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 Walters, Nazarene Bible College student
A lecture on missions and culture for students taking Global Evangelism
by Howard Culbertson, emeritus professor of missions, Southern Nazarene
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 and ten 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 does mean refinement and manners and learning (including reading lots of
However, "culture" also has a broader meaning. It's that broader meaning which 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 support 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:
- 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 it were it not for
languages, writing instruments, paper, etc.)
- 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 Dr. Doug Samples used to remind ministerial students at SNU:
"People act in ways that makes 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 we 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. Early 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 have 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 Italian ears, the tune
to which Americans sing "Holiness Unto the Lord" doesn't sound very Italian.
So, while "Holiness Unto the Lord" makes the missionaries and those General
Superintendents who are American 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 mutually interdependent decisions).
- 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 stands. 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 to new converts in many
areas of the world: polygamy. It doesn't address the chewing of betel nut. 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
It's for that reason that Hudson Taylor adopted Chinese dress and hair
style (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 peoples 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 out to do is to
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 which help us see how God's
design for human beings should be lived out in every culture.
Global evangelism course resources:
Course home page
Incomplete work Time
Lectures: 1. Biblical foundations
2. History 3. Culture 4. Strategy, part
I 5. Strategy, part
II 6. Nazarene
missions Time requirements
Cultural Anthropology course resources:
Cultural Bingo icebreaker
Bwanda Fusa game
Christianity and culture
Course home page
Paths to cross-cultural enjoyment
Ethnocentrism and monoculturalism
Exam study guides
Iceberg and concentric circles models of culture
Light bulb illustration: What do you
and culture My own
culture shock PowerPoint
presentations used in class Reading
report Reentry: Coming
home Research paper topic
"Ethics of change"
"Mission" "Points of
Are the "heathen" lost? Answers to an
oft-asked question Do you have a missions