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10 Things I Have Learnt About Culture

1. There is one human culture

Where it counts we are all the same.

In spite of the very real differences between cultures, every category of humanity shares core realities that forge one human culture, one humanity. Take comfort and refuse to be intimidated by ethnic diversity when preaching the gospel.

Paul`s sermon in Acts 17 notes the following area held in common by every image bearer:

  • We come from one and the same parents—Adam and Eve. Go back far enough and we are all related!
  • There is one judge before whom we will stand before and whom God raised from the dead.  
  • There is one command in which all people everywhere are called to repent, be they Scottish Presbyterian, African animist, Middle Eastem Muslim, Chinese Buddhist or Australia atheists.
  • The one piece of evidence that is deemed sufficient for all to believe is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. People are not simply victims of their upbringing.

We can also add that all are made in God`s image and all fall short of his glory.

Without minimizing the profound differences among cultures, all humans share core truths making gospel ministry across cultures not only possible but essential; not only permissible but necessary. Hence the command by Jesus to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19).

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2. All history is salvation history

Paul in Acts 17 outlines God`s sovereign role in the rise, spread and fall of cultures, nations and tribes. God`s specific purpose is so that people would “reach out for him and find him.”

As we reflect on the migration of people groups across the earth we need to see that God`s stubborn purpose in history is the salvation of the world. God desires all people to be saved and is moving nations with that goal in mind. Let us not squander this great opportunity.

3. Racism is not the sin of just some cultures 

Racism lies in all our hearts to a greater or lesser extent. Whether it’s leant from our parents, peers or personal negative experience, we instinctively project or pre-judge a person by the demographic he or she belongs to.

We need to fight against latent racism within our hearts and with it the unhealthy forms of national pride and patriotism. Racism presents as supremely foolish in the face of the truth that all humans are contingent and fragile image bearers. It’s even worse when found within the church among those who are deemed to be co-heirs with Christ and where the wall of hostility has been demolished.

4. Understand what we mean by culture 

Leslie Newbigin writes that culture is “the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.” (Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 188.) 

No person lives apart from a culture. It covers anything from language to theology; it shapes preferences in music, dance and food and is most likely the reason why you ate rice or rice bubbles for breakfast this morning.

Culture informs how you marry and when you marry. It defines what it means to be a man or women, a husband or wife, a mother or father. It shapes what you think is right or wrong and what you consider is either funny or cool.

5. The dominant culture often finds it hard to see itself as a culture

Dominant cultures see themselves as the norm, making them more vulnerable to being (at best) thoughtlessly paternalistic and (at worst) downright bigoted. The inability to be culturally self-reflective is in my mind like being unaware of your own distinctive accent or detecting your own bad breath. So often we are the last to know and we do need someone to kindly point it out.

Consider for example how the modern western world parades the idea of democratic government as a timeless truth. In reality, it is a cultural expression not a biblical mandate. The voice of the people is never to be confused with the voice of God. Democracy is simply one form of government—a good one, which I happily concede wisely acknowledges a healthy dose of sin by providing the checks and balances of national elections. It is not, however, the “God-given” mode of ruling a nation. 

6. There is an important difference between “culture” and “world”

Creation is what God makes, while culture is what we humans make. Or, as John Frame helpfully puts it, “creation is what God makes by himself, and culture is what he makes through us.”  

A common mistake is to confuse the concept of “culture” with the theological category of  “world”. “Culture” is a bigger category than “world”.

Humans have a cultural mandate to rule and manage this creation under God. This has resulted in music, technology, art and much else. In a post-fall context these have become a vehicle for either for the worship of idols or the worship of the living God.

The notion of “world,” especially in John`s writings, is a specific category often defined as “humanity in organized opposition to God.”

Jesus said: “The world does not hate you but it hates me.” The call to “not love the world” in 1 John 2:15 is not a call to hate culture per se.

Culture is what humans make and it captures not only God`s common grace in creation but the outworking of the fall. It’s the result of humans who are both image bearers and fallen sinners and who in turn have created societies that pass on what they have either created or received. The doctrine of culture is ultimately the doctrine of humanity which, in the words of Francis Schaeffer, is a “glorious ruin: part glory, part ruin”.

That is why we need to adopt one of three positions to any aspect of culture. Through the lens of Scripture elements of a culture are either rejected, received or redeemed. However, the “world” on the other hand is only to be rejected.

To take some highly simplistic examples, we may receive and thank God for the distinctive food of a culture; we may redeem the songs of a culture by changing some of the lyrics (as Luther did with the pub songs of his time), or we may reject outright cultural practices such as infanticide.

7. Three reflections for preachers

a. Preachers are to celebrate each person’s cultural diversity, by receiving what is good with thanksgiving and, importantly, allowing people to “feel comfortable” in their own skin. So often an implicit goal in our discipleship is to equate Christ likeness with Anglo-Saxon middle class values. A Sudanese who becomes a Christian does not have to apologize for their ethnicity nor lose their cultural identity.

b.  Preachers are to help the whole congregation stand back and identify the sins and idols of their culture. No people group is exempt, beginning with our own. Our core identity is Christ not our culture. God commands all people to repent and no area of life is off limits.

c. Preachers are to help the congregation to “sit loose” to their our own cultural preferences and “sit tight” with Jesus. We adopt a mission flexibility that seeks to become “all things to all people.”

All of which is simply to say that Jesus is Lord in all areas of life.

8. No one owns the Christian Faith

Andrew Walls is correct when he says, “no one owns the Christian faith.” No one culture has the right to say Christianity must be done their way. The church is not a McDonalds franchise where one size fits all.

This is why churches around the world should never look exactly the same, for to do so is to deny the legitimate freedom of expression of cultural diversity. And yet they must not be so different that core biblical elements are absent.

Cranmer noted this flexibility in the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church when he wrote:

It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, and utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversities of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word…. (Article XXXIV Of the Traditions of the Church)

And this is why Christianity more than any other religion has been able to adapt and impact so many different cultures. Christianity was birthed in a God-shaped Jewish culture but it was always international in outlook, with the promise to Abram to bless the world (Gen 12:1-3).  

Not surprisingly, “Christianity is the religion of over 2000 different language groups in the world. More people pray and worship in more languages than in another religion in the world.” (Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity?, quoted in T. Keller, The Reasons for God, 255)

9. Where possible effective discipleship involves learning the gospel and its implications in the converts own mother tongue

The way to avoid theological misunderstanding is to be in a context where disciples can learn about Jesus from the scriptures and praise his name in their own heart language.

10. Beware of the homogenous group

On the one hand it is impossible for any ministry to be “all things to all people”. The musical style and vibe of the gathering, the language and vocabulary of the teacher, the demographics of those already attending and even the time of church services will attract some and repel others. 

In my own church we have 70 different people groups represented with 3 interpreter booths and yet we will never effectively reach all whom God has brought to the Westerns Suburbs of Sydney. 

For as long as there is an identifiable ethnic group there is most often a need for an identifiable ethnic specific ministry.

However, the danger of the homogenous group needs to be also acknowledged. Our gatherings can become ethnic and class enclaves in which we fellowship with our “own kind” and we are never challenged by the profoundly inclusive gospel.  

The diversity of the communities in which we live is tragically not reflected nearly enough in our church communities. This implicitly undermines the claim that the gospel is the power of God to save anyone who believe. In time I believe we will be charged by a watching world as being implicit racists who fellowship only with their own people.

It`s also possible to hide behind the legitimate “mission strategy of the homogeneous principle” to justify ethnic-specific ministry when in fact the real aim is to preserve our cultural preferences and identity. At its worst it produces, in some cases, ethnic specific churches who simply refuse to provide a church service for the next generation in a language they understand. The fear that the children will lose their parents language overrides any concern that their offspring may lose their faith by not understanding the preached word. 

Culture must never trump the cause of Christ. 


Postscript: Love covers a multitude of cultural blunders.

When all said and done a genuine gospel hearted commitment to a person from another culture overcomes many cultural faux pas. Love is its own apologetic. 

A case in point: One white middle class Christian senior citizen in Australia took a Chinese refugee under his wing. He visited him regularly, helped him fill out forms, invited him to his home and helped him find a job. After about 3 months the refugee asked the man in broken English, “Why you do this to me?” The Christian tried to explain the love of Jesus but soon realized he was generating more confusion than clarity and eventually gave up. Nevertheless, the refugee understood enough to say, “If your God is like you, I want to worship him!” 

Love covers a multitude of cultural blunders.

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