My step-daughter is getting married next October. She is currently in the throes of preparations, sending out invitations, arranging for the ceremony and the reception, and planning all the little details that will hopefully make the occasion a memorable one.
She recently noticed that many of her American friends would RSVP the wedding invitation with an unaddressed one liner via email. By contrast, her Chinese relatives would invariably respond with a carefully crafted handwritten note by regular mail. The more replies she received, the more pronounced the difference became. It just seemed that her Chinese relatives took more time to make a thoughtful response. This made her feel special.
Loss of Respect
My wife immigrated from Hong Kong when she was twelve years old. She came from a culture that has five thousand years of common history. The cornerstone of that culture is the concept of filial piety, i.e. respect for elders. It infuses every part of their society. So when she was in grade school and junior high, students would stand up to greet their teacher using the formal appellation for "Teacher." They would also stand to answer a question. They always addressed adults with a 'Mr.' or 'Mrs.' or 'Ms.' Even I used to stand with my classmates in my American classroom for the pledge of allegiance back in grade school. And my friends and I always addressed each other's parents as 'Mr.' and 'Mrs.'
But two generations have gone by and many of my kids' friends rarely preface their comments to me with any kind of honorific at all. In fact, they don't even use my name. They simply say, "Hey." It did not take long for this to annoy me. I finally took one young man aside and said, "Nate, how would you like it if I called you, Hey? I prefer you call me 'Mr. Olson' or even 'Craig' rather than just 'Hey!' From that point on, we instructed our kids to tell their friends how to address us properly. Now their friends at least call us by our first names, which is probably all we can expect given the general decline in decorum.
No More Rules
In days gone by, there was a generally accepted set of standards that governed the conduct of interpersonal relationships in our society. If there was a question about what constituted acceptable social norms, people would consult such authorities as Emily Post or Judith Martin, a.k.a. 'Miss Manners,' both of whom wrote syndicated newspaper columns on etiquette.
In a 1995 interview Judith Martin said,
"You can deny all you want that there is etiquette, and a lot of people do in everyday life. But if you behave in a way that offends the people … they will stop dealing with you...There are plenty of people who say, 'We don't care about etiquette, but we can't stand the way so-and-so behaves, and we don't want him around!'" In other words, everyone wants to be treated with respect, whether they will admit it or not.
Today, Emily Post and Miss Manners have gone the way of the duckbill platypus and no one has taken their place. There are no longer any conventions that regulate social behavior. Everything goes, and to suggest anyone should be castigated for the way they treat others is just plain cruel. As a result, society has become more course and less respectful.
When my step-son got married a few years ago, I overheard some of the young ladies discussing how to enhance the male sexual experience. Others were dirty dancing indiscriminately with the young men. Among our guests were some old friends from very accomplished and dignified backgrounds. I am sure they were embarrassed by the conduct of these young folks, as were we, their hosts! So our daughter has decided to do away with dancing entirely at her wedding just to preclude the possibility of the same thing happening again.
Loss of a Common Culture
In Deuteronomy 12:8 Moses tells the Israelites, "You must not do like we are doing here today, with everyone doing what seems best to him." Then He commanded them to destroy all the idols from their pagan neighbors and tear down their places of worship. In their places, he established a standard for worship based on the sovereignty of almighty God, their creator, and the one who delivered them from slavery.
It is the absense of a common standard that has coarsened contemporary American culture. Everyone does what suits himself or herself best. Diversity has destroyed the common culture upon which this standard used to rest. Immigrants are no longer expected to assimilate into a common American culture or even to learn English, once considered our common language. The entire population has been divided up into a multitude of special interest groups. There is little homogeneity anymore when it comes to values or customs.
The Collapse of the Family
The bedrock upon which this culture was based is the American family. It is the avenue through which traditions have been passed from generation to generation. In the extended families of the past, grandparents used to provide continuity with the past by regaling their grandchildren with stories about their ancestors. They would teach their grandchildren to show proper respect to their parents and other adults, something it is easier for a grandparent than a parent to do. In those days, elders were not afraid to offer a stern rebuke to a young man or woman who got out of line. Today parents take offence when other adults correct their children.
The church reinforces the breakdown of this common culture by dividing families up for program purposes. Today there is a program for every age and affinity group on the church schedule. Youth groups engage is some very frivolous activities because they don't have a proper sense of proportion when it comes to values. Rather than engage in service projects that benefit the truly needy, they spend time in recreational activities and religiously themed social events.
In the early church, there were no youth groups. There was no Sunday school. In fact, the first Sunday schools were literacy programs that taught young immigrants to read so they could learn the Bible. In those days, families worshipped together as a unit. Children accepted the nurture and admonition of older people in deference to their accumulated wisdom. Because they spent less time with their own peer group, they were less prone to be influenced by the foolishness of youthful fancy.
The church can recapture some of that wisdom by gearing more ministry toward families as a group. They can begin to build a common Christian culture to combat the corrosive influences of society by networking families together for mutual ministry and mentoring. My wife and I often encouraged our kids to spend more time with friends whose parents we knew and respected. We would often ask their best teachers to intervene with a word of advice or encouragement on our behalf when our children needed a little external prompting to keep them on the straight and narrow.
It is these kinds of relationships that the church needs to foster rather than allowing the popular culture to determine the way it packages and promotes ministry.
1. Judith Martin, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miss_Manners