One of my favorite accounts in the Bible comes from the book of Acts 17 where Paul was at Athens waiting for Silas and Timothy to arrive. Athens was an “educated” society and in today’s language we would call them “open minded.” Much of their time was spent in debate over new ideas and “new thinking.” They had objects of worship scattered throughout the city and as I read and re-read the story I get the impression that they wanted to please everyone and every potential “god” that was out there. Theirs was the “PC” society of the day, much like ours of today – fearful of upsetting anyone’s apple cart in any way, shape or form.
As a missionary, I appreciate Paul’s approach to ministering to the Athenians by studying their culture in order for him to better communicate to the people. This is ministry 101: learn to speak in a way that the audience will understand you. My husband and I made it our business to become “students of culture” in every country we served in; this required us to learn new languages, dress accordingly, learn cultural cues, and adjust our thinking when and where appropriate.
Paul goes on to preach to the Athenians in a way that piques their attention, this is evidenced by their agreeing to “hear more about this from you later.” (vs. 32) This is the power of using culture to gain the attention of the audience. Some ended up converting to Christianity, others did not. What I don’t see Paul doing as he uses culture to preach the message is compromise the message for the sake of culture. In fact, once Paul got his “in” to preaching to the people of Athens, he challenged them to turn from worshipping every god to worshipping the One True God – this went totally against their culture to worship multiple gods and accepting everyone’s new idea.
In our day and age of “relevance” I wonder if we would do well if, instead of using culture as an escape to stay in our cultural norms, we use culture as a doorway into the hearts of people. Culture varies from country to country – but the Gospel is the same. It’s power transcends culture! In fact, God is expressed through each culture individually and is to be celebrated!
When we served in Africa, we learned to replace our Western ideas of worship with African worship. Initially, it was strange, but as we learned culture we saw God’s character expressed in a new style of worship. Now, as I live Stateside, I enjoy singing in my native language of English during worship – but sometimes I close my eyes and remember another style of worship that grips my heart: the songs of Africa.
Different cultures around the world are all expressions of God and are to be appreciated as such. He made each and every culture different and there are parts of all cultures that reflect the beauty of our Creator.
What I’ve found to be the common thread in each and every country that I’ve served in is everyone’s need to excuse certain behaviors because “This is the way we do it here in this country.” Speaking honestly, when I was a foreigner in Africa, I was told “This is the way we do it here, you don’t understand because you don’t come from here. We are far too busy to do more.” Now that I’m an American back in the USA, I hear the a similiar thing, “This is the way we do it here, you don’t understand because you’ve been away so long. We are far too busy to do more.”
The nature of man is the same all around the world. Our lifestyles may occupy us in different ways but everyone is busy. Whereas in Africa people are busy farming, harvesting, washing by hand, fetching water, taking care of babies, and the basics of life, people in America are busy with jobs, family, hobbies, and entertainment. Busy-ness is a common thread around the world; we are unable to escape from its grip!
Could it be that our culture itself is what needs to be challenged?
Could it be that if we want our outreaches to grow in power we have to adjust the way we do things according to Kingdom culture and not our own cultures?
When I studied Cultural Anthropology, I learned that for Christians, its automatic for us to believe that the culture wherein we received Christ becomes the best culture automatically. The views we hold near and dear become “godly” without thought to the actual spiritual consequences of those views. This, I believe, is why we sometimes struggle internally with the cross of Christ and the message that goes crossgrain to earthly cultures.
Here in the USA, we pride ourselves in being “open minded” and caring about what other people think and believe. This vein of thought has infiltrated Christianity to the point where everything we do is filtered through, “How will this make everyone feel?” To the church leader, I say, yes, by all means use culture as a tool to get the message across. However, at the same time, understand that the message of the cross is “foolishness” and will bring conflict wherever it is preached. We cannot hope that we will please people with the message of the cross. The cross offends our pride, the cross displays our utter helplessness without Him. God has created all people with an inner need to know Him and when Jesus is preached, the power of the message draws people. It’s not cultural appropriateness that draws people – it’s only power of God that we can’t apologize for.
It has been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. I want to grow, change, and expand in everything I do – and if this is really the case, then I, not God, must change. Maybe I need to change my priorities, maybe my cultural views have infiltrated me to the point where my needs, my wants, my desires have dethroned Him.