Missions, Misunderstood » 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.