Cultural sensitivity and the church's outreach
- Understanding and respecting culture is important for
incarnational ministry and effective global evangelism.
- Culture is a socially shared design for living, including verbal
and non-verbal communication, food, music, decision-making processes, gender roles, and
- Celebrating and respecting culture is biblical, The Bible itself
is a product of culture. To imitate Jesus in incarnational ministry, we must "tabernacle" with the
people we are trying to reach.
- Missionaries must allow the Holy Spirit to lead and shape the forms of polity, ministry,
worship, and community life in other countries.
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
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
"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:
- The Bible celebrates culture, often giving elaborate descriptions. God's
creative genius is reflected in the tremendous cultural variations of our world.
- 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.)
- Paul was very conscious of culture as an issue in evangelism and
even church structure.
- 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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
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
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!).
- 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
- 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
- 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
componenets 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.
- What is the broader meaning of culture, and why is it important for global
- How does the Bible celebrate culture, and why is this significant for understanding the
importance of culture in evangelism?
- 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?
- What might be some very practical ways in which global missionaries can show cultural
sensitivity and appreciation?
- How can understanding and respecting culture be considered as part of being incarnational in
-- 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
Other weekly lectures for this class
Assignment instruction videos for this course
|What kind of online
you? Do others think
of you as Busy or Wordy or Disconnected Dan? Do you sometimes come off to others as
Oblivious or Trite-ly or even End-times Edith? . . [ more