opportunity for growth and love – one which can witness powerfully to an unbelieving world with its merely skin-deep diversity. If you are a Westerner, you can learn to honor your Eastern friends by prioritizing everyone’s participation and by letting go of hard start and end times as possible. Show your Eastern friends that they are more important to you than the clock is. If you’re an Easterner, you can learn to honor your Western friends by showing them you value their time and their plans. Show them that you love them by helping them keep their commitments. How can you learn how to actually do this with real people? By asking questions about these preferences and by being a good listener. Simple spiritual friendship goes an awfully long way toward overcoming cultural differences.
These are, of course, broad strokes and exceptions always exist to these patterns. Yet in an increasingly globalized world, the church would be helped to be more aware of this very common culture clash. Let us work for diverse biblical cultures within our churches where we are time-oriented and/or event-oriented with gospel intentionality.
*If you want to learn more about time-orientation vs. event-orientation, Sarah Lanier’s book, Foreign to Familiar, is a great place to start.