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Missions 101

How Should the Gospel Relate to Culture?

Feb. 25, 2016By: Philemon YongAuthor Bio

The question of how to relate the gospel to culture is a question about how to express the gospel message in genuinely cultural and authentic terms while at the same time maintaining the purity of the gospel. Speaking of gospel and culture in the African context, Kato says,

Culture as a way of life must be maintained. It is God’s will that Africans, on accepting Christ as their Savior, become Christian Africans. Africans who become Christians should, therefore, remain Africans wherever their culture does not conflict with the Bible. It is the Bible that must judge the culture. Where a conflict results, the cultural element must give way.”[1]

In relating the gospel to any culture, it is good for the preacher to have an objective, which in this case is to make the gospel relevant without compromising the purity of the gospel.

In the history of missions in West Africa, different approaches have been taken in relating the gospel to culture.[2] One approach believes that there is nothing redeemable in the culture andScreen_Shot_2016-02-24_at_9.22.31_AM thus seeks to destroy the cultural practices of the people before establishing Christianity. This is what Pobee calls Tabula rasa. With this approach, Christians were more or less called out of society instead of being redeemed in society. One very different approach is what was called accommodation but now is called adaptation, localization, or indigenization. This view acknowledges that there is “a whole heritage in the non-Christian culture and consciously attempts to come to terms with that heritage” (Pobee 59). Here the missionary makes use of he belief system of the people and builds on what they already know. Yet, everything in the culture cannot be accepted en masse. Wisdom and discernment should be used. Some elements will have to be modified but others will be rejected. Again, Kato notes,

In the African evangelicals’ effort to express Christianity in the context of the African, the Bible must remain the absolute source. The Bible is God’s written Word addressed to Africans —and to all peoples—within their cultural background (Kato, 148).

This second approach has to do with couching the gospel message in genuinely African terms and categories, while at the same time not compromising the truth of the gospel. The point here is that while the gospel remains the same, its truth should be communicated in a culturally relevant manner.

Paying attention to how the gospel is communicated in a culture avoids the concept of working misunderstanding where “a missionary preaches the gospel in very foreign terms and the natives appear to receive it. That is, they may attend church services, obey church regulations, and so on, without any real understanding of what is going on” (Pobee, 59).

The importance of making the gospel relevant in a culture cannot be overstated. Once the gospel is stated in culturally meaningful ways, the people will embrace and own it and no longer see it as a foreign concept. They will embrace Jesus as Savior and Lord of their lives. Bediako writes of this point for Africans;

Once we discover that there is no valid alternative to Jesus Christ, the question is no longer: why should we relate to Jesus of Nazareth who does not belong to our clan, family, tribe and nation? But, how may we understand more fully this Jesus Christ who relates to us most meaningfully and most profoundly in our clan, family, tribe and nation?[3]

It is therefore the duty of the missionary or anyone preaching the gospel in another culture to be able to make the gospel message culturally relevant. How should this be done? While one finds many articles and books on methods of contextualization, I do believe that the preacher needs to be one who knows the gospel message well, knows the cultural context of his ministry, and prays for wisdom to make the message clear without losing an iota of it. I commend Paul’s principle on how to do this as seen in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.

19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. 23 I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

This passage shows Paul’s pattern of ministry to people of different cultures, Jews and Gentiles. Paul made himself a servant (slave) to all with the objective of winning more to Christ (v. 19). He adapted himself to Jewish customs as to win Jews to Christ (cf. Acts 16:3; 18:18; 21:23-24, 26). To those under the law he lived as one under the law (note his qualification of this statement in v. 20) to win those under the law (v. 20). To those without the law, he lived as though without the law (again note qualification of the statement in v. 21) to win those without the law (v. 21). He is weak among the weak in order to win the weak (v. 22a).

He concludes,  “I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some” (v. 22b). Paul’s goal is specific, the salvation of some people. He will do whatever it takes (becoming all things to all men) and he will use whatever means or method (“by all means”) for the purpose of saving some people.

Why would Paul want to become all things to all people with all the risk that might come with this practice? One answer already given is that he does it in order to save some. Another way to look at this answer is stated in verse 23, “I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.” Paul does what he does because of the gospel, for the purpose of partaking of the benefits of the gospel with those who are saved through his ministry.

It would appear that Paul has a gospel to preach to different kinds of people in different cultures, and he becomes what those people are and uses whatever means necessary in each culture to preach the gospel so as to save some. We could say that while Paul’s gospel does not change, his means of presenting the gospel changes. However, he takes care not to compromise the purity of the gospel itself.

Following Paul’s example, the preacher of the gospel should be willing to make himself a member of the culture in which he is working, so that he can effectively communicate the gospel and save those who believe. He should adapt himself to his cultural setting for the sake of the gospel. There is one unchanging thing in this approach; the gospel. The gospel message will not change but the means of presenting and applying it will change according to the cultural context.

Constant study of the Word of God, culture, and prayer is needed to do this effectively.


[1] Byang H. Kato, “Theological Issues in Africa,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 133 (1976): 530.

[2] See the discussion in John S. Pobee, Toward an Africa Theology, (Nashville, TN: Parthenon Press, 1979), 53-80.

[3] Kwame Bediako, Jesus and the Gospel in Africa: History and Experience, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2004), 32.

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, gospel, culture, missions
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