Church Culture In Keralite Churches In The US

Various ethnic churches have their own subcultures and I will address my experience with the Keralite Christian community in America. The gathering of those who share common beliefs, share in the history of the motherland, the cultural norms which don’t have to be explained make gathering in such groups understandable. When there is very minimal diversity of thought or familiarity with the way things have always been done, there is less chances for conflict, or so you would think.

The people from Kerala, a southern state in India, speak Malayalam and are often referred to as Malayalees or disrespectfully as Mallus. It is widely believed that christianity came to Kerala in 52 A.D. through Apostle Thomas.

The truth is that Malayalee churches are rife with strife. The root cause of the strife is pride that is not hidden away but put on full display. There is often an intense need to be seen, to hold an important position in the church and the need to be recognized for a supposed talent. Everyone has something to prove about how they originated from important families in Kerala, or have the most sought after qualifications and or prestigious jobs. Sometimes just being able to speak English with confidence is all that is required to qualify for a leading position inside the church. As you can imagine most of these qualities will not be exceptional in the world outside the four walls of the church. So the groups become places to boost confidence or the place to have a purpose for the cause of the Lord but they evolve into a messy and a petty atmosphere where the Lord is pushed aside to make space for the ego.

The primary issue is the blurring of the lines between culture and spirituality. The cultural conditioning is so deep and rigid. Nowhere else is this seen more clearly than in the area of marriage practices. For example people of lower caste from the same region are not considered suitable for marriage. But, you might think caste system is based in Hinduism and you would be right. That cultural bondage runs deep. Another cultural bondage is arranged marriage. Parents have children to educate them and then to get them married. A checklist to fulfill. The marriages are based on matching up religion, socio-economic backgrounds, or education, and or skin color. The priorities will vary depending on some variables. The ball and chain of Hindu influences exists even today among the educated, bible reading, Jesus Christ following, intelligent Malayalees.

The contractual, arranged marriages since the past decade have been less forced and more about matching up previously mentioned variables and an unhealthy dose of societal pressure to conform. So there might not be outright forcing, instead coercive tactics used. Many a times these marriages are successful in bringing together two church going people whose union continues in the traditional way and goes on to build families and wealth. There are many unsuccessful marriages which are ignored or ripe topic for gossip over the phone or instant message.

Why are some marriages unsuccessful? Because not all matchups are like a jigsaw puzzle from the same box. An educated woman is married to an educated man from a home whose parents expect the new member, to be a working woman, a world class chef, a fitness model and a model mother who also knows the Bible. In other words a ‘show pony’ they can parade around in church. The son in this example is not a man who can make up his mind independently and needs parental direction for every step. Many marital downfalls are because boys have not become men or were not allowed that time or opportunity for vital growth. In other instances, women with advanced degrees are married to men who have no college degrees and thus the chip-on-the-shoulder men are borne. Many girls are raised in homes with encouragement to study and achieve with almost no discussion of marriage. Then they turn 21 or 25 and a switch goes off in the parent’s brain. The switch which says, marry your daughter off or she will get too old and be useless to society! She is not prepared for a relationship, or wifely duties or the realities of a lifelong union. Marriage is seen as a learn-on-the job kind of a deal.

Sadly, arranged marriage is a hit or miss much like throwing darts and many will hit the desired target but how can we forget about those that don’t?! The practice of arranged, contractual marriage is antithetical to christianity.

It has become crucial to discuss these difficult topics because we have an upcoming generation who are less likely to conform to or go along with the way things have been done for ages but we desire for them to have successful, Christ-centered marriages. This is a topic I will tackle in another post.

Another issue is the value of a church member based on his or her worldly qualification or the alphabets accumulated after their name. I often like to say that in the Malayalee church, all sins are covered by “MD,” as opposed to the blood of Jesus Christ. We can all value education as a straightforward means of financial security and achieving the American dream but within the church to value a person based on their degree and not purely on their walk with Christ is wrong. Often times those who are given the stage are the wealthier individuals or those seen as having, “achieved greatness.” You don’t have to search far about how Jesus Christ views the poor and the rich. In Luke 21: 1-4, we read, Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box,  and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins.  And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them.  For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

What should qualify a person as important in the church? Following is an overview:

  1. His or her faithfulness to serve the Lord and to advance the the gospel (1 Timothy 3: 15, 16, ‘if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.‘)

Jesus Christ did not come from the Malayalee community but for the Malayalee sinners and His charge to us is this, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money“- Matthew 6: 24.

2. The peacemakers (1 Timothy 2:8, ‘I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.‘) The pride, the pettiness and the desire for recognition is destructive to the church. (Philippians 2: 14, 15, ‘Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.’)

3. The encouragers who wish to see your spiritual growth and approach you with humility and love. Philippians 2: 1-5, ‘So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy,  complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.’

4. A person willing to teach and practice sound doctrine and not be part of a #SundayFunday christian social club! A church that teaches sound doctrine will not be popular, nor will people flock together to be members of the church. Sound doctrine is antithetical to the world views. For example, doctrine on sin, sexual immorality, marriage and divorce, giving to the poor instead of building community centers, a woman’s role in the marriage, a woman’s rights, a husband’s role in the marriage, the qualifications of an overseer and deacons and so on. I will discuss some of these topics in my future posts.

To have a healthy church, a church which would make Jesus Christ proud, we as a community need to rethink why we do what we do and what are the origins of some of our outlooks. For example, our casual talks have to involve praise for people who are invested in the furtherance of the gospel instead of adulation for the newly minted MDs. Jesus Christ, our savior was a carpenter. A man who had no where to lay his head during His ministry. Sadly, our inherent value system has conformed to the world we live in. I am as guilty of this as the next person but I recognize the absurdity of the church culture which in many ways is Christ repelling. The next generation will question us about every compromise we have made. So many of the worldly achievements are seen as praiseworthy in the church too but some are frowned upon and the younger generations will most likely not be able to straddle both worlds with the finesse that older generations were able to. We will have to be more radical in our stand.