This church just does not feel like home

A case study in Appalachia confirms the need for cultural sensitivity in evangelism and nurture.

Roland M. Smith, D.Min., lives in Columbia, Maryland.

It happened almost 10 years ago, but the memories are vivid and troubling. As a pastor in Appalachia, I was happy when 59 persons were baptized at the conclusion of evangelistic series in my churches in West Virginia. Half of them had not experienced previous contact with our church. It was these 30 new members who had extreme difficulty adjusting to Adventism. Two years later only three of the 30 continued to attend church. My joy turned into concern and serious reflection.

The size of this loss was extremely troubling. At first I blamed myself and wondered where I had failed. Had I not visited faithfully or taught well? Were my actions inept or my words offensive? Perhaps I failed to establish adequate relationships. But the problem seemed wider and deeper, leading me to focus on the climate of friendship and acceptance the new members might have felt as they came into our local churches.

Yes, we had a few members who were more inclined to drive people away than to make them feel welcome, and there were those who were better at pointing out faults than building friendships. We even had a few extremists who believed that only they were living up to the standards of truth and right. Did these Adventists have a hand in driving away the new members?

I wanted to find out firsthand. Purposely I visited those who had with drawn. As I listened, they did not point to any specific factor, as I was expecting them to do. Rather, they spoke of a broader and more diffuse element. Again and again I heard one common reflection: "This church just does not feel like home." Along with this, some spoke of family pressure to leave the Adventist "cult."

The interviews, instead of providing a solution, increased my puzzlement. Why had so many of these people failed to make the transition into our church? Could it be that the style of doing things and the pattern of relationships fostered in the Adventist church in Appalachia were just too unusual and demanding for them to adjust to? Was it possible that the Adventist churches in this area had slowly absorbed the wider American Adventist culture, and that this had resulted over time in a cultural distance from the people of Appalachia? These were only hunches based on limited experience and a relatively small sample population.

There was one factor that reinforced my conviction that cultural incompatibility could be a reason for the new members not staying in the church: Two of the pastoral families who left Appalachia during this time mentioned the culture shock of working in Appalachia as the reason for their departure.

If, in fact, there was fairly wide cultural incompatibility, then the church had challenges to face at two levels: first, making the church community one in which new converts could feel at home; and second, assisting ministers entering Appalachia from the wider American culture to understand and adapt to the social structures of the area.

The study

Shortly after this experience I left for the seminary and turned the problem into a Doctor of Ministry research project. 1 A literature survey showed recurring evidence of distinctive Appalachian traits, such as individualism, traditionalism, fatalism, fundamentalist religious beliefs, family coherence, and small home-based churches.

Such distinct characteristics define a group's culture. Not only do people eat, dress, act, and speak distinctively, but they also have unique basic assumptions about the world. Failure to recognize these cultural differences inevitably leads to misunderstandings in cross-cultural relationships. The natural reaction to the differences of others is to judge their customs and ways as odd or inferior, and the church worker is not immune to this ethnocentric judgmentalism. The problem is actually enlarged, for the Christian worker is inclined to elevate his or her cultural values and traditions to the level of religious rules and standards and these may constitute false barriers to people's acceptance of the gospel and entrance into the "body of Christ."

Were cultural factors responsible for the disappointing experience of my evangelism? I sent out a survey instrument to 210 randomly selected members who had lived at the same address for at least seven years and to the 32 Adventist church workers of the Mountain View Conference, a conference wholly within Appalachia. The instrument consisted of 65 statements, clustered around six distinctive Appalachian cultural traits. The survey was intended to yield a general comparison of the cultural attitudes of the members with corresponding features of Appalachian culture and to provide a rough guide to the degree of cultural compatibility between established Adventists and typical Appalachians. It would also provide a comparison of the attitudes of members and of pastoral workers toward Appalachian cultural values.

This instrument was administered in 1989. Although all 32 church workers responded, only 41 percent of the Adventist members responded. An analysis of the responses indicated that there were significant attitudinal differences between members and church workers, but because of the inadequate percent age of responses from members, the project was temporarily shelved.

I returned to the project in 1994. The questionnaire was abbreviated, reworked, and pretested. I began with a listing of members with telephones. After some 547 telephone conversations, I compiled a list of 301 persons who had agreed to respond to the survey. These persons were not as randomly selected as the first group. Consequently the results would tend to skew away from what is typically Appalachian in favor of the broader culture. In addition, the conference working force had undergone changes during the interim between the two surveys. Twenty of the 28 workers had an Appalachian background. Thus, while I was now reasonably sure of obtaining an adequate response, I was afraid that the very things I was testing for were less likely to appear. The response rate achieved within the allotted deadline was 86 percent from members and 93 percent for workers.

Responses were compared using t-tests and correlation analysis to note statistical significance at the .05 significance level. In the first survey responses to 27 of the 65 statements revealed statistically significant cultural differences between members and workers. In the second survey, 10 of 21 statements revealed significant differences. The results of both surveys thus confirmed that even though Adventist church members in the Mountain View Conference are not characteristically Appalachian, there is yet much that is Appalachian about them, and that there are significant cultural differences be tween them and the church workers in the conference. Findings from each of the key clusters are summarized below.


Both surveys revealed that workers, more than the members, felt Appalachians placed a low value on education. Members thought Appalachians learned quickly, whereas workers thought they learned slowly. Both groups agreed that Appalachians are more likely to react on the basis of preconceived belief than on objective facts.

Independence and self-reliance

There was general agreement that Appalachians would do everything possible to defend their liberty and maintain their independence; however, workers thought that Appalachians were inclined to depend on the government, whereas members thought of themselves as self-reliant.

Family cohesiveness and relationships

Responses were generally similar; however, workers showed a somewhat negative attitude toward the weight of family cohesiveness in Appalachian society.

Patriotic fervor

Both groups agreed that Appalachians were willing to fight to preserve the freedoms of America, and that they tended not to be political activists.


Respondents were again specifically requested to give the response of an "average Appalachian mountaineer." Both groups agreed that Appalachians are inclined to be superstitious and fatalistic; however, members gave "spiritual fervor" a significantly higher rating than did workers.

Ranking true religion Workers Members
61 Providing for the hungry 4 3
62 Experiencing the power 3 1
63 Having the truth 2 4
64 Worshiping God 1 2

The table above reveals a wide difference in the ranking of "true religion" between workers and members. The workers' response is a typical Adventist response. Truth, the intellectual content of religion, is accorded high status. Members, on the other hand, accorded first place to "experiencing the power." This is in harmony with their high rating of "spiritual fervor," and their lowest ranking of truth and doctrine.

Here is an ample possibility for cultural dissonance. Whether workers are unaware of the contours of typical Appalachian religion or are unable to step outside of themselves to give it recognition does not matter. The difference is the same. If workers exert a dominant influence in giving shape to the religion practiced in Adventist churches in Appalachia, and if this is coupled with wider cultural differences, then it is easy to understand why some Appalachians "just do not feel at home" in the Adventist Church. Or maybe one could say the Adventist intellectualist approach to religion does not adequately fulfill the felt needs engendered by an earlier more expressive religious experience.


Twelve statements were clustered to investigate differences in lifestyle. Differences emerged in the perceptions between members and workers at every point, some wider, some narrower. The widest difference related to self-respect and feeling good about one self. Members gave a positive response, whereas workers felt that Appalachians did not have a high estimate of them selves. Quite understandably the gap is narrower in the second survey, but it still remained.

General analysis

Overall analysis of the surveys indicates that workers tend toward a negative evaluation of Appalachian ways. The first survey response was 41.5 percent, and the second survey response was 47.6 percent, which revealed a statistically significant difference between members and workers.

Members' responses were fairly consistent in both surveys. The workers' responses revealed greater change, the second group being more positive about Appalachian ways. What was surprising to me, however, was the lack of adjustment to and appreciation of, Appalachians over time by the workers. Apparently once a worker formed an opinion, that opinion endured. What was also surprising was that the negative responses came not only from workers new to the area, but also came from workers who were native.

This lack of knowledge of Appalachians and of their felt needs manifests itself in the difficulty the Adventist Church in general has experienced in the retention of new members. It is at this point that cultural understanding becomes most critical. New members experiencing the tension of a radical reorientation of religious experience and lifestyle require sensitive understanding, support, and guidance. They may leave the church if they feel misunderstood and in addition feel subjected to the pressures of an "alien culture." This new culture may become all the more questionable to them when after a time the changes that seem to be required of them appear unnecessary and illogical, bringing significant tension into many of their most important relationships. Pressures to leave the church from their close-knit circle of family, friends, and old religious and cultural associates are often considerably stronger than is normally experienced elsewhere. The Adventist Church may ask them to give up practices deeply ingrained in the social life of Appalachia, and so they may easily come to feel they are unable to live up to expectations that now seem all the more foreign to their traditions. They may then leave the church, even though a wonderful religious experience and strong conviction has brought them into it.

This study points to areas of cultural misfit and establishes the hypothesis that a significant cultural gap exists between workers and members in Appalachia, but it does not go on to develop solutions to these problems. Much can be done to foster cultural under standing and sensitivity particularly if the worker is motivated to do so. Most successful missionaries undergo what is called a cultural conversion a process by which they come to understand and react to people and circumstances from the bottom up i.e., from the point of view of their host society. What is true of the missionary situation is also true of all ministry. A difficulty, how ever, is that in subcultures such as Appalachia, cultural differences are more subtle than in the missionary situation and lack a distinctive profile. Hence, it is not easy to recognize and provide for these cultural differences unless workers conscientiously attempt to understand them.2

Practical implications of the study

How can workers be enabled to reach a level of sensitivity that makes them understanding leaders? Our conferences could make available to workers a collection of the most important publications on their field and their culture. Incoming workers should be alerted to the characteristics of given cultures and inducted into some kind of information and sensitivity-generating program. This could be done partly in seminars in cross-cultural ministry at ministers' meetings.

The truth is, however, that there is no substitute for patiently exposing oneself as completely as possible to the actual life of the people. Immersing oneself with acceptance, appreciation, and love into the daily world of the people one is serving will go far in changing the sense of strangeness the people might feel in their new church.

Although successful evangelism and retention of new members is possible only through the working of the Holy Spirit, this Appalachian study illustrates the need for ministers and long-time members to understand cultural issues as they care for new members every where. Christ-centered truth and Christ-centered relationships must both be present in order for us to be successful not only in bringing in new members, but in retaining them.

The author acknowledges the assistance of Russell Staples in the preparation of this article.

1. "A Project to Design, Administer, and Analyze an Instrument to Test for Cultural Awareness of Pastors Working in an Appalachian Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church," D.Min. dissertation, Berrien Springs, MI: James White Library, Andrews University, 1995.

2. Ibid. pp. 138-155.

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Roland M. Smith, D.Min., lives in Columbia, Maryland.

May 1996

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