Cultural sensitivity and the church's outreach

Week Three: Missions and Culture

"For us to disregard culture is to disregard the practice of being incarnational, since being incarnational involves awareness of the culture around us."
     -- Jeff W., Nazarene Bible College student

A lecture for students taking Global Evangelism online on the connections between missions and culture

Are you a visual learner? If so, you'll like this week's reading about culture. This section of our textbook is chock full of diagrams!

Wait a minute. Culture? Doesn't that have to do with opera, multiple forks next to your plate, and struggling to read thick, almost incomprehensible books?

Well, elegance is one idea of what "culture" means. In fact, Southern Nazarene University's motto is: "Character, Culture, Christ." The middle word of that motto can mean refinement and manners and learning (including reading lots of thick books).

However, "culture" also has a broader meaning. That broader meaning carries tremendous significance for global evangelism.

In its broader terms, culture has been called by Louis Luzbetak "a socially shared design for living." It includes those learned patterns of life and the material culture that supports them. Among the items in this box called culture, we find verbal and non-verbal communication, food, music, and the other arts, decision-making processes, gender roles, use of time, making a living, transportation systems, and the ways we initiate and cultivate relationships.

"Culture," anthropologist Philip Bock has written, "is what makes you a stranger when you are far from home." [ see PowerPoint slide ]

"Whoa!" you're saying. "Hold your horses. I signed up for a course in Global Evangelism. Why are we spending time on this? Shouldn't we be out there preaching Jesus and calling people to repent of their sins?"

I wanted to come up with ten distinct reasons to study culture. So far, I have five. Help me out. Add some more:

  1. The Bible celebrates culture, often giving elaborate descriptions. God's creative genius is reflected in the tremendous cultural variations of our world.
  2. The Bible itself came to us as a product of culture (We wouldn't have the Bible were it not for languages, writing instruments, paper, the keeping of genealogies, the handing down of stories, and so on.)
  3. Paul was very conscious of culture as an issue in evangelism and even church structure.
  4. The Incarnation: Jesus was not an anonymous Any-man of any culture. He was born as a Jew, lived as a Jew, died as a Jew, and was buried as a Jew.
  5. Heaven will celebrate culture (Revelation 9:7 - "every tribe, every tongue, every people")

If we are to imitate Jesus in being involved in incarnational ministry, we must see culture as an important factor.

If we are to bond with the people to whom God sends us, we must "tabernacle" with them in the phraseology of John 1:14. As Doug Samples used to remind ministerial students at Southern Nazarene University: "People act in ways that make sense to them."

One of the readings for week 2 mentioned Roland Allen and his book Missionary Methods: St. Paul's or Ours? The article writer urged us to follow Allen's urging to allow the Holy Spirit to lead the churches that we may help plant "to develop (their) own forms of polity, ministry, worship, and life." Does this mean a totally hands-off work in which anything goes?

Let's look at some practical things:

  1. Buildings for worship: One involves building construction. Some early Protestant missionaries to China built buildings that looked like their church buildings back home. In China, those buildings gave Christianity a foreign flavor. It would have been far better to have done what Adoniram Judson did in Burma: use Burmese style architecture with Burmese seating patterns and other cultural peculiarities.
  2. Worship events -- Music: For many years, Nazarene General Superintendents insisted on using Mrs. C. H. Morris' gospel song "Holiness Unto the Lord" in ministerial ordination services worldwide.

    As commendable as the desire is to establish some uniformity and sense of a global Nazarene family, the use of a 100-year-old American gospel song ignores the fact that music is very culture-specific.

    For example, that wonderful song sounds extremely Western to those from Asia where music uses quarter-tones (rather than the half-tones we are used to).

    Then, it's also very martial or military sounding. It makes you want to get up and get marching, doesn't it? That's all well and good for people of German descent and other cultures with martial-sounding music. But that kind of music doesn't sound very Italian. One of the most Italian of all music styles is the opera (Think of "O Sole Mio," for example). To many Italian ears, the tune to which Americans sing "Holiness Unto the Lord" doesn't sound very Italian.

    So, while "Holiness Unto the Lord" made Western missionaries and General Superintendents who are American citizens feel right at home, it has a foreign sound to those of other cultures (even if they like it!).
  3. Worship events -- sacraments: Charles Kraft has talked about believers in other countries being taken aback that baptism was just a 10-minute ceremony when, in their culture, it took three days to celebrate anything significant. To them, being done with the sacrament of baptism in 10 minutes indicated it did not mark anything very significant.
  4. Decision making: In U.S. culture, the call for someone to forget what friends and family would say and step out boldly for Christ is acceptable. In many other cultures individual decisions are frowned on. If a foreign evangelist insists on making calls for individual decisions, he will wind up with a church full of outcasts and misfits. In such cultures, the call to accept Christ needs to be made to family and other such groups (in those cases, missiologists talk about mutually-interdependent decisions).
  5. Social ills: The cultural mosaic of our globe is causing us as an international denomination to take a look at our Manual. Early in our history, General Assemblies began pinpointing some key moral issues on which the church should take a stand. These included addictions to things like alcohol and nicotine and pornography and the social problems associated with alcohol consumption. The Manual has not addressed what is a major problem for new converts in many areas of the world: polygamy. It doesn't address the chewing of betel nuts. As we become a global church, what do we do about addressing the social ills of various corners of the globe? Do we load up the Manual by trying to speak to every problem of every culture?

I'm not pointing out the architecture, music, or social ills examples to criticize. I use them to illustrate how easy it is for the gospel message to show up in foreign garb. We don't want that to happen. We want to be communicating with people in their heart language.

For that reason, Hudson Taylor adopted Chinese dress and hairstyle (Chinese males in the 19th century wore long gowns and had their hair braided in long pig-tails). Taylor was ridiculed by Westerners, including other missionaries, but the Chinese did not receive from him a gospel clothed in foreign dress.

When I talk about culture and the gospel, I'm not calling for us to back away from anything we hold dear. I'm not calling for us to start sliding down a slippery slope of compromise on basic values. Instead, I'm calling for us to be engaged in calling people everywhere to be reconciled with Christ and to live a holy lifestyle.

Certainly, there are things in every culture that run cross-grain to gospel essentials. Cannibalism runs counter to the respect for the brotherhood of humanity to which we are called. So, we are called to be change agents in every culture. However, what we are to do is proclaim that one can be most authentically a Haitian or an Italian or a Chinese when one becomes reconciled to his or her Creator through Jesus Christ.

So, if we embrace the idea of cultural diversity, do we wind up with a kind of relativism in which what is wrong in one culture is not wrong in another?

By no means. There are values in every culture which will be enhanced by the coming of Christianity. There are also things in every culture which will be condemned when the gospel message arrives. We cannot be ethnocentric (judging elements of another culture by the yardstick of our own). By the same token, there are some absolutes in culture that help us see how God's design for human beings should be lived out in every culture.

Note: Occasionally, someone will argue that each individual is a "culture" since each person is a unique combination of behaviors, norms, values, and ways of thinking and speaking. While it can be said that each individual is unique, to say that every person has created their own culture ignores the fact that, by definition, culture is shared and passed on.

In a sense, culture works "behind the scene" to define and organize society. The various components of culture allow individuals to communicate, interact, and cooperate with one another. Culture provides people with a shared identity and even purpose. While people have individual quirks and mannerisms, they do not each have their own separate culture.

Discussion questions

  1. What is the broader meaning of culture, and why is it important for global evangelism?
  2. How does the Bible celebrate culture, and why is this significant for understanding the importance of culture in evangelism?
  3. What role does the Holy Spirit play in shaping the forms of polity, ministry, worship, and community life in other countries, and why is this important for missionaries to consider?
  4. What might be some very practical ways in which global missionaries can show cultural sensitivity and appreciation?
  5. How can understanding and respecting culture be considered as part of being incarnational in ministry?

    -- Howard Culbertson,

"The resources we are reading are fantastic. Communication from the professor is very clear and thorough. I am learning things that I can implement immediately in my ministry." - - Allison White, Nazarene Bible College student


Cultural sensibility is paramount for Christian leaders as it enables them to effectively navigate the diverse landscape of beliefs, values, and traditions within the communities they serve. Understanding and respecting different cultures fosters empathy, connection, and trust, which are essential for building meaningful relationships and promoting unity. Moreover, a culturally sensitive approach allows Christian leaders to contextualize their message and ministry, making it relevant and accessible to people from various cultural backgrounds. By embracing cultural diversity, Christian leaders demonstrate the inclusive love and acceptance taught by Jesus Christ, fostering a sense of belonging and acceptance among all members of their community, regardless of their cultural heritage.

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