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Missions 101

The Relationship Between Gospel and Culture: General Observations

May. 4, 2011By: Philemon YongAuthor Bio

The next two blog posts will study the relationship between gospel and culture. In this post, I make some general observations on gospel and culture. The next post will focus more on the nature of the gospel and the challenges of relating it to any given culture.

Nominal Christianity is a problem in certain cultures. This is because, generally speaking, religion is often seen as something that meets a need in their lives. Christianity cannot be presented in a culture as just something that meets a need (you need Jesus, therefore receive Jesus into your life and everything will be fine). The impact of taking Christianity simply as meeting a need is huge in some cultural contexts (particularly in the African Traditional Religion context [ATR]). It is no surprise that for many people, Christianity is a good thing as long as it meets their needs. For these people it is not so important what Christianity demands now. What matters is what it promises now (wealth, good health) as well as after death (eternal life). In that case, people are willing to perform what is required to be a Christian (in hopes that it will benefit them now) so that at death, life will be their portion.

There is a sincere human need for answers about how religion relates to our present life and what happens after death. African Traditional Religion, for example, has its own answers. Life is lived now under the watchful eye of the spirits and ancestors. Certain rules must be followed, otherwise judgment will be swift. As to what happens when one dies, ATR is mostly silent since not everyone gets the opportunity to become an ancestor. Christianity comes into the picture and offers answers to life now, and better yet, to life after death. Since ATR does not forbid different religious views, adherents to ATR find no contradiction in holding to the Christian faith, while at the same time holding to the practices of ATR.  There is a real danger in presenting Christianity simply as a need-meeting religion, since it is taken simply as that. The result is syncretism and nominal Christianity.

The gospel does not simply meet a need. It calls people to respond to the revelation of God as seen in Christ and presented in the gospel. As such, the gospel calls for a response (conversion) that permeates the whole of life (culture). The gospel calls for people to respond to God’s revelation, a response that includes a change of view in all areas of life (including cultural values).

The fact is that culture, and life in general is religious, in the sense that each culture seeks to make sense of the creator and the created. So first, Christianity should not be presented as just one more need of man that is met in Christ, but rather as the only answer to the real life questions about God, man, and the relationship between God and man. When the gospel comes to people “in culture” and not “outside of culture” they begin to change their worldview (culture) rather than add Christianity to their worldview, which remains unchanged. The gospel, therefore, transforms culture from inside out. It does not add to culture as if the two were independent. So in a real sense, no culture, no gospel, in the sense that culture is a vehicle for the gospel.

The gospel calls for a change in worldview (how one sees the world, God, and mankind). A change in worldview necessarily involves a change in cultural practices and values. There should therefore be a Christian culture within the culture of a people, in that when people turn to God, they necessarily reevaluate their culture and at the same time begin to form a new culture that is consistent with the gospel they have received. Thus, a Christian culture emerges within the culture.

In the area I worked in Cameroon, it was sad to notice that some young people feel that being a Christian means rejecting some of their cultural practices (even those that are not harmful in any way). They need to be helped to embrace the gospel within their culture and see that the gospel, rather than calling them out of their culture, is instead calling them to honor God in their culture. It is not uncommon to hear a person say, “I will not do this because I am a Christian.” This is a good statement, but problematic when they say it in rejection of an innocent cultural practice. Rather than this promoting Christianity, this attitude tells people that to be a Christian necessarily means divorcing oneself from culture.

I am not saying that believers should not be critics of their own culture. I am saying that where the culture is not inconsistent with the gospel, let us be a part of the culture (being truly cultural Christians without compromising the gospel). In some cases, there are certain practices that are inconsistent with the gospel. Even in these cases, an outright rejection of the cultural practice becomes a hindrance to the gospel. While pointing out the wrong aspects of the practice, we can seek to change it by explaining why we differ and showing how it can be done differently. For example, in 2001 I returned from U.S.A. to my village in Kom, Cameroon. I was told that while I was gone, one of my cousins died, and it was required that I provide a chicken to appease the ancestors. I was with a couple of students from the seminary who were quick to remind me that as a Christian, not to mention as a visiting teacher in the seminary, I was not allowed to do such a thing. To their amazement, I told them that I was going to do it. Instead of taking one chicken, I took three. At the event, those deemed to be the most respected elders in the village were gathered. I was instructed to take the chicken to the chief elder and present it to him and he would take things from there. I knew that after giving the chicken to him, he was going to take it to the grave (which in this context is right in front of the house) and address the ancestors by saying appeasing words on my behalf.

So I took the chicken to the chief elder and instead of handing it to him, I expressed my thanks for their labor in burying my cousin and mourning with the family. As a token of my appreciation, I said I had brought with me three chickens. When he asked me to give him the chicken I was holding, I declined, saying instead that I had brought a few friends who were waiting outside ready to kill the chickens so that we could all eat together. At that point those present realized that I was not going to perform the required ritual. So I was told to hand the chicken over so that the rightful rituals could be carried out. At that point I said that because I am a Christian (which they all knew) and do not subscribe to the rituals, I wanted things done my way since my interest was to feed those present as a way of saying “thank you.” It didn’t take long for the elders to ask my friends to kill the chickens so the people could eat.

What is the point of telling this story? Simply put, the whole point behind such a practice is for people to fellowship over a meal. Every member of the family plays his or her role to show community solidarity. Culturally, to make sure that no one ever refuses to provide the required birds or animals, the culture built into place protective measures such as the gods, ancestors and spirits who are constantly watching to make sure you fulfill your duties or else face consequences.  When they accepted my offer, I realized that for them, the whole point was about eating and not so much about the well-being of the ancestors and spirits. As a Christian, I tried to change a cultural practice rather than outrightly rejecting it. At the same time, it was clear that I am a believer in Jesus Christ. Can we be all things to all people in different cultures without compromising the gospel we preach (1 Cor. 9:19-23)? Absolutely!!!

An example of a Christian culture within the culture would be how Christians carry out the activities or shared patterns that identify and distinguish their people groups, in such a way that these practices are all transformed by the gospel. When gospel comes into a culture, there is then a conversion not just of souls, but a conversion from the culture of men to the culture of the gospel; from a culture informed by the values of men without God to a culture informed by the values of the gospel.

To the extent that there is no difference between the cultural practices of believers and unbelievers, there has not been true conversion. In this case, the gospel has not transformed culture. It has simply been added to it. When you put the gospel and culture together, things must change. One of the two must change, and it cannot be the gospel. The gospel is the same in all cultures and cannot change. Culture must change to conform to the gospel. The gospel will never change to conform to culture. The truth is that culture contains in it truth about God as well as errors about who God is and how man must relate to God. The gospel exposes these errors. An example is the foolishness of idol worship (Ps. 115:4-8; Is. 44:9-20).

In answer to the question of how culture and gospel relate, I have argued that Christianity cannot be present in culture as something that simply meets a need. Rather, the gospel calls for a conversion, not just of souls, but of a worldview. The gospel commends Jesus to people in any given culture. The gospel calls people to the reality of the kingdom of God now in their midst and the need for them to accept the will of God as their rule for life. Before the coming of the gospel, culture or tradition determines how people should live. This no longer is the case for those who receive Jesus through the preaching of the gospel. For them, the values of the gospel determine how they conduct their lives in their own culture.

 

Philemon Yong grew up in the Kom tribe, Cameroon. His parents were both Christians, and church was a regular part of their lives. Yet, at the same time, Philemon observed a strange mix where traditional religion was still also a part of life—even of many in the church! At age 13, with his family unable to send him to more schooling, Philemon left home to go to the city to find some jobs that would give him a better life.

When he was 23, through a friend Philemon was led to attend Cameroon Baptist Theological Seminary, Ndu. This began his training for ministry. Linda was a short-termer at CBTS that year, and they developed a very strong friendship. As a result, Philemon came to the USA, and he and Linda were married the following year. Bethel College accepted Philemon, and after completing his bachelor’s degree he continued on to earn a Masters of Divinity degree at Bethel Seminary (St. Paul). A year of short-term ministry back at CBTS fueled the desire to eventually return to Cameroon as a full-time teacher/theologian. This led Philemon to pursue Ph.D. work at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

From 2003-2010, Philemon has been teaching many courses at CBTS, solidly equipping future church leaders to preach and practice that Christ alone is the source for power and guidance in their lives. He also has a desire to write materials that will be helpful to the church in Cameroon/Africa. His unique preparation—knowing the culture firsthand and having solid theological training—equip Philemon to do this in an excellent way.

Philemon has experienced firsthand the confusing mix of Christianity and spiritism in the African church. He realizes that many church leaders have little theological training. Those with some training are trying to use a Western approach to theology in the African context, where the questions and problems call for a more African approach. His experiences, combined with his extensive theological studies in the USA, have put in him a desire for theological education in Africa.

Philemon and his wife Linda live in Minnesota. They have three children, Benjamin, Samuel, and Anna.

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Tags:  cameroon, africa, culture, missions
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