Removing Culture from Missions: Getting to Biblical truths
Christians around the world have a shared love for non-Christian people, a passion for their eternal good, and a desire to see them come to faith in Jesus Christ. It is because of this that we also share an interest in missions: the work of going and making disciples among non-Christian people groups. In spite of these considerable common interests, there has been an unfortunate tendency among some Christians over the past few decades to view missions through an ideological lens that is often rooted more in culture than the Bible. As a result, the meaning and practice of missions have been distorted by misunderstandings about culture, its role in missions, and how we should go about sharing our faith with others.
What is Culture?
Culture is the broad patterns of human behaviour and social expression, as well as the concepts, resources, and symbols that inform these behaviours. It is what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. For example, our culture has different greeting and communication customs, ways of learning and instructing children, and ways of governing and resolving social conflict.
Culture is the fabric that holds society together through the shared values and identities of those who live within it. It is the largely unwritten rules and social norms that influence how people think, feel, and act towards each other. Its patterns are interwoven into the fabric of everyday life and are often so much a part of who we are that we don’t even recognise them as culture. Culture is also the way that people of different cultures interact with each other. For example, in some cultures, one has to bow when greeting another person. In other cultures, one only has to shake hands.
Confusing Culture with Co-Culture
Culture is not co-culture. Culture is not the set of values and practices that are associated with one particular group of people, but it is the broad patterns of human behaviour and social expression, as well as the concepts, resources, and symbols that inform these behaviours. It is what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. Co-culture often refers to another culture that is located in the same general region as one’s own culture. When someone refers to the “North American church”, they are referring to the group of people who live in North America, speak the same language, and have similar cultural backgrounds. When someone refers to the “Asian church”, they are referring to the group of people who live in Asia and have Asian cultural backgrounds. The problem with co-culture is that it encourages Christians to think that the best way to share their faith with people who speak their language and come from their cultural backgrounds is for them to change their behaviour and adopt the ways of thinking and acting associated with that culture.
How does Culture Matter in Missions?
Culture is a lens through which people view themselves, their current circumstances, and their future. It functions like a pair of glasses that colours their worldview. Because culture is so deeply embedded in a person’s thinking and behaviour, influencing it is an enormous challenge. For example, consider the idea of individualism and collectivism as lenses that colour a person’s view of themselves and others. In the West, we tend to be individualistic. According to sociologist George R. Ritzer, “Individualism is the idea that each person is a separate and distinct unit. It is the idea that each person is a closed system, autonomous and self-contained.” In the East, people tend to be collectivistic. They see themselves and others as closely connected to one another in interdependent and mutually beneficial relationships. They are not separate and distinct units, but are closely connected together in a system.
Getting to the Truth: Why Culture Matters in Missions
While it is true that culture should not be reduced to co-culture and that culture does matter in missions, we must get to the truth of this matter. We must ask why culture matters, not just assume that it does. And we must also ask what matters about culture and what doesn’t matter, not just assume that everything about it matters. The truth is that culture has a significant role to play in facilitating or impeding the way people receive the gospel of Christ. Culture can positively impact the gospel or negatively impact it, depending on the type of culture someone has. Culture is like a person’s pair of glasses. It colours their worldview, and it can either positively impact or negatively impact how they view the gospel. For example, someone with a Japanese cultural background who is presented with the gospel will be influenced by their cultural lenses. They are likely to view themselves as part of a community (their family and friends) and see God as a communal being who is deeply engaged in their lives and with others. They will be more inclined to accept the need for a community, and the gospel will look attractive to them.
Dissecting Culture for the Gospel
Using the American church as an example, we need to examine our beliefs and practices and see if it lines up with God’s word regardless of location. A part of that examination is an honest examination of why we believe what we do. For example, Americans can get hung up on modesty. Many times missionaries have gone into African tribes and require converts to adopt western dress. The results have not always been what hoped for at the time. Often, adultery has increased instead of decreasing. Why? Most Americans’ view of modesty was introduced by the Puritans. At the root of Puritan thought was women’s need to cover up so as to not temp the man. This is NOT God’s view. I would offer that the men of the time were trying to pass along responsibility for their actions to the women. In other words, it was the woman’s fault for showing me her skin. Instead, the Bible teaches us to take responsibility for our own actions and in this case, honor and love others as Christ loved the church. This kind of love died for us, not shifting the blame for sin to another. In fact, Jesus shifted the blame to himself for actions that were clearly not His own.
Another example I take from a South Sudanese friend of mine who studied in the USA with a group of the “Lost Boys” from Sudan. He shared that during a final exam they all failed for sharing the answers with one another. To an American, we would say, of course, they were cheating. This would be true because we are taught to be independent and competitive, but my friend was shocked. Why would they be penalized for making sure they all passed the course. This is the correct way of thinking when the community is lifted higher than the individual. Here is where we must dig into the Word and see what God says about it. Depending on the situation would dictate how His word is applied, but generally, love for one another (helping another) is more important than individual accomplishments.
Culture impacts how people view the world and their role in it, as well as their view of God. For this reason, culture must be considered in missions. However, we must be careful that we do not reduce culture to co-culture or assume that everything about culture matters. We must get to the truth of the matter so that we can properly view culture through the lens of the gospel, and see it as God sees it.