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Posts Tagged: Culture
Is it possible for the gospel to be present “in” a culture
and yet absent “from” that particular culture? The answer is, “Absolutely
yes!!!” In a recent visit to my village of Kom, West Africa, I had to face the
reality of this answer. First, some background. My father is a respected man in
the village, considered to be a strong believer (judged by his involvement in
the church, which by itself is an indication that the gospel has not penetrated
the hearts of the people). Many years ago, as required by tradition, he
inherited the compound of his uncle (in this case, the compound is composed of
two buildings; one for the man and the other for his wife, including the coffee
farm and all that belonged to the man). As the inheritor, he is required by
tradition to carry on the activities of his uncle who is now dead, belongs to
the league of the ancestors, and is watching to see that things are done
properly. In this inheritance, my father also inherited his uncle’s wife and
children. Part of the requirement for inheritance laws includes having children
with the wife of the deceased. In the case of my father, fortunately, the wife
was too old to have children. So, he inherited her, the compound and the
At present, the inherited wife has died. Given the
significant role that her husband played in the village when he was alive,
there are certain expectations for my father to fulfill during her burial, and
subsequent customs surrounding her death. As I sat talking with my dad just
this past week, it became clear to me that although the gospel is present in
the tribe of Kom, it is still absent from its cultural practices and
expectations. Believers are left in the dark when it comes to what the Bible
says about certain cultural expectations.
Here is the situation with my dad in which I tried to apply
the truth of the gospel and found that he was at a loss concerning what I was
trying to communicate. According to tradition, as the successor of all that
belonged to his uncle, including his wife and children, it is expected that at
the death of the wife, my father will fulfill all that his uncle would have
done if he were alive. The duties include providing all the goats and chickens
and palm oil to the traditional elders to appease the spirits of the dead.
Failure to do so would bring judgment both on my dad and his entire family. So,
he listed to me all that will be required of him and proceeded to ask me for
financial assistance to meet those needs. I told my own dad that my faith
prohibits me from giving him money to provide for the needs of the elders in a
supposed attempt to appease the spirits. He was shocked that I showed no
concern at all for the dead and the danger for the living. It was a long
conversation in which I tried to explain to him why I could not, as a
Christian, give him the money to provide for such requirements. For my dad, I
was not honoring him as my father. As for me, I only wanted to obey my father
“in the Lord.”
After a long time of discussion, I asked my father what he
thought was the teaching of Scripture concerning what he was intending to do
and asking me to assist him in doing. His answer? Scripture has its place and
tradition has its place. Both are authoritative and must be obeyed. That is
where we differ and that is exactly where I came to the conclusion that
although the gospel is present in the tribe of the Kom people, it is totally
absent in its traditional expectations and practices. My father could not give
me an answer as to what Scripture says about what he wants to do. On further
discussion, he pointed out that the church has never addressed the concerns he
is raising, and how dare I make any judgment about it. He was at a loss, but I
could see that he was wondering what the matter was with me for not understanding.
In this case, my dad has been a believer for more than the
48 years that I have been alive, but never been taught in the church about how
the gospel relates to matters of culture. As he pointed out, everyone “knows”
that church is one thing and cultural demands is another thing. Both are to be
So, my question: Is the gospel present and yet absent from
the Kom cultural practices? I believe the answer is “yes!” If so, where does
this leave the people of Kom? In a situation of confusion in which they claim
to have the gospel and to believe it. As a result, they are clueless as to how
faith in God speaks to the requirements of the culture.
Conclusion? We cannot say that a tribe has been reached with
the gospel when it is present but yet absent. The work needs to be redone and
properly so. People need to have a conversion of not just their soul but also
of their way of life. The gospel does not only promise eternal life for the
soul. It requires a certain way of life within the culture into which it is
My dad, having been a believer for over 70 years, still
needs to learn how to be a Christian in his own culture.
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,
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.”
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.
One approach believes that there is nothing redeemable in the culture and 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
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”
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
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?
It is therefore the duty of the missionary or any one 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.
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
Constant study of the Word of God, culture, and prayer is needed to do
 Byang H.
Kato, “Theological Issues in Africa,” Bibliotheca
Sacra, 133 (1976): 530.
 See the discussion in John S. Pobee, Toward an Africa Theology, (Nashville,
TN: Parthenon Press, 1979), 53-80.
Bediako, Jesus and the Gospel in Africa:
History and Experience, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2004), 32.
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
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)?
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
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
Gospel and Culture: What is Culture?
Jesus said, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed
throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will
come” (Matt. 24:24). In line with the need for the gospel to be proclaimed
throughout the whole world, Paul, speaking of the need to hear the gospel and
But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how
are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to
hear without someone preaching? (Rom. 10:14).
All the nations to
whom the gospel is a testimony are the different peoples of the world. As the
gospel is taken to the different people groups, the preacher has the task of
communicating the gospel of the kingdom in settings that are not familiar to
him. He is bringing the gospel into different cultures. But, he must proclaim
it in such a way that the people will hear and understand in order to call on
the name of the Lord and be saved.
For the gospel to be proclaimed effectively, there needs to be an
understanding of the culture into which we are preaching the gospel so that
people will hear and understand and respond in genuine faith that produces
works in keeping with their repentance. When one travels to another culture, he
is said to experience culture shock. Culture shock, simply put, is when one
gets a sense of confusion, uncertainty, and even anxiety when he or she is in a
different culture. This culture shock is a result of a lack of adequate
preparation for that environment. For example, an American will give a hug or
shake your hand once as a way of greeting. This is not repeated if he meets you
again during the day. In Cameroon, hand shakes are done each time you walk up
to a person. If you happen to meet that person 10 times during the day, you
will shake his hand ten times. This is a polite way of greeting. When I first
came to America, I found that people often asked me how I was doing. That
happened at church and in college. Each time, I would stop to explain how I was
doing that day. How my little child just caught a fever the night before and I
stayed up and could not finish my reading. How my family back home is stressed
and who has died in my extended family. That to me was news worth telling.
Shockingly, each time I turned to explain my situation; the person would
already be gone. It took me a while to realize that they never meant to hear
how I was doing. Contrast this
with Cameroon in general. In a community like a seminary or church or village,
if you are walking by and see a person standing or a group having a discussion,
it is respectful to stop and greet everyone in the group. These are issues of
culture. An African in America has culture shock just as an American in Africa
experiences culture shock. (The reason is always that neither was well prepared
for what they are now experiencing.)
Since these differences in culture exist, it is important to prepare
for each culture by understanding it before serving in it. In this post, I want
to attempt to briefly define culture.
What is Culture?
The most basic definition of culture is given by the University of
Minnesota CARLA Center for Advanced Research:
Culture is defined as the shared patterns of behaviors
and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understanding that are
learned through a process of socialization. These shared patterns identify the
members of a culture group while also distinguishing those of another group.
This definition of culture shows that it consists of shared patterns
that either identify people or distinguish between them. Culture is about the
common ideas, feelings, and values that guide the behavior of a community, as
well as personal behavior. These ideas, feelings, and values also regulate how
the group thinks and feels about God, the world, mankind, and man’s relation to
God and to each other. The cultural shared patterns of each culture determine
how the people of that group relate to the world and to each other.
The shared patterns of a culture are evident in social gatherings,
celebrations, marriage practices, initiation rites, death and burial practices,
view of children, inheritance laws, view of man and woman, the gods, etc. All
these practices are informed by the values of a group.
These shared patterns also identify and distinguish different people
groups. People who are proud to be identified with their tribes uphold the
values of that tribe no matter where they are in the world.
Implicit in the definition of culture is the point that culture is a human
creation. In order for people to live together as a group, they set in place
the values that will guide them in the group. As such, it is a human creation. Biblically,
we understand that culture must necessarily reflect some truth about God since people
who are created in the image of God create it. The religious practices of
different people groups reflect their search for God. The laws of each culture
have some values consistent with the Law of God. Paul says that even
unbelievers can do what is in accordance with the Law of God because it is written
in their hearts (Rom. 2:14-16).
So we assume that culture is a human creation and that man is created
in the image of God, therefore his culture reflects some truth consistent with
the law of God. This point should to be taken seriously where the gospel is
proclaimed in different cultural contexts. In a real sense then, culture serves
God even though created by sinners because they bear the image of God.
Knowing then what the gospel is, the preacher of the gospel has the
task of studying the culture of the people to whom he is going to proclaim the
gospel. It is his task to seek out and know the shared patterns of the people,
those values, belief systems, and practices that define a people. He also needs
to be aware of his own cultural patterns so as to keep them from becoming part
of the gospel.
Some Questions to Ponder
- What is
your culture? In light of what you have read so far, how would you explain your
own culture in terms of shared patterns?
- Is God
calling you to a particular people group around the world? Are you planning a short-term
mission trip soon? Where? If yes, what do you need to do in order to be
effective when you go?
there people in your church or city from the part of the world that you are
planning to travel to? What have you done to get to know them and to learn from
them? They are your best teachers and a ready resource while you are still
preparing to travel.
cultural patterns do you have that might be difficult to put aside as you
preach the gospel?
those of you in Africa (and other places too), why is it that pastors feel that
they must wear a suit to preach, when in their day-to-day life they wear
African clothing? Have we made the clothing style part of the gospel? How
should we dress to make the gospel authentic to Africans?