What is culture? What is at its roots? How does it affect how people view the world? All good questions. And all must be answered if we are to effectively carry the message of the gospel to the world. Culture is how a group of people deal with the world around them. It consists of patterns we learn and products we produce to help us live based on our view of reality.
At the surface, people model behavior. Behavior includes the actions, words, and deeds of a people. It is based on a person’s values, or in other words, their view of what is good or best. Values are based on a person’s beliefs, which stem from answering the question “what is true”. And one’s beliefs are grounded in one’s worldview, which asks the question “what is real”.
As an example: Our Christian worldview is that God is Creator and created reality. That gives rise to our belief that God is sovereign. We value our faith and the idea of living worry-free because God is in control. And therefore, we exhibit a behavior of living generously as a people saved by grace.
At the heart of culture is worldview. It is how we view the world based on assumptions that we hold either consciously or subconsciously. Worldview is seen through a series of filters comprised of what we believe, experience, and analyze. This becomes our view of reality.
What we must guard against is ethnocentrism, or viewing my own set of behaviors—which are based on my beliefs, values, and worldview—as the best way possible. This is obviously very harmful in the pursuit of spreading the gospel. But in reality, we do it every day. Our media always shows us the bad sides of a culture. And we end up judging what we consider a culture’s bad behaviors relative to what we consider our best values.
At the same time, when entering an unknown culture, disorientation can often result. This is what we call culture shock. It is the result of trying to accept a culture’s behavior without understanding their underlying beliefs, values, and worldview. And what we’ll end up with is withdrawal and criticism, rather than love.
How then shall we proceed into cultures that are different that our own and not experience ethnocentrism or shock? We’ve got to make our message culturally relevant. That means we need to contextualize it. In other words, we need to present the gospel in regard to the culture we’re in. We need to adapt ourselves and our presentation. But there are two problems. The first is syncretism, which is a fancy word that means foreign religious practices have blended with Christian ideals resulting in non-biblical Christianity. In our efforts to make the gospel relevant, we must guard against going too far so that practices that are not biblical are not kept. Yet we can’t just go in and say “your practices or gods are bad; ours are good”. We’ll be shut out. We must trust and allow the Holy Spirit to work, and show them loving obedience through the Word.
The second major problem is the message being perceived as a threat to the culture. Our ability to be effective for the gospel has greatly diminished in foreign settings. Westerners are often frowned upon because people believe we are coming in to make them like us. And for a long time, we have been. They also perceive all Westerners to be “Christian”, so when the media portrays corruption, we’re all cast under the same poor light, even though a true Christ-follower may not have been shown. We are regarded as unclean for the things we eat or do, or maybe even don’t do. The point is, we need to be aware of this barrier and adjust our strategy as needed to maintain effectiveness.
A major missionary paper once included the statement that contextualizing the message requires an “active, loving engagement with the local people, thinking in their thought patterns, understanding their worldview, listening to their questions, and feeling their burdens”. One of the major points of dissatisfaction I personally have with the American Church is reliance upon programs and buildings. If we have more and more programs and bigger buildings, we’ll stay relevant and get people to come. We end up relying on our programs and productions more than the power of Christ. We can’t take this model overseas. We’ve got to invest the time and effort and pain and setbacks of understanding and appreciating a culture. There is no pre-packaged set of plans to help. The gospel is a seed that must be planted and cultivated, not a potted plant to transport.
There are three encounters that take place when communicating the gospel. First, a truth encounter is one in which a person is taught and comes to an understanding of truth. It’s based on knowledge and experience, and is actually rooted in the other two encounters. The second is an allegiance encounter. Here the person must choose to commit and obey. It’s driven by our witness and where conversion takes place. The third is a power encounter, and is one few of us have probably experienced. This is the realm of spiritual warfare, resulting in the freedom from Satan’s captivity. These are the kinds of stories we have a hard time believing because of our skeptical culture. But spiritual warfare is real and the types of encounters you read in the Bible are still going on today. Our instructor told us stories of casting out demons and how a medicine man called upon a spirit, effectively talking bullets out of a young man who had been shot.
Ever wonder why we don’t hear stories about this kind of warfare in America? So that I don’t belabor the point, I’ll just say that I believe we’ve drowned out God’s ability to work miraculously like this. We’re too busy. We depend on too many other things. So God works, but He does so silently.
When we take the gospel to other cultures, we do so with Acts 26:18 in mind: “’to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’” Just maybe it’s our worldview that needs changing, not theirs. In a very real sense we’ve got it backwards: we’ve been inviting Jesus into our kingdoms, when God is really saying that He’s inviting us into His.