West Michigan Culture: A User’s Guide
You’re going to enjoy this.
A few weeks ago, in my sermon on Ephesians 5:1-2, I spent a little time talking about culture – specifically how Dutch West Michigan culture is defined by lots of good things – like family and apple pie, but also by some not-so-good-things, like a lack of humility and love. Cultures come with blind spots because we assume that “the-way-we-do-life” is normative and biblical. (The blinding power of culture is clearly seen historically, for instance, in the church’s complicity with slavery and, later, the Jim Crowe laws.) So my question is this: in what ways might our West Michigan, predominantly Dutch, middle-to-upper class, Reformed, married, white culture impact our ministry? In what ways might our “West Michigan culture” hinder a truly “gospel culture”?
The point is not to bash West Michigan! It’s truly a great place to live, with its own strengths and weakness (and the two are often closely connected) just like every other place. What I’m interested in is really thinking about those strengths and weaknesses in light of the gospel so that we can intentionally leverage the good and limit the bad in pursuit of a gospel-formed culture!
Since those inside a culture have a difficult time “seeing it”, I asked someone who was not from West Michigan to make a shortlist of some things they observed about us. This person loves WM and is very appreciative of its strengths. But I found the following list to be very insightful and helpful. And I think you might, too!
Thumbnail West Michigan Notes
There are so many good things about West Michigan, but they are not the ones that people have to adjust to. These are some of the things that, over the years, have stuck out to us, and a few other families from Other Places whom we’ve met in GR. Every place has hard things and cultural quirks—these are just the ones unique to this area.
- Family. Family is a huge deal. People in Other Places love their families—they just don’t have massive, extended, intermarried, all-in-the-same church/town/business, blood-is-thicker-than-Oma’s-coffee, born-married-and-buried-in-GR kind of family. Families are so strong and connected that they shape life: hospitality comes second to family, help comes primarily from family, socialization often happens within extended families, and family keeps you up-to-date with GR happenings. Unless you are obviously from a Different Place, folks assume that your family is there for you. If you don’t have family in town here, life will be harder.
- Cleanliness. Even Goodwill is decent. I forgot that GR is above average on the clean and tidy scale until someone from Another Place said to me, “Everybody’s garden is tidy, lawns are mown, the windows look clean, I just want to say to everyone, ‘Relax, people!’” The expectation can be intimidating, but generally, it’s a great thing.
- Bluntness. “For a few months, I thought people hated me,” a woman from Another Place said, “Then I realized, they’re just Dutch.” Words that would be offensive in most other places are just normal here. Words that are normal here would break off relationships, make deep wounds, and shatter trust in other settings. Social/relational veneers are rare. If someone has a problem with you, they say so.
- Church. It’s just different here, even aside from the content. In confessional churches, there will be two services, catechism classes (on Tuesday or during Sunday School), a monthly (not weekly) prayer meeting, a few fellowship meals, choirs on special occasions, no service on December 24, and people leave their morning service and go back to their mother or grandmother’s house for lunch (visitors are not usually invited).
- Theology. GR is not unique in the extent of its liberalism, but it has an impressive array of far-right Protestant factions. Unless someone has grown up with or had extensive experience with hyper-Calvinism, it is a strange and confusing beast, partly because it looks deceptively simple. It is more than legalism, and it touches every aspect of life. So Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism may be more helpful than Christianity and Liberalism. Ecclesiology, homiletics, and more are very different in GR than they are in most other confessional, Protestant churches in the States. Underneath almost everything else are theological assumptions and/or reactions to theological traditions (on the right and the left) that shape people’s thinking and lives.
- The Bubble. “Are you from this area originally?” So many times I get the answer, “Oh, no! I’m from ______” (Kentwood, Moline, Cutlerville, Grandville, etc.). West Michigan can be a world unto itself, with limited knowledge of other cultures, places, etc. (unless it’s the sunny vacation spot or short-term mission jaunt). This is partly just American, but it’s pronounced and exaggerated in West Michigan. To some extent, this makes West Michigan a safe, family-friendly, tidy place. But it can also make West Michigan really hard. There is a silent assumption that life here is (and ought to be) normative. For people from Other Places, this can create loneliness (nobody is really interested in what life is like in Other Places unless they’re exotic), bewilderment (why are the spoons in the wrong spot on the place settings?), frustration (why did everybody else know that and I didn’t? answer: you don’t have a family grapevine), and even a feeling of being trapped.
Wasn’t that good?
I would love to hear from others who are from “Other Places” with your own thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of West Michigan culture. I’m particularly interested in the things that could be intentionally used to promote gospel ministry at Harvest, and things we need to realize hinder gospel ministry.
Let’s get a conversation going with the goal of becoming a church increasingly aware of our cultural blind spots and intentionally pursuing a gospel-shaped culture!
In His Service,
- Thanks to Ed Pearce for sending me this article following the sermon on the Holy Spirit this past Sunday morning. It provides excellent, practical advice on how to live more intentionally in and by the Spirit of God.
- The next two sermons on Ephesians will be focusing on marriage (Eph 5:22-33). Here are several thoughtful articles related to the topic:
- Very helpful: “Don’t Take It from Me: Reasons You Should Not Marry an Unbeliever” by Kathy Keller
- Loved this! The Romance of Ordinary Marriage by Nathanael Blake
- Very interesting, coming from a professed feminist. The Feminist, Pro-Father, and Pro-Child Case against No-Fault Divorce by Ashley McGuire