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It’s that time of year when Christian college students abandon lives of comfort in the U.S. in order to sacrifice their Spring Breaks for Jesus. Bags are packed. Passports are secured. They’ve purchased new Chacos and North Face apparel. Cash is tucked away in books, socks, and anything else not a wallet. And most importantly, they’ve donned matching t-shirts highlighting their destinations and the purpose of their mission.
While this may be a caricature of college mission trips, the shared sense of excitement, fear, and passion is undeniable. Teams prepare months in advance for this intense week of preaching Jesus in a myriad of locations both domestic and international. It is certainly commendable that those who go on these trips have spent considerable time ironing out logistics, praying for the lost, and learning how to contextualize the gospel in their target cultures. In fact, contextualization is often considered of utmost importance to these teams as they prayerfully consider the unique ways in which the gospel may be spoken and applied in various cultures. Just as the Apostle Paul used the Greeks’ own poetry and their altar to the “unknown God” to proclaim Christ in Acts 17, we should study culture in order to contextualize the gospel in both powerful and meaningful ways. However, as one who has led mission teams and facilitated such pre-trip training, I’ve found that it is very easy to ignore the flipside of contextualization—namely, not how the gospel speaks to other cultures, but how our own culture can distort our definition of the gospel. Whether you’re going on a mission trip, or simply seeking to live faithfully where you are, we ought to consider this question: How do I prevent my culture from getting in the way of the gospel?
To begin answering this, indulge me for a moment: close your eyes and imagine the fictitious “ideal” Christian. Consider the marks or attributes that characterize such a person.
Does the ideal Christian read the bible every day? Does he or she practice the fruits of the Spirit? Is he or she in church every Sunday? If so, what kind? A house church? A Southern Baptist church? Is the ideal Christian able to articulate the gospel narrative of creation, chaos, Christ, and coming? Has he or she prayed the Sinner’s Prayer? Did he or she grow up in a Christian home? Does he or she love their neighbor as him or herself?
All of these questions address the qualities and characteristics that may be attributed to an ideal Christian, but in your imagination, you most certainly pictured an embodied person. Revisit that image. Who is it? Are they male or female? What color is their skin? Is your ideal Christian poor or middle-class? Are they married or single? Do they have kids? Presumably, none of us would claim to be the ideal Christian, but humility aside—in your imagination, how much does the ideal Christian resemble you?
We interpret the world through our own experience. If you’re a woman, you probably envisioned the ideal Christian as female. If you’re white, you probably imagined him or her the same. Such is also true for your education, social class, language, nationality, etc.
While there are plenty of resources to engage when considering the relationship between the gospel, culture, and contextualization, there is much less to help us think through how our own culture influences and may even pervert our perception of the gospel as we proclaim it to those different from us.
Overcoming cultural bias for the sake of the gospel is no simple task. It takes continual practice, and even more failure—but failure cultivates the humility needed when bearing good news for which we are simply messengers. For this reason, cultural competency is a needed and helpful skill for those desiring to preach the gospel across cultures. For our purposes here, cultural competency is the ability to effectively communicate with others different from oneself through critical self-reflection, understanding, and acceptance—and you’ve got to fall on your face at some point to really appreciate its importance.
With that said, however, we need to be careful to understand that culture is not something we overcome or move beyond. We have a tendency to view culture too simplistically, like it’s an external accessory that can be changed or removed at will. For many of us who have traveled overseas, we presume that changing our clothing style, learning new words, and eating exotic food is cultural competency in practice. But culture is so much more than wearing a head covering and not shaking with your left hand. It exists much deeper in the hidden areas of the human soul, informing our inner-selves—how we think, process, reason, respond, and more. We are cultural beings, and it is near impossible to separate one from his or her culture. When you go to a foreign country or urban neighborhood to share the gospel, you don’t get to take off your culture and put on a new one before you go, so we need to be adamant that our culture doesn’t get in the way of the message we preach. In order to do this, then, we need a more complex view of what culture is and how it impacts our daily lives.
In the field of intercultural studies, culture is often analyzed on three levels. Carley H. Dodd explains that at the center is the inner core of a culture—its identity, history, beliefs, values, and worldview. This core, then, informs the other two levels, cultural activities (e.g. artistic expression, norms, roles) and cultural institutions (e.g. religious systems, education, politics). Everything in the outer two levels are founded and based upon the inner core. Our music, food, dress, family roles, politics, education, and more simply reflect the values, beliefs, and worldview of our particular culture.
Consider, for example, the Judaizers Paul strongly rebukes in several passages throughout the New Testament. The Jews had a long history and identity (culture’s inner core) as God’s chosen people, and the religious practice of circumcision (culture’s outer level) was a physical marker of belonging to that culture and people. When Jews became Christians in the first century, some converts experienced immense turmoil separating the religious practice from their cultural identify, so instead, they added it to the gospel. To be a Christian, you first had to be a Jew. To be a Jew, you had to be circumcised as a mark of both culture and faith. From the letters of Paul, though, we know that this addition of works to the gospel of grace was both wrong and dangerous for the early church. It’s a prime example of how our cultural identity gets all mixed up and entangled with our religious identity.
Culture goes so much deeper and is much more meaningful than those external markers to which we usually attribute it. Just as Paul argued extensively in the epistle to the Romans that God only requires circumcision of the heart—as an act of faith—rather than a mark in the flesh, we too must recognize and consider how our innermost selves give meaning to the world around us. Even our formation in the gospel has been culturally-embedded. The way we think about and share our faith reflects the culture to which we belong. Because of this, we need to reflect critically on ourselves and be supremely careful that we don’t let aspects of our culture distort the gospel when we proclaim it. Here’s a seemingly harmless cultural example: the squatty potty.
The squatty potty is certainly a much-discussed encounter for those who have traveled to many parts of the world on mission trips. As Westerners who prefer to take care of business on porcelain thrones, we often have difficulty understanding the squatty potty. In fact, you may be wondering why I am discussing cross-cultural plumbing differences. Can preferring a toilet over a hole in the ground hinder us from clearly living and proclaiming the gospel? No, but we must remember that different does not necessarily mean better or worse. While there are certainly some aspects of various cultures that should be deemed wrong and harmful (e.g. China’s one child policy), often cultural differences are just that—differences. If we see the squatty potty as backwards, third-world, and inferior to our modern, superior, technologically-advanced toilets, then our cultural bias causes us to judge the new culture as lesser. When we hold to a belief that our culture is superior, it’s often just because we’re more used to it. But if I perceive my culture as better, then how do I see the people to whom I’ve been sent, people who are created in the very image of God? Can that get in the way of the gospel? Indeed it has. Consider, for example, the Western dependency that has ravaged African and South American countries because of our bent towards paternalism in our short-term missions. (For more on this, see Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself.)
Now let’s consider a much more prescient and relevant example of cultural difference that has skewed the gospel in the United States: the infamous proverb, “God helps those who help themselves.” Is this phrase, often spoken as Scripture, gospel or culture? It’s definitely American culture. But does this inform our outlook on the world? I fear that the Protestant work ethic has become a subversive form of the prosperity gospel in our ministries to the poor. Because many of our churches are filled with the middle-class, when a homeless man becomes a Christian, we can have the dangerous and subtle expectation that he must abandon life on the street, get a steady job, pay rent, and open a savings account before his faith is credited as authentic. For us to understand and accept his faith, he’s got to look like us, because if there’s no change in his poverty, then there’s been no change in his sin. Even though we rightly declare the prosperity gospel as a false gospel, we still have a bent towards connecting poverty in the West with personal sin. How often do we welcome the poor in our churches, not as those who need ministered to, but as full participants in the life of the body? “God helps those who help themselves” may be a cultural trope, but the Protestant work ethic is so much a part of our culture that we can implicitly tie it to faith and the gospel without even meaning to, and especially without ever speaking it out loud.
The following are a few more examples of how I have at one time or another confused my culture with the gospel, and it is my prayer that these pointers will help you preach the gospel in all of its glory across cultural borders.
In a church-saturated culture, it is very easy to become accustomed to hearing and saying religious words without much thought. Sin. Repentance. Redemption. Crusade. We use many of these terms without considering their meaning and/or baggage because they are common to us. But just because they’re common to us does not mean those we encounter have a full understanding of what they mean in the context of the Christian faith. Cultural competency asks us to hear religious words as one who doesn’t understand, and explore how to articulate their meaning in not-so-religious ways.
We in the United States highly value the role of the individual. First and foremost, we are autonomous persons with the freedom to say and do as we please in the pursuit of our own happiness and self-fulfillment. While it may be simple to see how the gospel may address unfettered individualism, this aspect of our culture is all over the church. “Ask Jesus into your heart.” “Find a church that meets your needs.” “Worship God in whichever way is most meaningful for you.” “God just wants you to be happy.” Whether or not you can identify with these exaggerated examples, it’s undeniable that our culture of individualism impacts the way we view the world. Good or bad, we more often make decisions based on what’s best for ourselves or our families—where to live, what job to take, which school to attend—over what’s best for our church or community. Cultural competency asks us to consider the broader community individuals find themselves in and frame the gospel as good news for more than one person’s eternal destination.
Evangelicalism loves its prohibitions. We have a terrible knack for being legalistic on grey areas of scripture, and we judge people accordingly. For example, because I grew up believing alcohol was the devil’s juice, I still have a dangerous knack for judging other believers who drink publicly. I would never call someone to account or speak my judgement out loud, but in the back of my head I question their faith and accuse them of being hypocrites or immature Christians. A culture of moralism causes us to dangerously add good works to the gospel, just like the Judaizers Paul rebuked. In this context, cultural competency asks us to be open to cultural practices that scripture does not directly address, as well as fight against the idol of moral superiority we may feel by abstaining.
More than any of these examples, this is where I’ve personally skewed the gospel the most. Being heavily-involved in a culture of higher education, it is common to value intellect and reason over emotion or experience. For me, this has often resulted in the expectation that someone must be able to articulate every aspect of the gospel narrative before I’m convinced they’re a true believer. Valuing my intellect causes me to forget the many years the Spirit used to teach me the truths I believe. Cultural competency asks me to step down from my ivory tower and remember that “Jesus loves you” may be the only words one needs to come to repentance.
Again, there are many other examples I can offer of confusing the gospel with culture, but these are just a few of those that have at one time caused me to fall on my face in humility at my own cultural pride.
While one aspect of cultural competency has us critically examining ourselves, another expression also includes an intentional awareness and openness to the Other—by which I simply mean anyone different from you. This is most explicitly practiced when going on a mission trip to a place and context outside your own comfort zone, and it is most often accompanied by careful contextualization. When declaring the gospel in cultures unlike your own, contextualization and self-reflection should work in tandem. When we are open to the experiences and practices of others, then, we are able to step out of ourselves for a moment and view the world through a different lens. It causes us to ask questions like, “How does my whiteness contribute to how I experience the world?”, or “How does my privilege impact my relationship with those less fortunate?” Once we’re able to wrestle with such hard questions of ourselves, we then have a much clearer view of how we can contextualize the gospel for others.
While there are good aspects and bad aspects of various cultures, culture itself is not inherently good or bad. It just is. It can’t be discarded or overcome, but it informs who we are—how we live and move and have our being. Our gospel is a cross-cultural gospel, but in order to speak it truthfully, as its messengers we must learn to cross those cultural borders competently. We can begin by recognizing that Jesus and the Holy Spirit have been long-at-work before we even reach our destinations. From there, we can take a posture of humility and begin asking questions of ourselves. Critically evaluate yourself—your values, beliefs, identity—so that your culture doesn’t get in the way when you have the opportunity to speak the gospel to someone different from you.