Crossing Cultures: Family

Every culture in the world deals with families. Sometimes it defines who a person is at their very core. Sometimes it merely defines common practices, such as holiday traditions or methods of grieving. Sometimes it defines priorities by conditioning its members to always attend weddings but not funerals, or emphasizing mealtime prayers but not homework assistance. The way culture influences family varies around the globe, but the fact is that families are observably different. 

The Peruvian family generally functions differently than a typical American family. Many are large, encompassing multiple generations and counting aunts, uncles and cousins among the immediate relationships. It is not unusual for them to live together in a large home, sharing common areas and having one or two bedrooms for each family unit, children included. Unmarried children often live with their parents well into their career years, possibly continuing into their married lives. 
We also see this gradual progression in their child-rearing. Young children are treated as babies until they are 4 or 5. The adults around them have no real expectation of maturity, obedience, self-control or manners. They might request good behaviors, but choose not to discipline until later years, stating that they are still too young. This is reinforced by the proximity of other adults in the family, with aunts or grandmothers stepping in to coddle as well. 

This translates to a very close-knit, interdependent group. The family leans heavily on each other for their recreation, celebration, struggles, finances, child-rearing, and education. They refer to each other based on the depth of relationship rather than the official blood ties, sometimes calling their cousin a brother or sister simply because they are that close. On special occasions, everyone is invited. One of my friends tells me that her “immediate family” (including cousins) amounts to about 100 people. Imagine that Christmas celebration! They are many and well-acquainted and enjoy being together. 

The struggle for many of our Christians is the pull between two kinds of families. While a Peruvian family is very close and generally supportive, it is also strongly self-protecting. Sundays are family days in this culture, when the entire family closes ranks and stays home together. The fact that we have our weekly church meeting on Sundays means that we are stealing (in the family’s eyes) their sister or mother or son from their special family time. The more difficult cases even get to a point of being antagonistic toward a young Christian’s faith, with accusations of shirking family responsibilities. 

Now think about how easy it is for us to call the church body the family of Christ. When we use that term, we have to be aware of what we are communicating. For Peruvians, it carries a burden of responsibility to that family in how they spend their time each week, especially on the weekend. Choosing to be away from the family during particular moments is gut wrenching, especially if someone is laying on a guilt trip. In contrast, we want them to feel drawn to each other as the family of God, but with a primary motivator of love and joy rather than guilt. Church is the place where they are welcome and vital and appreciated and still challenged, but for the benefit of those in the family, rather than at their expense. 

Just a little food for thought: How does your experience with what it means to be a family affect your expectations for how your church family fits into your life?