Why Understanding Culture Helps Us Fulfill the Great Commission

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By Keelan Cook

We can’t escape culture. Some have compared culture to the air we walk through and breath every day. What, then, is the best way to interact with culture as we fulfill the Great Commission?

This is an important question to answer as we seek to fulfill our mission. After all, culture is the medium of mission. A culture-less mission is not possible. Like any message, gospel proclamation requires a language of transmission —a verbal language, yes, but also written language, body language and societal language. Culture is the language of life, whether you are a missionary in Africa or a regular church member in Raleigh. All of us navigate culture in our daily lives. But, do we do it well?

Christians, we have a responsibility to understand culture and how it works, so we can contextualize the gospel. Contextualization is fancy-speak for the process of adapting a message to a particular culture (or context) so people in that culture can understand it. Now, this is an important task for a church that has been told to make disciples of all nations, all ethne, all cultures. Understanding culture is important because sharing the gospel with people is important.

Understanding culture is important, because sharing the gospel with people is important.

Everyone has a culture.

You have one. I have one. We all have one. Everybody sees the world through a particular lens.

In other words, everyone has a worldview and exists in a particular culture. Our worldview is the foundation of our belief system and impacts how we understand everything around us. Culture is, in one sense, worldview come to life as people create language, art, tools, and even social norms based on their worldview. These products of culture then circle back to reinforce or adjust a person’s worldview. In this way, culture gives shape to our world and allows us to take in new information and make sense of it.

Nevertheless, like all of creation, culture is marred by the fall. So everyone’s view of the world is incomplete and twisted. This is where the proclamation of the gospel becomes central to the Great Commission. The gospel transforms worldview. Once redeemed, our worldview is increasingly transformed into biblical worldview, which results in the creation of God-honoring culture and the discernment to reject unholy culture.

However, culture also runs deep. It is like an iceberg with much more under the surface than above. Understanding this truth is important for two reasons. First, Christians need to actively learn the culture of others. We can seek to understand how people think, what they feel and how they see the world. This is especially true for local churches in North America that now find themselves living next to Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and scores of other groups. Our neighbors are increasingly different than us, and it is our gospel responsibility to understand them so we can clearly communicate the good news of Christ to them.

Secondly, culture runs deep in us, too. Our culture subtly influences our foundational beliefs about life, family, faith and society. Often, we are unaware of how much this affects the way we communicate with others — including how we communicate the gospel.

If our culture so affects our communication, how will the gospel make sense to our neighbors who are different than us?

In 1998, Sherwood Lingenfelter made a claim about culture that helps us understand how we can make sense of contextual difficulties in sharing the gospel. He claimed that culture is simultaneously a palace and a prison. Below are two quotes from Lingenfelter’s work, Teaching Cross-Culturally, that sum up the idea well.

Culture is a palace.

[Culture] is a palace when there are no other contesting voices around us, when we can live fairly comfortable, ordered lives in the context of our own cultural system.

When everyone in the room thinks the same way, that room can feel pretty comfortable. Shared culture reinforces views, and it pats you on the back for feeling the way you do. In this regard, culture is a palace that makes you confident and comfortable in your views.

This aspect of culture is not always bad. This experience of feeling reinforced is why time with family is meaningful or why you love going to football games with thousands of other people cheering on your team. It is why I think southern food is the best food, and going home to Tennessee is a joy. This reinforcement produces a sense of identity, and it solidifies values.

Culture is a prison.

However, when we are pushed into relationships that are outside the boundaries of our culture, that culture becomes a prison to us. We are blind to other ways of seeing and doing things, and we assume that our way is the only way that is appropriate. We become frustrated and angry with those who insist on breaking our rules, and we attempt to enforce our rules on them.

When no one in the room thinks the same way as you, you experience something altogether different. Culture, in this sense starts to feel like a prison. When everything around us is from a different culture, we cease to understand what is happening. The symbols, the communications, the values, and the way of life all have different meaning. We are trapped in our inability to communicate effectively.

In this experience, you assume certain “bedrock truths” only to discover that everyone else disagrees. When we are ignorant of the walls created by culture, we fail to communicate across them effectively.

Why does it matter?

First, realize you are bound by a culture. Your way of viewing the world colors your understanding of everything around you. You have blind spots, and knowing that should change how you approach the most important things in your life as a Christ follower. Try to peel back the curtain on your culture. What unbiblical presuppositions from your culture influence your wordlview?

Second, see your need to understand other cultures. Local churches in North America should take seriously the unprecedented opportunity to do cross-cultural ministry in our own communities. Do you have a neighbor from a different faith tradition, or someone from a different country of origin? These people need to know the gospel, and perhaps God placed them there so you can share it with them. To do that, we must get better at learning other cultures. Only when we understand their culture can we communicate appropriately and bridge the cultural barrier.

A Final Caveat

When we talk about contextualization, some people wonder if we are rejecting absolute truth. Not at all. Just because people see truths differently does not mean truths do not exist.

The gospel is true for every culture. The words of God to man stand as words for every people in every place. The salvation offered by Christ is the exclusive means of restored relationship with our Heavenly Father, regardless of one’s background. The gospel never changes.

How we communicate the gospel might. Every message has a medium through which it passes. The gospel is always passed to people in cultural forms, so we must be clear that we are passing it on well. Our goal is to share an unchanging gospel in a way people can understand.

A version of this article originally published at The Peoples Next Door.

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Keelan Cook

Keelan Cook is an Instructor of North American Missiology for Southeastern and serves in the Center for Great Commission Studies as the Coordinator of Diaspora Missions. He also serves as the Senior Church Consultant with the Union Baptist Association in Houston, TX. In previous years, he spent time as a church planter in West Africa with the IMB and doing ethno-graphic research in Washington, DC with NAMB. He and his wife Meredith live in Houston.

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