Thursday, January 04, 2007


Tribal behavior puzzles me.

As I watch the college football bowl games, I see fans who spend hundreds of dollars on team merchandize, fans who cover themselves in paint, fans who travel across country to see a football game, and fans who behave in ways that would never be tolerated anywhere except at a sporting event.

As I read about the conflict in Iraq, I read about Iraqi’s who all belong to one of three historic ethnic groups, Iraqi’s who kill for honor, and Iraqi’s who consider ethnic conflict an inheritance from a previous generation that should be passed on to the next generation.

As I watch my daughters grow, I see girls who want to be part of a group and I see girls who want to limit membership in a group. Most of their mothers behave the same way.

As I read blogs, I notice a clustering of like minds. Agreement with a blogger usually results in a warm reception while disagreement usually results in an insult and condemnation as the regulars pile on; not always, but most of the time.

Church behavior also puzzles me.

Almost every Church leans over backwards to make visitors feel welcome. As a Church member, I’ve been a part of this effort. But I’ve noticed through the years that visitors, who don’t identify with the Church culture, don’t often return. I’ve also noticed an informal enforcement of Church culture in most Churches. Church regulars want new members to think and act the same as the other regulars.

In many ways, Churches are tribal, just like football fans, ethnic Iraqi’s, young girls, mothers of young girls, and bloggers, are all tribal.

I’m a little different.

I don’t remember a time in my life when I wanted to be known as a member of a group. I never considered my identity to be linked with the schools I attended, the teams I was on, or the activities I enjoyed, so I didn’t want others to consider my groups part of my identity either

In High School, I loved sports, but I didn’t want to be a jock; I made good grades, but I didn’t want to be known as a scholar; I would occasionally spend a major portion of the night partying, but I surely didn’t want to be known as a partier. Most of my friends, though, did consider themselves to be a member of one of these three main groups in High School. In some ways, not being a member of a group, limited my friendships.

I’m very proud now that I served four years of active duty in the Marine Corps, but when I was on active duty, I counted the days until I would no longer be known as a Marine. The term “Marine” didn’t come close to fitting who I am or describing who I was.

If I am ever going to be able to be an active member of a Church again, which I truly believe is the will of God, somehow I have to get comfortable with the idea of being a member of a group, and somehow I have to be able to convince other Christians of the need for Churches to be less tribal.


rbuzdor said...


So you don't want to join the crowd. Don't want to be one of "us", eh. Well, if you're not one of "us" then you must be one of "them"!

You know "them" - the folks that believe the opposite of what "we" believe. If "we" believe in green carpet for the halls, "they" believe in red. If "we" believe in singing hymns, "they" believe in singing choruses. "They" are heritical. "They" can't be trusted. "We" can't let them into "our" church. It just wouldn't be right. Maybe "we" should go back to the idea of paying to sit in the pews ... that way if "they" come to "our" church, at least "they" will have to pay for the privilege.

Well, you get the idea. The world will know we are christians by how well we fight amongst ourselves. Gee, the Irish have been quite for a long time, I wonder if they have lost their faith?


Buz said...

(Gee, this blogger thing is harder than it looks ... I started my own and no one has flamed me or threatened to bomb my house)


Dave Smith said...

I remember my Roman History prof telling us about how the Romans of the late empire became so cosmopolitan - so multi-cultural - that they felt the need to affiliate with smaller groups. I guess tribalism is innate to our species. Maybe that's because many of us can't make sense of the world in such a huge chunk but need it rather in smaller, bite-sized helpings.

I don't think it's altogether bad, but, once again, I've never met a bandwagon I didn't want to RPG! I detest group-think! Maybe that's what you're getting at, at least in part.

When it comes to the church sub-culture, I think we need to be very intentional about making people fit in to our baptized preferences. On the one hand, God loves different cultures and tribes - He came to earth as a Jew! But He got/gets pretty tee'd off when we confuse our particular culture's ways of doing things with His standards. That's Pharsaism, and it darned sure didn't die off in the 1st century!

David M. Smith said...

Hi Dave and Buz,

Churches do need to be inclusive and exclusive based on core beliefs. Some membership programs do a good job of focusing on core beliefs, but the social aspect of Church is based on cultural beliefs which is a different type of inclusion and exclusion.

I know I’m dreaming, but in my perfect world, members of a Church would ask how they can become more like newcomers, not force newcomers to conform the existing culture. Isn’t this what Paul was saying when he said he would become whatever it took to promote the Gospel?

I am using the term “tribe” to signify the negative aspects of grouping. I do realize not all aspects of grouping are negative.

Buz said...


I think we are just more comfortable around people who think and act like us.

Part of it is that we don't have to think as much. I mean, if someone comes into your church and starts dancing to the worship music, then you either have to boot them out, or re-evaluate your position on dancing ... it is SO much easier to kick them out.


Hammertime said...

This is for certain - you won't be able to convince anyone to be less tribal until they trust you, which they won't do until you identify yourself with them...

You will not answer for the deeds of others, only for yourself. As you have said (and some important other guy did, too), "Deny self. Take up cross. Follow Him."

I think you've identified an element of self that is hindering your taking and following.

(By the way, I like to think that I'm a regular who piles on the guy I agree with most of the time!)

David M. Smith said...

Hi Hammer,

When I wrote this piece, I knew what I wanted to say, but I struggled writing a good ending. You wrote a better ending than me. You are right. My lack of infinity for groups is hindering my obedience to God and I can’t have the impact I wish to have on others until I submit in this area.

Please don’t feel like you are piling on with me. Think of it more as taking a sledge hammer to marble.

I have only recently begun asking others to pray for my family regarding Church. I didn’t think it would turn into the mountain it has become, but I do think the prayers for us have made a difference. My attitude is changing and there is a Church I am going to visit on Sunday that gives me hope. It looks like a Bible believing Church with a good mix of young and old with lots of grey hair on the Elder board. A few more prayers wouldn’t hurt. Thanks, Hammer.

Buz said...

Well, David, I noticed you have turned your attention away from the "what's wrong with the church" theme, at least for a short time. Have you started going elsewhere, or have you thrown up your hands and acquiesced to the Pablum being preached? Or, perhaps, has God come to visit your church and started changing things (we can always hope for a miracle)?

David M. Smith said...

Hi Buz,

Thanks for asking.

I visited Long Beach Alliance Church last Sunday. It seemed un-Californian to me. The music wasn’t great, but it was reverent, prayerful, and not loud. The Senior Pastor taught about the different Bible translations and the different types of Bible translations. The sermon was intelligent and presented like a college lecture. There was a wide variety of age groups in attendance.

My wife is going to go back with me next week. She has already heard good things about the marriage builders group there. I don’t want to drag my daughters to another church until my wife gives a thumbs up. They have become jaded by my Church search. I don’t want to include them just yet.

Things are looking up. Thanks for your prayers.