Church & Culture: An Expat Perspective

Church & Culture: An Expat Perspective

Hello folks and Happy Saturday to you! I’d also like to wish you a happy Sabbath since that’s my chosen day of worship. If you don’t know me and you’re guessing that I’m Jewish, that’s a great guess. And close! I was raised Seventh-Day Adventist. The name of the denomination comes from two of the fundamental doctrines:

  1. Belief that the day of worship ordained by God is the seventh day of the week, the “Sabbath.” (Exodus 20:8).
  2. Belief in the Advent, or second coming of Jesus. (Acts 1:10-11).

Now, I consider myself non-denominational and anti-religion, which is an entirely different post… or rather epistle (!!!), but I still take my son to church on Sabbath. I am devoted to helping my him develop spiritually, and the kids’ church program seems like a good place to start.

So… since I’m doing the Blogtober challenge, and Blogtober knows no Sabbath rest, I’ll use today’s post to share a little about what my encounters with church and culture as an expat in Brazil.

Keep in mind, I’m sharing my personal thoughts here, so what you read shouldn’t be taken as the definitive word.

As I begin to write more and more about my encounters with culture as an expat, you’ll probably hear me say some version of the following thought over and over: Until I moved to Brazil and out of my comfort zone, I never stopped to think about how deeply culture effects every part of life.

The culture we’re born into is like the air we breathe…

We don’t stop, test, and analyze the air every time we breathe. We don’t need to think about how to breath because it’s an involuntary function. And we don’t spend every waking moment observing exactly how other people breathe, comparing and contrasting our breathing with theirs. We simply breathe the air that exists!  

As with every other part of life, I didn’t recognize how church and culture interact – or even that they do – until I moved to Brazil.

There are so many things I could tell you about this complex subject! But there is one revelation that frames the rest of my experiences:

Culture shapes churches, and churches influence cultures.

Until moving to Brazil, I never had a clue how much a country’s culture affects the way people worship and how much church cultures influence and contribute to the larger societal fabric. Much more than the bricks, wood, and stone that form sacred peaks, domes and arches, churches are people. Culture and religion inextricably mingle in a fluid exchange every time people gather to worship. When we go to church, we bring in the culture that surrounds us. We participate in a worship service meant to change how we think and act. And when we leave with our transformation, be it however subtle, we transmit a modified version of our culture to the people around us, gradually yet undeniably morphing the society in which we live.


The exchange between church and culture is fascinating.

Churches, according to the Biblical definition, are living, evolving organisms. Each church is the sum of every person who congregates, plus the presence of the “higher power”.  This means that each and every person changes the dynamic within their particular church, by way of their unique cultural composition. You may start to see how things can get interesting when, say, an American joins a Brazilian church! I could never presume to know the ways or extent to which my presence affected the atmosphere of each congregation I’ve joined; I just know, intuitively, it has. In some instances, this was a good thing, nurturing the symbiosis between myself and Brazilian culture. In other cases, I left in search of greener pastures because the experience stunted my adjustment.


The need to find the “right church” is actually the search for a nurturing church culture…

Because of my journey as an expat, trying to find spiritual fellowship that will also aid my transition into Brazilian life, I’ve lost the compulsion to judge people who hop from church to church in search of a “good fit.” If the only thing in consideration was a set of fundamental beliefs, we could select our church family with one of those kitschy but oh-so-irresistible quizzes. I can see it now, popping up in my Facebook feed, “Take the ‘What’s My Spiritual Style?’ quiz and discover the best church for you!” If only it were that simple, huh?!!

How many of us have been through thick and thin to find a healthy, thriving, spiritually nourishing community?! Perhaps you are still searching? Or, like me, you’ve indefinitely distanced yourself to heal wounds from spiritual abuse? Have you, or someone you know, given up knocking on bolted doors because the price of admission was dignity, self worth, identity, spiritual calling, or a loved one?

For the love of God!!! This religious genocide must end before another soul is unceremoniously heaved atop the mountain of spiritual causalities. One truth must be acknowledged:

People go to church for relationships, not for religion.

If all I wanted was a solid understanding of doctrines, I’d consult google from the comfort of my sofa, in pj’s, with my “I woke up like this” coffee mug at arms’ length. In my teens, when I started to desire more from church than religion, I stopped going because I couldn’t find what I was looking for. I realize now that I craved fellowship. However, at the time, I was a classically trained violinist with an elitist mentality and no patience for “normal” people my age. So fellowship would have been quite a stretch for me.

When I was in college, I attended a small group vespers program where everyone anonymously wrote down a question or struggle that they had. The pieces of paper were shuffled and handed out. Then each person read the comment aloud and responded. I’ve never seen so much empathy, support, acceptance, and love blossom between strangers. For me, that was church.

Four years as an expat in Brazil only clarified my need for church to be about relationships. Here, I’m an “estrangeira,” a foreigner, striving for acceptance in a new country, culture, and community.

The takeaway from my experiences?

A church is only as influential as its ability to demonstrate acceptance and love.

Acceptance and love are the two priceless rewards that make relationships worth the risk of being rejected and humiliated. Few people could be more aware of this than expats trying to grow some new roots. The journey to find a church that prioritizes acceptance and love is complicated. Sometimes it’s been frustrating when I’ve found a church full of lovely people but with vastly different beliefs. And I know many people struggle with this, not just expats. From my church-going journey as an expat in Brazil, one realization brought me hope…

It’s not about perfect doctrine, it’s about serving in the reign of God.

No church will ever be the perfect combination of pristine doctrine unconditional love. In fact, it seems like the more people focus on the nitty-gritty of hermeneutics, the more we loose sight of the overarching biblical message: God is love. He loves us perfectly and unconditionally. We demonstrate our love to God by obeying his law. How does Jesus teach the law when the religious geniuses of the time come to taunt him? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40). 

My best bet when it comes to finding a good church is to look for a body of believers who live out Jesus’ summary of Biblical doctrine. I’m done sweating the details. As my Grandfather says when the theologians descend into heated debate about biblical interpretation, “If you got to heaven and discovered you were mistaken, would you turn around and go back?” I’ve always appreciated his ability to cut straight to the heart of the matter. Ultimately, Christians want to make it to heaven. But according to Jesus, the “kingdom of heaven” exists first on earth, in the hearts of those who believe.

So when it comes to finding the right church, look for the people who love God, themselves, and you/yours.


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2 thoughts on “Church & Culture: An Expat Perspective”

  • Thanks for your honesty. Glad you take M to church. Hopefully you can help him learn to know God as a friend better than I did with you but then I’m just really discovering that friendship now in life.

  • Your statement about how people go to church for relationships and not religion is obviously valid for most people. I think some of us who were “born into” a particular church or denomination, if we are of an older generation, often have just stayed put because we have become “comfortable..“ Some of us have probably actually found that community, place or group where we find belonging and acceptance. Some of us probably need to examine why we stay where we are. I would suggest that often those who feel the loneliest might find more community by getting involved or serving within the church. As I have done that, leading a group, I have found friends, acceptance, and belonging. Before that I just warmed a pew but often did not find a lot of relationship with other people. Of course ultimately we want both relationship with God and others.

    I do want to be part of a group who’s doctrines I believe but I also believe that salvation is about relationship with my God, my Jesus. He demonstrated and also said that we ought to love others. He taught the value of relationships and loving others. Certainly as others see love in us then they would be more open to want to know the God we love and talk about and as we share a loving relationship together we have a little of heaven on earth now.

    A good question is, are we likely to be a more effective witness of God to others outside of our church group if we have done the looking around and found that community of other believers with whom we feel loved and acceptance?
    Certainly it would be easier to invite someone to a group like that … and yet I think I could have a growing thriving relationship with God and be a good witness to others without having found that group yet. I think with that kind of relationship with God and treating others in a loving way that eventually, one person at a time, the culture within a given church could start to change as one person loves and accepts another and that spreads to others.
    … something to think about anyway.

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