Some important questions arise around the issue of culture. Questions like, Why is it important for pastors and other church leaders to understand the cultures where God has called them to serve? How do we decide when we should come out from them and be separate (II Corinthians 6:17), and when we should be in the world but protected from the evil one (John 17:15)? Should the church withdraw from its host culture in order to protect the distinctive culture of the church? Or, should it conform to its host culture in order to be relevant?
When Jesus became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14), it was in a particular social, historical, and cultural setting. It might have been easier to understand if God incarnate had rejected all existing cultures and somehow created a dramatically new culture separate from all others. But, he didn’t. His life in a first century Jewish family changed that culture and history. And yet in most ways his life seems to have been amazingly normal. In many areas he seems to have adapted his life and ministry to the culture into which he came, while also vigorously opposing some aspects of the culture.
In this, as in all things, Jesus is the example for the church. We are the body of Christ, with a Christian culture that is distinct from every culture. And yet, God calls the church to demonstrate our distinctly Christian culture in particular cultural, historical, and geographical settings. We are called to minister in the twenty-first century. We are called to particular nations, communities and people groups. Our ongoing challenge is to understand the Christian culture well enough to live in it faithfully and to understand our host cultures well enough to know when to oppose evil and when to adapt the culture of the church in order to communicate the Gospel in a relevant way.
There is, of course, the important issue of whether and how much the church should adapt to any culture. Christians are citizens of the kingdom of God and therefore always foreigners in any earthly culture. The church must be faithful to its own nature regardless of its host culture. There are some things about ministry that must not be adapted to any culture – ever. The cross was a stumbling block in the Apostle Paul’s New Testament times and it still is today. On the other hand, the church continually adjusts its methods to sensitively communicate the gospel. Paul wrote, “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” (I Corinthians 9:19-22, NIV).
Like the Apostle Paul, missionaries adapt in obedience to the call of God. They learn cultures, including languages, in order to faithfully communicate the gospel. They adjust in many ways in order to be relevant to the people whom God has called them to serve. They prayerfully seek to follow Jesus’ example by moving in and becoming at home in the host culture.
If our local church were located in Africa among one of the people groups there, the importance of culture would be clear to us. We expect missionaries to study and adapt to the culture as they obey God’s call.
However, most of us minister through churches that are not in Africa. The cultural challenges we face are similar to those faced by missionaries, but often more subtle. Therefore, it may be difficult for us to appreciate the importance of understanding culture. Nevertheless, we are citizens of a heavenly kingdom and therefore, foreigners in the culture to which God has called us. In contrast to the experience of many missionaries, the church culture and our host culture are quite similar, perhaps too similar.
Our host culture, however hospitable or hostile it may be for believers, influences such things as the language we use, the music that lifts us to God, the rituals that form and sustain us, and the way we organize ourselves. Indeed, many aspects of the church and ministry that we accept without question grew out of our home culture rather than out of the Bible or the first century Christian culture.
If the people look like us, dress about like we do, speak more or less the same language as ours, and work at similar jobs, we may see little need to learn and appreciate the differences between their social realities and ours. Too often our perceptions of culture and ministry are sub-conscious and unexamined, so we may not recognize significant barriers to ministry. Unless we think carefully about our home culture, the church culture and the cultures God is calling us to serve, we may find it difficult to notice when our own cultural pride, not the demands of the Christian culture, leaves us culturally insensitive in ways that become obstacles to the gospel.
All, or at least most, of us have some temptation to pride in the superiority of our own culture. We must be willing to have God help us set aside that pride whenever it might get in the way of loving people from other cultures and sub-cultures.
Most of us have some difficulty distinguishing our home culture from the Christian culture. My parents taught me many good things including love for God and love for country. With God’s help, I must learn to distinguish between what is essentially Christian and what is part of the national culture.
Every church ministers within some particular context. In addition to distinct subgroups with differences in language or heritage that present challenges for effectively communicating the gospel, differences in income, occupation, and location may require sensitive ministry adaptation. The demographic resources available at www.nazareneresearch.orgare intended to help you prayerfully consider the context of your ministry. There may be people groups near your church that God wants you to discover and serve.
by Kenneth Crow