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Cultural Awareness in Christian Ministry

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What is ‘cultural awareness’?

Human culture is the patterns of thought, relationships, values, beliefs and behaviour expressed in any human community. It is usually assumed and accepted without critical reflection. It is universal but, of course, expressed in different ways: There is Western culture, Chinese culture, 21st century culture, 16th century culture, European Culture, Australian culture—and within Australia there is outback culture, rural culture, regional culture, suburban culture, inner-city culture, wealthy culture, middle-class culture, working-class culture, and welfare culture. There is also indigenous culture and the different cultures of each immigrant group. Different age-groups have different cultures. Different sports have different cultures.

Although being ‘Australian’ is our main cultural grouping, our ‘sub-cultures’ are even more powerful. Imagine what would happen at a party if you invited bankers and bikies! Culture unites, and cultures divide.

Although being ‘Australian’ is our main cultural grouping, our ‘sub-cultures’ are even more powerful. Imagine what would happen at a party if you invited bankers and bikies! Culture unites, and cultures divide. Music is an excellent example of human culture. In some nations, there is one national style of music, which unites the nation. In most nations, there are many different musical cultures, and so music divides. You may even experience musical cultural divide or cultural divide between different age groups in your church!

Human culture shapes our identity. When we meet people with the same culture we feel an immediate affinity. When we meet people of a different culture, we may enjoy the differences, or we may be repelled by some of them.

When do we use cultural awareness?

We use it when we read the Bible

Here are some examples:

  • Abraham was a nomad, and that is how we read of the way he lived in the promised land. The fact that he was a nomad does have theological significance, but it was also a normal mode of life in that time.
  • In the Old Testament, the word ‘gate’ or ‘gates’ refers to the gates of a city or village, not, as we might expect, the gates of private houses. So in Deuteronomy 6:9, to write God’s law ‘on your gates’ means on the gates of your village or city, where public affairs are discussed and legal transactions made.
  • We might think that the many concubines of Solomon or the king of Persia signifies immense sexual greed. But in those days great rulers used concubines to support political alliances, as well as for their beauty and sex.

Bible Culture and Genre

Each literary style in the Bible is an expression of the culture of its day, including history, poetry, wisdom, parables, prophecy, apocalyptic, and letters.

God’s creation and salvation plan is worked out in human history, as his verbal revelation is given in human words. God’s works and his words are expressed in human culture, and his personal presence in his incarnate Son is also an enculturated event and presence.

As we read the Bible carefully, we are aware that many different cultures are described, including ancient Middle East, Egyptian, Canaanite, Israelite, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman. And there are also different subcultures within these cultures, including the poor and the rich.

Then we are aware of the different sub-cultures of the Holy Land in Jesus’ day, including ‘sinners’, ‘lepers’, gentiles’, ‘Roman officials’, ‘pharisees’, ‘Sadducees’, ‘women’, people who are ill, ‘Samaritans’, ‘Galileans’, and visitors from the Jewish diaspora. In the gospels we see how Jesus was adept at cross-cultural and cross-sub-cultural relationship and communication.

In the gospels we see how Jesus was adept at cross-cultural and cross-sub-cultural relationship and communication.

We use cultural awareness in interpreting Jesus words, including ‘if your eye offends you, tear it out and throw it away’, take up your cross’ (Matthew 5:29; 10:38). Language, literary style, and genre, are all aspects of human culture. The Bible is not a product of 21st Century human culture, and good translations convey the meaning without losing the cultural distance.

You may say that all of these are obvious, and not worth mentioning. But the fact that you recognise them, and assume them, means you have already employed cultural awareness, even if you don’t know it!

Paul and Culture 

Acts, Revelation, and the New Testament letters introduce us to some of the different cultures and sub-cultures of the Roman Empire. In his role as apostle to the Gentiles, Paul provides a vivid example of cross-cultural awareness. He recognises the difference between the theological and cultural requirements of the Old Testament and the theological and cultural requirements of contemporary Judaism. He enables Gentiles to embrace the former (as they are fulfilled in Christ) and helps deliver them from the latter. This task requires theological clarity and cultural awareness. His wisdom is expressed in these words:

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some (1 Corinthians 9:19-22 NRSV).

This cultural wisdom is also expressed in the practicalities of his ministry: for example, Timothy is circumcised, and Titus is not (Acts 16:3, Galatians 2:3). Paul deals with the application of food laws and idolatry with theological clarity, cultural awareness, and pastoral sensitivity (Romans 14:1-15:13, 1 Corinthians 8,10 etc.).

We need to use it in our ministry every day

One danger for ministers is that we imagine that everyone else is just like us and treating them accordingly. We need to be in the business of conforming people to Christ, not to ourselves!

Here is a check-list that we must learn to use instinctively:

  • age,
  • gender,
  • social background,
  • ethnicity,
  • religion,
  • Bible knowledge,
  • character,
  • health,
  • politeness,
  • communication style,
  • life-stage,
  • intelligence,
  • openness to new ideas,
  • way of learning,
  • flexibility,
  • energy,
  • politics,
  • interests,
  • etc.

The more varied the people to whom you minister, the more cross-cultural awareness you need.

Some who do not see the need for cross-cultural awareness can still do excellent ministry in one niche context—for example among: youth, students, traditional or radical people, those who are ill. Their challenge will come when their work begins to take in people from other cultures.

I used to say to young people about to be ordained to serve in a traditional Anglican church: ‘Think of it as cross-cultural ministry.’ And to youth workers: ‘In five years’ time young people will have a new culture—get ready for it!’ Because one of the extraordinary features of Western culture is the rapid rate of cultural and sub-cultural change. We all need cross-cultural awareness and cross-cultural adaptability.

One of the extraordinary features of Western culture is the rapid rate of cultural and sub-cultural change. We all need cross-cultural awareness and cross-cultural adaptability.

God of All Cutures 

  • We believe in a cross-cultural God, whose gospel works in every culture and sub-culture; and who can be served in any culture and sub-culture.
  • We believe in Christ who came to save people from every culture and sub-culture.
  • We believe in a Holy-Spirit inspired Bible which can be translated into every culture and sub-culture.
  • We believe in the church—the people of God—which includes people from every culture and sub-culture. We know that Jesus told his followers to make disciples of all nations, and that people from every tribe and language and people and nation will worship the Lamb.

Growing in cultural awareness and cultural adaptability is a human duty, and a Christian privilege. And it is essential to Christian ministry!


‘Dear Heavenly Father, please grow in me the ability to be all things to all people, for their benefit, for gospel growth, and for your glory. Amen’

‘Praise be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation and comfort…’ (2 Corinthians 1:3)

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