Am I defined by the culture in which I find myself in?
When I travel to or meet people from different backgrounds, am I quick to judge? Do I wonder why what they do is so different than me?
Does my culture define the Gospel that I read?
I find that culture often becomes the Gospel, and that the Gospel must cut through the culture of the day to affect a human heart. When the Spirit was first given to the Gentiles (Acts 10), there was widespread confusion about how to deal with the new inclusive kingdom of God on earth. [If you haven't read Acts 10, 11, and 15, I suggest doing so now]. Should the Gentiles become Jews first? What of circumcision? Of course we know that the wisdom and advice of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) determined that they "should not cause difficulties for those among the Gentiles who turn to God" (Acts 15:19) by yoking them with a culture impossible to adopt.
We should cling to the Gospel even when it means unity between peoples of completely different cultures.
Am I defined by the culture in which I find myself in? Do I expect those to whom I present the Gospel to adopt my culture, or to accept the Truth.
Thank God the Holy Spirit isn't concerned with culture in the same ways that we are. Today I pondered how disconcerting it might be if the Spirit was just an armchair anthropologist, taking notes about his observations, or if He was xenophobic or ethnocentric. It would be unsettling if the Spirit tediously divided cultures, looking for the right people in which to dwell within, if He was worried about meaningless lifestyle instead of meaningful righteousness (often these can overlap; but not always). How hopeless it would be for us if Jesus entered our culture without a learner mind, if God didn't excel in the language of humanity before His mission trip to Earth, if he didn't put in all the effort he had to become humanly fluent and socially cognizant. Can you imagine if the Holy Spirit was only interested in observing how different we are than Him? If he dwelled among us constantly remarking about how what we do is so different and weird? Rather, we know he dwells within the disciple, and that he judges the heart.
How dynamic and complex it must be for the Holy of Holies, the Living God, the Spirit of God to dwell inside a culturally dependent, culturally deceived man like myself! The missionary Jesus Christ, and the Spirit inside of me, crossed barriers and fully immersed into a world unlike the inconceivable perfection from whence He descended. The constant boundaries I must put up, the continual reluctance to accept Him into my own culture, the persistent thoughts I must have that, "My way is surely right," while he patiently waits, saying, "Daniel, My way is right, don't you see?" Indeed, a paradigm shift is needed.
We are only as effective as we are willing to admit that cultural or social normality is not synonymous to righteousness. Just as Paul and the first century dealt with a Judeo-Christian society who had trouble accepting the different culture of the Gentiles, we must also understand that the Gospel permeates culture (Acts 15), and that culture, however different it may be or seem, is not the foundation for morality. This, of course, doesn't dismiss those cultural norms that may be sinful in effect, but it does define culture and the objectivity of truth and righteousness independently. Once we marry the idea of truth and culture, we creep into a stage of cultural relativism that is unsafe for missionaries and unhealthy for the kingdom. (For an article on truth-relativism, click here and for a helpful response to moral-relativism, click here.)
We should tread lightly and carefully when clinging to culture, as many of our preconceived notions were established from learning a certain way of life from an early age. As missiologist Paul Hiebert explains, objectively evaluating other cultures is pertinent in reaching the lost. "We need to remember that people love their own cultures, and if we wish to reach them, we must do so within the context of those cultures" (Hiebert 99).
When we meet people from different backgrounds as ourselves, let's be quick to remember that we were once introduced to the Holy Spirit, and oh how different is He than us! Still, we gladly welcome him, knowing his life, power, love, and differences would be to our benefit, and give us what we need to be godly. Likewise, he not only accepted us, but he entered into us to live within us eternally. Culture does not define the Gospel. No.
The Gospel defines culture. Within the eternal kingdom, many cultures, and countless practices have been lived and exhausted. Some good, some bad. Many righteous, many sinful. However, a lifestyle that is different doesn't necessarily mean that it isn't concurrently righteous. Many cultural differences can exist within the Gospel, but the Gospel must be the primary center of all that we do.
Hiebert, Paul G. 1986. Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books