Does Culture Count?

A key element of our missiology is our understanding of what heavenly worship will look like. This will affect the degree to which we value the individual cultures of the nations. It seems that most of us tend toward one of two extremes. Of course, I simplify here for the sake of discussion.

  • Multi-cultural Church: A people group’s culture is of eternal significance in that the unique attributes were built into it by God and that He is glorified by an expression of faith and worship through that cultural lens. In other words, people can and should be discipled within their own culture because God wants to be worshiped by different people in their different ways. In missions, these are the folks who go to great lengths to learn their people group’s language and customs, and make efforts to blend into the culture in order to minimize the differences between them and the people. Most of the questions about what the church should look like are left to be answered by new believers.
  • A-cultural Church: There is a biblically-mandated “culture of the church” that runs contrary to the culture of the world. A people group’s culture is therefore not something that should be respected, as most of it needs to be “taken off” upon salvation. In missions, these “a-cultural church” church planters tend to worry less about losing their American accent or living like the nationals, and rely more on the power of objective truth of the gospel as they share it with people who are different from them.

I’m sure that you find your own opinion somewhere in-between the “multi-cultural church” and “a-cultural church” positions. Nearly all of us would say that a church should be indigenous- that it should be contextually appropriate to the culture. People should not have to learn English or wear western clothing in order to hear and understand the gospel. When it comes to “the nations,” most would lean toward the “multi-cultural” understanding of the universal church.

On the other hand, we understand that the church is necessarily marked by a distinct “Kingdom culture” that often conflicts with societal norms. Equality, unity, compassion, discipline- the culture and values of the church make it stand out from the world. We cannot be judgmental, controlling, greedy, bitter, or materialistic, no matter how ingrained these vices may be in our culture. Jesus sums up the “culture of the kingdom” with a lot of His, “You’ve heard it said… but I say…” comments. The church’s culture is not natural to sinful humanity. It is counter-cultural.

So we see that we need some good balance of indigenous and Kingdom cultures in the churches we plant. Consider, however, the West. Whenever the conversation turns to church planting in a postmodern, post-Christian context, people seem to run to the “a-cultural” extreme of the argument. “You can’t be postmodern and a Christian” some would say. “They cannot use words that we consider to be profane,” they say. “They must dress appropriately” they think, and “if they’re ashamed to call it a church, than it isn’t a church.” (These, by the way, are near quotes of what I’ve heard missionary colleagues and supporters back home say whenever I try to discuss what the indigenous church might look like in Western Europe.)

In Revelation 7, John recounts the vision God gave him of multitudes worshiping Jesus. The countless hoards of people, John writes, were “from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. ” For many of us, that same vision is what drives us today, together with the desire to be part of what God has said is certain to happen. We want to see the diversity of God’s children unified in worship. But not everyone sees the value and beauty of culture, especially when it comes to missions in a culture that seems near to our own.

I believe that the indigenous church in Western Europe, made up of mature, faithful believers, will look very different from the traditional churches that can be found here today. I believe that a follower of Christ in this culture will think very differently about gender roles in the church, alcohol use, experience of real supernatural activity, and celebration of worship, fellowship, and community than most of the churches that send me. I think that’s okay, because to me, culture counts. It’s the “language” we use to understand and relate to the world around us, and it allows us to worship God in a way that is real and meaningful to us.

29 thoughts on “Does Culture Count?

  1. Sometimes I think what is most lacking is an understanding of church history. Historically speaking, church tradition is an infinitely branching tree, with major branches into Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant divisions, then smaller branches into denominations, even down to individual churches. To sit on the end of a limb, hanging onto the tiny cluster of leaves that is post-1960, pre-1990 traditional Southern Baptist, and say that our little branch, alone among the nations, has it right, is patently absurd.

    Especially when speaking of the church. Do we not understand that the Body of Christ spans both place and time? That we are in communion not only with our brothers in Europe and Asia, but also our brothers in 19th century America? Make no mistake, a Southern Baptist c. 1870 would walk into a “traditional” SBC church today and denounce them all for heretics. Playing the organ in church? Papist trappings! Women without hats? And wearing pants?!? Harlots! Using grape juice instead of wine for communion? Only liberals do that! Don’t we read the Bible? Must be the heretical non-KJV Bibles we’re reading, to lead us into such error.

    As with other contemporary Baptist controversy, an ounce of humility would go a log way.

  2. Put me firmly down in the multi-cultural understanding and practice category. Of course, I could be wrong. All those whom I know in the culture doesn’t matter category say it does matter but when they go out and do they reveal otherwise. So, maybe I am likewise self-deceived? Perhaps. Humility is indeed needed. But I have learned much from my national friends about the Lord that we have failed to learn in the West. They know deep down what they are entitled to and what they are not while I struggle with the fact that I don’t live anywhere near a Pizza Hut.

  3. When I was in seminary, the poster child church in our area was called mulit-cultural. But what that meant was they had several people groups meeting in their building at different times in the week. There seemed to be very little integration, which can be taken as prejudice, but I figure its more about these people trying to survive their immigration and live life in a new world.

    I lean far to the other side of the a-cultural folks. To me culture is a normal, essential way of doing life. The picture in Revelation is one of transcendence, of an experience larger than culture. I don’t think, however, that all our time spent in heaven is sitting in a big church multicultural church service.

  4. Beautifully said, stepchild. Kingdom Cultural does and will find its expression in all the cultures of the world, even post-modern–whatever that is! God is is amazingly creative (must be why we call Him Creator!). Yes, there is an old man to be put off and a new man to be put on, but God still celebrates the cultures of the world. Every generation has tended to freak out the previous generation only to be freaked out by the next. Seems those generational changes are coming faster all the time, but you really seem to be willing to engage this rapidly changing culture and grapple with the tough questions. Stay the course. You are on to something here. Blessings,

    Jeff

  5. I think the fact that John could see that there was diversity of peoples, tongues, and tribes could suggest they are still worshiping from their cultural context. Of course, God could have simply revealed that to John, but I have a feeling that God’s glory in the context of every culture of humanity will be an amazing sight.

    What is truly amazing about the gospel and about Kingdom culture is that it translates into every human culture. It is separate/holy, and it stands out in every culture, but there is no culture in which the Kingdom cannot exist. Incredible.

  6. Stepchild,
    I wouldn’t have a problem with an indigenous church “looking” different.

    I also don’t have a problem with Christians in a particular culture “thinking” differently; as long as they are thinking biblically. The list you gave was very interesting, and any conclusions that an indigenous church would draw on those issues should first come from a bible-saturated mind.

    We need to allow for “thinking biblically” to look different in different cultures. We also need to emphasize “thinking biblically” with those to whom we minister.

    I like your statement, “We want to see the diversity of God’s children unified in worship.” Does the diversity mentioned in Rev. 7 mean that cultural identity will be with us forever? Hard to say. Multi-culturalism is a reality in the world today, it has been since Babel. But it hasn’t always been that way, and may not always be either.

    Just some thoughts from a SAM missy butting in on you Europe folks.

  7. Stepchild,
    I wouldn’t have a problem with an indigenous church “looking” different.

    I also don’t have a problem with Christians in a particular culture “thinking” differently; as long as they are thinking biblically. The list you gave was very interesting, and any conclusions that an indigenous church would draw on those issues should first come from a bible-saturated mind.

    We need to allow for “thinking biblically” to look different in different cultures. We also need to emphasize “thinking biblically” with those to whom we minister.

    I like your statement, “We want to see the diversity of God’s children unified in worship.” Does the diversity mentioned in Rev. 7 mean that cultural identity will be with us forever? Hard to say. Multi-culturalism is a reality in the world today, it has been since Babel. But it hasn’t always been that way, and may not always be either.

    Just some thoughts from a SAM missy butting in on you Europe folks.

  8. bryan

    “thinking biblically” is pretty difficult to gauge in a culture without a text, and among a people group who can’t read. this is one of my favorite can of worms issues to open up, but will refrain.

    watchman

  9. Watchman,
    Well I won’t open it up; just peek in a bit. You are right. We are currently working among such a people group. As I think it is one of the key tasks of missions to other cultures who don’t have, as you say, text or literacy, this is what we are currently working on.

    One of Stepchilds points was that Indigenous Christians in his culture might think differently then, say, FBC ToadSuck Georgia. I think this “thinking differently” needs to be biblically framed and we should work to help them get there.

    Apologies in advance to anyone from ToadSuck.

    Also apologies for posting my last comment twice. It wasn’t twice as important; I’m just blog challenged.

  10. Hey – I’ve got family in Toadsuck!

    Seriously, Brian, while I agree with your sentiment, we have to remember that one man’s “biblical” is another man’s “heresy.” Within the text, there’s a whole lot of room for practical, even doctrinal variance. What we have to look out for, I think, are the same errors that tripped up pre-Biblical churches (that is, before the canon c. 300 AD): heresy that strays not from the accepted Bible, but from the divinity and sufficiency of Christ. Everything else, in the end, is probably so much tomato-tomahto.

  11. Publius,
    I wasn’t saying that we stand in judgement over their “biblical.” But that we train them to go to the bible for the answers. We have no other source of truth and neither do they.

    Fortunately for us, in contrast to the churches pre-canon, we have the canon.

    Saludos a Toadsuck.

  12. I think we’ve all heard the jokes about various denominational groups (sometimes Baptists, sometimes Church of Christ…) in heaven in different rooms all by themselves, thinking they’re the only ones there. In the same vein, I don’t imagine worship in heaven taking place in “cultural cubicles” each one separate from the other. I do see the mix of cultures still present, but, in the midst of it all, an incredible blend of unity that is not uniformity. I’ve heard it described before as a cultural and ethnic tapestry.

    As I understand it, the danger of the extreme version of the multi-cultural view would be to isolate ourselves culturally from one another, and only work towards practical unity with those who are just like us. But the “end-vision” expressed in Eph. 4 is one of the essential unity of the entire Body of Christ. Any missionary or evangelistic vision that stops short of this is, I believe, defective.

    What is the practical application of this for the context we are talking about? I believe we must be all things to all men in order to reach some. So, yes, we must learn to think, and at least, in some ways, act like post-moderns, in order to reach post-moderns. But we must also disciple post-moderns to come to appreciate and put into practice their essential unity with modern and traditional believers.

  13. stepchild,

    did the baptist police finally catch up with you? please post something soon or we’ll have to put out an APB.

    watchman

  14. I was just wondering the same thing.

    And “watchman,” what’s an APB anyway? Is it anything like an article in ABP?

  15. Stepchild, I have friends in this part of Europe reading your blog, connecting with it and wanting to meet you. Why not come spend a day or two with us – it just might be fun. knnuki

  16. Stepchild, No-one knows what you’ve been up to recently, but I do!! Great meeting you and I will hungrily read your blog! Remain true to yourself, your God given personality and your mission. You are indeed refreshment for the soul and Jesus oozes right out of you.

  17. Writers block? We miss you guy. Come back.
    Hello?
    Hello?
    Anybody there?

    As my wife you used to say to me when I came home late from being out visiting when I was in the pastorate, ‘You’d better have won someone to the Lord if your going to be this late.’

  18. Stepchild,

    i’m sure your fan base is large enough that we can raise money for a new spell-check program if that would help you get back to writing.

    watchman

  19. Me and all my friends, we’re not stopping til you come up with a new post, Stepchild. Starting now.

    We Want Stepchild! We Want Stepchild! We Want Stepchild! We Want Stepchild!

    (C’mon everyone, help me out)

    We Want Stepchild! We Want Stepchild…

  20. I’m beginning to think maybe the rapture has taken place, with stepchild being taken, and the rest of us being left behind. should have listened to tim lahaye.

  21. I don’t think the church’s issue today is trying to maintain our “truth” content- rather that the traditional church, with the goal of being “counter-cultural” has actually created its own “church culture” where we are inward focused. We have our own language, books, music, movies, etc. And these things are not “counter-culture” and have no intrinsic spiritual content, but rather are simply matters of preference for our “Christian culture”. What we need are churches who take away all the reasons non-Christians have come to hate- not church itself- but Christian church culture. I’m a part of a church for people who hate going to church. We take away all the “churchy” culture- all the reasons why non-Christians don’t want to go to church. The church has to do this or we’re going to lose a lot of ground.
    churchtogether.blogspot.com

  22. David Rogers thinks he might have given up blogging for lent. Well, hey it was that or alcohol right? So, We will know if David is right come Monday I suppose.

  23. I would be appreciative if you’d comment on the following that I wrote awhile back. I’d like to get a ‘third person’ perspective.

    “Christian culture is created in Christ and prescribed in the New Testament. Though times change and cultures differ, the Christian culture is unique and exists independently. The way that Christians and churches relate to culture in any place and time may change according to those times and places. But the culture of gathering believers — which exists outside of and independently from world governments, cultures, and standards — is universal and permanent, having neither command to change nor necessity to conform.”

    Thanks.

  24. R.L. Vaughn,
    Thanks for your comment. I appreciate what you’ve written here. It’s nice to know that other people are wrestling with these same concepts.

    You wrote, “…the Christian culture is unique and exists independently…” and, “the culture of gathering believers — which exists outside of and independently from world governments, cultures, and standards…”

    I would tend to disagree with the idea that a “Christian culture” can exist independently of the world’s culture. Our interpretations of scripture, of culture, and of the church are heavily influenced by our cultural context (whether we like it, or admit it, or not). The time I’ve spent with believers from other cultures has shown me that their version of the “Christian culture” that you mention looks very different from what I come from.

    Also, a look at church history will show some huge changes to the way Christians view the world, depending largely on their cultural context. I would say that Christians are to be light in whatever culture they are in, and not worry about trying to create and maintain a “Christian culture.” The Church today and in history proves that this is neither possible nor desired this side of heaven.

    Thanks for asking for my thoughts.

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