In God’s redemptive plan, he intentionally creates cultural distinctiveness.
We like to say, “God is on the side of culture.” The goal of God’s mission is not to eliminate cultural distinctiveness. We’re called instead to appreciate the uniqueness and diversity of cultures as a reflection of God’s image and for his glory.
Ethnicity and cultural diversity will transcend all eternity, but because sin has entered the world, God also calls us to influence and transform the sinful behaviors, values, beliefs, and world views within a culture– that’s contextualization. Let’s take a moment to consider what this means. As stated in the Lausanne Covenant, “Because man is God’s creature, some of his culture is rich in beauty and goodness, but because he has fallen, all of it is tainted with sin, and some of it is demonic.”
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There’s a tendency in some church traditions to emphasize the depravity of man, the depravity of the world over against the dignity of man and the beauty of the world. In other traditions, it’s just the reverse, and there are some who downplay all cultural issues altogether saying that they want to practice a decontextualized pure form of Christianity, free of cultural distinctiveness that differ from culture to culture. But, as Tim Keller explains it:
There is no universal decontextualized ahistorical form or expression of Christianity. Jesus didn’t come to earth as a generalized being by becoming human. He had to become a particular human. He was male, Jewish, working class. If he was to be human, he had to become a socially and culturally situated person.
Keller’s point here is that there is no such thing as Christianity apart from culture. There’s no such thing as an a-cultural Christianity. It’s not possible.
If it were, the eternal Son of God, when he took on humanity, would’ve become an a-cultural being, not black, not white, not Asian, not Latin-American, but a-cultural. He took on humanity through the culture of the Middle Eastern, working class, Jewish man in the first century, speaking Aramaic, dressing in their unique way, eating their food, worshipping in the synagogue in Nazareth.
The incarnation of the Son of God was a contextualized act, and so contextualization is unavoidable in church planting and development. In fact, every form of Christianity must adapt to aspects of its surrounding culture in order to understand it and communicate with it.
This is what has been called the divine genius of Christianity, which we’ve already seen modeled for us by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 9 when he wrote, “I have become all things to all men, so that by all possible means I might save some. I do this for the sake of the gospel.”
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Christianity adapts its ministry styles to the unique culture and age of the ministry focus group.
Unlike other religions that must impose their unchanged ministry styles from a foreign culture and age on people today, Christianity is able to adapt its ministry styles to the unique culture and age of the ministry focus group they’re trying to impact, all the while preserving the one unchanging gospel that is true for all generations.
In Christianity you can have a biblical church, a healthy church, faithfully manifesting the five biblical purposes. The styles you use for those purposes can be so dissimilar in one part of the world that you wouldn’t even hardly recognize it in another part of the world. This is why church ministry styles often look very different according to cultural context.
A church plant in city center Tokyo, Japan will have very different ministry styles from a church plant in rural Senegal, Africa. A church plant among the elderly poor in rural Bangladesh will have very different ministry styles from a church plant among wealthy young people in urban Sao Paolo.
The beauty and the genius of Christianity is that although churches may have dramatically different ministry styles, they can all faithfully carry out the same biblical purposes of the church. Our goal is to contextualize without compromise, to be catalysts and facilitators for the development of these biblical purposes among a particular people group without compromising the gospel.
Our goal is to contextualize without compromise, to be catalysts and facilitators for the development of these biblical purposes among a particular people group without compromising the gospel.
The danger of under-adapting and over-adapting to the culture.
Church leaders need to be aware of two opposite and equally dangerous errors, under-adapting and over-adapting to the culture. Now, we introduced this basic concept in the earlier philosophy series, and we described it there as the danger of cultural embrace versus the danger of cultural defiance. Now, we use the more technical terms used in missions here.
Cultural defiance would be ethnocentrism. It’s the belief that one’s own culture or race of nation is somehow superior to others. It’s the view that your cultural way of doing things is the correct and the only way. It tends to either judge the behavior of people in other cultures by the values and assumptions of our own.
The other danger is called syncretism; this would be cultural embrace. It’s been defined as the mixture of meanings from the respondent culture with new meanings from scripture in such a way that the essential nature of each is lost. It’s the contamination of the Christian faith through incorporation of inappropriate cultural components. Between these two dangers lies that very difficult goal that’s always intention: contextualization without compromise.
Between these two dangers lies that very difficult goal that’s always intention: contextualization without compromise.
When you are contextualizing the gospel to your culture, it will always involve two dynamics, adapting and challenging. You will always be adapting certain aspects of the culture into your ministry. This involves embracing and learning from the culture as you seek to adapt to it. You will also be challenging certain aspects of culture by your ministry, contending for the truthfulness of the gospel.
Ministry styles must be developed in a way that is consistent with the principles and assumptions of the indigenous culture while remaining true to the foundations of scripture. In the rest of this series, you’ll be developing these particular ministry styles for your church.
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