What is Culture?
Anthony Casey, Brad Bell, & Nathan Sloan
Culture is about more than preferring opera to punk music. Culture is “the learned and shared attitudes, values, and ways of behavior common to a people.”
Culture is learned - No one is born with a culture. We learn it from our parents, grandparents, teachers, media, etc. Like water to a fish, culture is so natural to us that it’s hard to even realize we have one until we’re exposed to a different culture.
Culture is shared - Culture binds people together. In the US, we are individualistic, focused on our achievements, think an eighth note musical scale sounds ‘right,’ and vote for our leaders. Other cultures are often group-oriented, shun those who seek to make a name for themselves, prefer a five note sliding musical scale that does not harmonize, and look to tribal leaders with absolute power. So which culture is “right”?
The truth is, no culture is right or wrong in itself. Culture is not evil; it is actually a gift from God. It’s a beautiful thing to see the diverse expressions of God’s creativity around the world. From the very beginning God wanted his glory to be expressed throughout the earth (Genesis 1:26-28). Yet humanity rebelled so violently against God that he eventually dispersed them throughout the world by confusing their language (Genesis 11:1-9). Today we see aspects of every culture in desperate need for redemption. Some cultures kill the second twin born because they think the gods made a mistake. Other cultures believe the only way to cure AIDS is by having sex with a virgin. However, God’s vision has not changed. Revelation 7:9 reveals that God will redeem some from every tribe, tongue, nation, and people. The diversity that continues in heaven will bring out every gleaming refraction of God’s glory like the many facets of a diamond.
How do a group of people view the world? You can bet that it’s shaped by their culture. This includes the most important question of all: Who is God and how do we relate to him? For all cultures God established the “allotted periods and boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek [him], and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:26-27). Yet we also know that there are none who take God up on his offer by themselves (Romans 3:10). Instead, every culture forms its own skewed perception of who God is and how they should relate to him.
Even though we understand the inherent lostness of every culture, we still tend to view our own culture as better than others. We’ve known our entire lives that a red light means stop! So it will come as a serious shock when we visit a culture where red means go faster! Not only will we have a hard time adjusting, we’ll probably think, These people are idiots! This is called ethnocentrism. Simply put, it’s placing our culture at the center of the universe. Ethnocentrism is inevitable, but it’s also unacceptable. God doesn’t value your culture over another’s, so neither should you. Be quick to ask him for the grace it will take to overcome the pride and frustration ethnocentrism breeds.
Cultural differences create major implications for communicating the gospel. Despite our best intentions we can be easily misunderstood. Ask a Hindu if he wants to be born again and he might respond, “Born again?! No way, I’m trying to stop.” We also communicate with more than just our words. If we reach out shake someone’s hand of the opposite sex in a Muslim culture, we may lose all credibility from the start. If we use the wrong hand to eat with, we could be viewed as disrespectful. If we lay our Bible on the ground, we could be seen as insulting God. There are a thousand ways to miscommunicate in other cultures. Often, we are the last one to know the real meaning attributed to our words and actions in another setting. And to the degree that we are misfits in another culture, the Savior we represent is a misfit.
But take heart! On a short term trip you don’t have to figure out why the people do everything the way they do. Withhold judgment on what you see and have the mindset of a learner. Look to the Sent Ones who have devoted their lives to understanding the language and culture. They can train you in the appropriate bridges to the gospel that God has already rooted in the culture. This is called contextualization - the same true gospel communicated in a different context.
In addition, your communication is typically perceived by both word and relationship. The person may not believe what you are saying is true just because you have a piece of paper with four points that logically show their need to trust in Jesus. People all over the world learn and share the deepest things of life by telling stories, songs, and poems during long meals. These stories are passed down from generation to generation by people that are known and respected in the culture. Relating to them through their cultural lens will give you the credibility you’ll desperately need as an outsider. Not to mention it will reflect the Savior who traversed the cultures of heaven and earth to engage hopelessly lost people in ways we could understand.