Culture: Palace or Prison?

Ministry happens in the medium of culture. In fact, all of life does. Some have compared culture to the air we walk through and breath every day. For this reason, we love talking about “engaging culture.” Some question whether we should concern ourselves with culture at all in ministry, as though it is a distraction from our mission. Certainly, it is possible to major in the minors and focus on some form of cultural agenda instead of the Great Commission given by Christ to his church, but there is no question about engaging culture.

The question is actually how well we interact with culture while fulfilling 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. That language is far more than verbal. It is spoken language, written language, body language, and societal language. It is the language of life, and every time you attempt to live out your calling as a Christian, whether you are a missionary in Africa or a regular church member in Raleigh, you do so in an inculturated way. But, do you do it well?

Christians have a responsibility to understand culture and how it works, so that they can contextualize the gospel. Contextualization is fancy-speak for the process of adapting a message to a particular culture (or context) so that those in that culture can understand it. Now, this is a real big deal 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.

Everyone has a culture.

You have one. I have one. We all have one. Everybody sees the world through a particular lens. We talk about people having a worldview. These two ideas, culture and worldview, hold hands in shaping how we understand everything around us. At its best, 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.

Culture runs deep too. It is like an iceberg with much more under the surface than we ever realize. This is important for two reasons. First, Christians need to actively learn the culture of others. We need to be trying 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 very different than us nowadays, and it is our gospel responsibility to learn about them so that we can contextualize the good news of Christ to different worldviews.

Secondly, culture runs deep in us too. We assume more about the world than we ever realize, and this is because our culture runs down deep into our foundational beliefs about life, family, faith, and society. Often times, we are unaware of how much this affects the way we communicate with others. We need look no further than the current political season to see this in bold display. Groups of people ardently, genuinely believe the “other side” is crazy, because they do not see things the same way. And these two groups are both in the same country and speak the same language! Now consider the differences that exist across the globe.

How is the gospel supposed to make sense to all of these people?

Way back 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 is a pretty comfortable place to be. 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 is not always a bad thing. This is why time with family is meaningful. It explains why you love going to that football game with 60,000 other people cheering on your team. It is why I think southern food is the best food, and getting to go home to Tennessee is a joy. This 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, then it is another experience altogether. 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.

This is even more true when we do not realize it. Culture blinds us to differences in opinion. We take things as foundational truths because our worldview tells us so, only to find out that others from a different culture fundamentally disagree with that “bedrock truth.” When we are ignorant of the walls created by culture, we fail to communicate across them effectively.

Why does it matter?

I hope you take away two things from this article. First, I hope you understand the importance of realizing that 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 and peel back the curtain on your culture. What are the presuppositions that guide your way of viewing the world?

Second, I hope you see the need for understanding other cultures. I desire that our local churches in North America take seriously the unprecedented opportunity to do cross-cultural ministry in our own communities. You have a Muslim neighbor that needs to know the gospel, and I firmly believe God put them there because you already know it. To do that, we must get better at learning other cultures. We love talking about culture today, but no amount of well-wishing and merely saying we care about reaching others bridges the cultural barrier. If we do not actually change the way we communicate the good news it is not delivered.

A Final Caveat

I would hope this goes without saying, but in order to be clear, I want to stake a claim on objective truth. Every time people start talking about contextualization, it seems this question slips into the conversation. 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. That said, 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.

 

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