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THE ROLE OF CULTURE IN GOSPEL COMMUNICATION

By Mark R. Hoffman December 16, 2011

CONTENTS

1. Introduction..1 2. Defining Culture......2 3. Culture and Communication....4 4. Culture and the Biblical Message....5 5. Communicating the Biblical Message in Culture7 6. Christian Religion and Culture....9 7. Conclusion.......10

THE ROLE OF CULTURE IN GOSPEL COMMUNICATION

Introduction What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?1 Tertullians famous argument against the influence of the pagan philosophies shows the tension at the time between the young Church at that time and the culture of the world around them. Throughout the history of the Church there has been a tension between the call to the Church to live out and propagate the gospel and the Churchs relationship and participation in the particular culture in which it finds itself. Yet the original gospel message itself was communicated within a particular culture in ways that people in that culture could understand and receive. The Church has struggled with many issues relating to culture. How much of a culture is good and how much should be transformed by the gospel? In what parts of culture should a follower of Jesus no longer participate? These are difficult yet important questions that believers need to wrestle with. It is possible that these questions will be easier to answer if at first an understanding of the relationship of culture to the communication of the gospel is established. This paper will seek to lay that foundation, showing that the gospel is and has always been communicated through culture, though many times its influence has not been recognized by those trying to communicate the gospel. Culture shapes how people understand the gospel and how they apply it to their daily lives.
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Tertullian, Prescription against Heretics, Chapter 7, Pagan Philosophy the Parent of Heresies, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0311.htm, (accessed Nov 18, 2011).

Defining Culture What is culture? It is helpful here to give a definition of how this term will be used. This paper will take the understanding of culture as defined by Sheila Grave Davaney: it is the multitextured network of relations or a total way of life encompassing the myriad relations, institutions, and practices that define a historical period or specific geographical location or formative community or subgroups within larger fields.2 In every situation that you have people relating together a culture will develop. This is true even in two-person relationships such as a marriage a culture will develop over time. People in these relationships develop shared history, language, and experiences that make the nature of their relationship different from others. Culture encompasses all areas of life and all of what a group of people value. Like a book, culture has a certain unity of plot or thesis.3 Culture includes a particular group or societys worldview, peoples behaviors, and the cultural objects or relics they make.4 Cultures can have many layers. There are cultures and sub-cultures within a nation, an ethnic group, a geographic region, an organization or company, in a neighborhood, among groups of friends, and within the different levels of a family. Culture is created and shaped by the shared experiences of a people, and how they respond to those experiences. A family can create a culture that values education and hard work, while a similar family in the same geographic area creates a culture that values theft and laziness. At the same time, both of these families would be part of a larger
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Delvin Brown, Sheila Greeve Davaney and Kathryn Turner, editors, Converging on Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 5. 3 D. A. Carson and John Woodbridge, God and Culture (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 7. 4 Charles H. Kraft, Culture, Worldview and Contextualization, in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader, 4th Edition. Editors, Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne. (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2009), 401.

3 culture identity shaped by the shared experiences of the people in their geographic area, of their ethnicity, and of their nation.

At the heart of every culture is its worldview. This is how a culture understands reality and answers the questions of meaning within that reality. This worldview then determines what people in the culture will hold as their system of beliefs, which in turn determines what they will value and how they will act. 5 Worldview will determine how a people answer questions regarding such things as the meaning of life or the meaning of hardship or suffering. The power of worldview cannot be underestimated because it sets the boundaries for what a culture understands as being real.6 Differences in cultures can lie at the first level of simply different behaviors, but most often the differences are really at the level of worldview, and are merely being seen at the surface level of behaviors. What can make it difficult, is that many times people are even unaware themselves of the specifics of their worldview they hold that is shaping their beliefs, values and behaviors. Another thing that makes understanding cultures difficult is that many times people have theoretical beliefs, which have no impact on how they live, that are different from their actual operating beliefs which affect how they live.7 These differences in culture pose a problem for people effectively communicating with one another.

Culture and Communication Every communication has both a meaning (what we want to say) and a form (how we say
5

Lloyd E. Kwast, Understanding Culture, in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader, 4th Edition. Editors, Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne. (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2009), 399. 6 Patty Lane, A Beginners Guide to Crossing Cultures (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 110-115. 7 Kwast, 399.

4 it).8 Since culture is all encompassing of human interactions, it is impossible to

communicate anything completely void of any cultural meaning and form. This is true, yet in cross-cultural communication many times people tend to assume that the person they are speaking with is thinking the same way that they are. As an example, many of the problems of communication between a husband and wife are really a problem of cross-cultural communication. Men and women tend to think differently about many things, yet often they assume that the other person is understanding what they mean and is thinking the same way. The problem is a difference in culture, even if it is the difference between men and women and not a larger societal difference. Culture provides the framework through which the meanings of the communication is made, both for what is being received and for that which is being communicated to others. People are only able to communicate with one another because they have shared meaning in forms within their culture. These same forms will also have some different meanings in different cultures.9 For example, a firm handshake is the preferred method in American culture, showing confidence and acceptance. However, in other cultures such as China, a limp handshake is preferred and it may be expected that the hands would be held longer after the handshake. A firm handshake in these cultures may seem rude or offensive. This is true of all the different ways that people communicate. If the right form of communication is not used in a different culture, then the meaning that is trying to be communicated will not be received in the right way. This is true in all the many ways that people interact with one another. Another example is that some cultures are known as what is called high context cultures and others are
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Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism, LOP 2: The Willowbank Report: Consultation on Gospel and Culture, http://www.lausanne.org/en/documents/lops/73-lop-2.html, (accessed on Nov 16, 2011). 9 Charles Kraft, Anthropology for Christian Witness (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997), 140-144.

5 known as low context. In low context cultures people place more value on analytical reasoning, whereas high context cultures tend to put equal value on fact and experience.10

If it is impossible to separate the forms of communication from culture, how is it possible for cultures to communicate at all? Fortunately there is a great deal of similarity in human needs and experience. The basic desires and needs of humans as a whole have not drastically changed from culture to culture nor from time period to time period. These shared desires and needs can serve as a starting point for cross-cultural communication. Also, good interpersonal skills such as active listening can be learned. These skills as well as a desire to learn about and from others will help people improve their ability to communicate what the truly mean and understand what is truly meant across cultural differences.

Culture and the Biblical Message In scripture we see examples of cross-cultural communication of the gospel. There is not one biblically sanctioned culture, in fact the Bible makes it clear that God cares for people in all cultures and desires a relationship with them (1 Peter 2:43). People have followed the God of the Bible for thousands of years from a myriad of different cultures. Christianity itself was birthed and primarily developed early on in the Middle East and in Asia Minor and then later spread to Europe. On the Day of Pentecost, God demonstrated his love for peoples regardless of culture in pouring his Holy Spirit out in such a way as the people from many different cultures heard the praises of God in their own language (Acts 2:7-12). Previously Jesus had commanded his followers to "go and make disciples of all the nations" (Matt 28:19, NLT) again making clear that God wasnt concerned about just one nation, but all people. Still, those early followers of
10

Lane, 47-59.

6 Jesus needed a push by the Holy Spirit (the story of Cornelius) to expand their circle to

include the Gentiles (Acts 10-11). Paul gives us on of the most well known examples of crosscultural communication of the gospel on Mars Hill in Acts 17:22-31. It is there that Paul uses the things of the culture such as their own poets and gods, in order to communicate the gospel to a people who were culturally far from the Biblical understanding of God. Most significantly of all, God himself entered into a human culture through Jesus to show people how to have a right relationship with God and to save people from their sins (John 1:14, 3:16). Jesus, in his life and words, set the model for all relationships. His life was an example and a model that exemplified the two greatest commandments of scripture, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:36-40, NLT). Jesus modeled cross-cultural relationships in the highest way through his love and commitment to people and making himself a part of the culture. Paul followed this example when he declared to the church in Thessalonica we loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well (1 Thes 2:8).11 This is the greatest truth of communicating the gospel message across cultures. Love and a sincere servants heart is necessary to build relational bridges and tear down cultural barriers to openness and understanding.

Communicating the Biblical Message in Culture The Biblical message however is communicated through cultural forms of language, both written and verbal. This then brings the need for thoughtful people to interpret the message within its context to arrive at the meaning that God intends them to receive. Many of the messages that God gave were interpreted and applied within a particular time and culture that
11

Duane Elmer, Cross-Cultural Servanthood (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 13.

7 may be unlike the culture of the hearers of that same message today. Some of the messages that God gave are straightforward, universal human messages. The more that the particular message that God has communicated is a universal human message, the more likely it will be

received correctly. For example, the commandment You shall not murder (Ex 20:13, NLT) is a fairly universal message that can be interpreted the same way in most cultures. Other messages need more work to first interpret in light of the Biblical culture where the message was first received in order to arrive at the meaning God intended, and then translate that meaning into the culture where the message is to be communicated. This process is made more difficult in that the interpreter must also take into account his own cultural bias as he does the work of interpreting. The task in front of the Church, which for most of its history has had a Western cultural worldview, is difficult. The theologian Ernst Troeltsh believed that the Christian faith and Western culture had been so much intermixed, that a Christian can say little about his faith to members of other civilizations, and the latter in turn cannot encounter Christ save as a member of the Western world.12 How can the meaning of the gospel be communicated when it has become so intermeshed with Western cultural forms and meanings? This means that not only religious ceremony and practice in Christianity has been shaped by Western culture but also much of Christian theology has been shaped by it as well. It is good to remember this in order to begin the task of seeing where Western culture has affected theology in a way that is detrimental to the spread of the gospel to other cultures. One of the first steps is to approach Western cultural with Biblical exegesis. There is a need to find within Western culture that which is truly a mode or product of culture that is separate from the gospel meaning, that which is cultural that goes against the gospel message, and that which is cultural that has been shaped and is in line with the meaning of the gospel. An
12

H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1951), 30.

8 advantage perhaps is that the original biblical message was largely communicated in cultures

more similar to many of the cultures Western missionaries are now trying reach than to their own Western culture. Once the core of the gospel message is found, then ways can be found to put that message into a relevant cultural form for the culture the message is being presented to. Then it can be communicated to the cultures being approached in ways that the people in that culture will be able to understand and receive. Yet difficulties will arise as the gospel comes in contact with a particular culture. There will be activities within the culture that the new believer will need to stop participating in, and other cultural activities that will change as more and more people in that culture come to follow Jesus and orient their life on a Kingdom of God worldview. Presumably, if the worldview of the new believer has been changed so that it is now oriented through the lens of God's kingdom, then as they are led by the Holy Spirit they will be able to make most of these decisions very easily. Other decisions will not be as clear-cut and will need to be made according to individual conscience and decisions made by the local body of believers as they interpret their culture through a biblical worldview.

Christian Religion and Culture There have been different approaches that Christians have taken in regards to their relationship to the culture that surrounds them. Richard Niebuhr labels these different approaches as: (1) Christ against culture; (2) the Christ of culture; (3) Christ above culture; (4) Christ and culture in paradox; and (5) Christ the transformer of culture.13 These categories for
13

Carson, D.A. and John Woodbridge, God and Culture (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993) viii.

9 the most part cover the wide spectrum of Christian reactions to culture, from complete rejection on the one end to complete assimilation on the other, to being a force for positive change within the culture.

Religion both shapes culture and is itself shaped by culture. Religion is a part of culture but at the same time it is an important way that beliefs and values of the culture is communicated both to its members and to those outside. Because of this, religion is a very powerful tool for growth towards what is good in a society and for stability in society. At the same time, religion can also be a very powerful tool for controlling and subjugating parts of society and persons within that society. Many times it has been used against people within a society who are of a different culture or subculture from the dominant cultural group. Throughout its history, the Church has been criticized for destroying various cultures. While there are aspects of a culture that must and will change as people receive the gospel message and make it their own message from God, there are positive aspects of a culture that should remain. Also as the people receiving the gospel message translate it into their culture, the gospel message should take on a form of expression that is in part completely their own, unique to their culture. This danger of cultural destruction is something for which those who share the gospel to other cultures must be made aware and always prayerfully considering how to maintain all that is good and valuable within that culture.

Conclusion Culture is something that unites people while at the same time separating and dividing them from others who are not like them. In this way culture can be a difficult obstacle to understanding and cooperation among peoples. It can also serve as an obstacle to

10 communicating the truths of the gospel message. The difficulty is that for much of the

10

Churchs history it has been almost completely dominated by those within the Western cultural worldview. Many of the very forms and doctrines that the Church holds dear were in part shaped by Greek philosophy and Roman culture from the very beginning. Several things are happening which are changing things. First of all the globalization movement in the world is beginning to bring more and more shared cultural forms throughout the world. This is happening through popular culture such as music and films, but also through business and now most significantly through the Internet, which is both a powerful cultural vehicle and form. Secondly, there is a greater awareness today of the differences between cultures and an appreciation for those differences. In the past the differences in culture were often seen as an indication of an inferior or undeveloped culture by those in dominant (often Western) cultures. More and more people are receiving training and cross-cultural experiences that are helping people break down some of the barriers that have existed between cultures. Yet often the difference between many Western missionaries and the cultures where they are ministering is quite large. The question that should be asked is this: are missionaries getting adequate preparation on counting the cost to themselves of communicating the gospel in another culture? The missionaries should be willing to go as far as assimilating into the culture, in as much as Jesus assimilated into his culture. The reason to do this is to effectively share the gospel message in a culturally understandable way, being like Paul who became a like a Jew to reach the Jews and he "became all things to all people" in order to reach some (1 Cor 9:19-22). John Donne, in his famous Meditation 17, makes the point about peoples interconnectedness. Many people pull out of context the famous line, Send not to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee, and therefore miss the greater part which is about the

11 interconnectedness of the Church and the sovereignty of God over all cultures. Donne says that when the Church baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingraffed into that body, whereof I am a

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member.all mankind is of one author, and is one volumeGod employs several translators but Gods hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again14 God is sovereign, and ultimately it is his Holy Spirit that is communicating the message, using imperfect people as his messengers. He will do the work of building the Church and he will use the best efforts of man and make them effective. Jesus told Peter that he, Jesus, would build the church (Matt 16:18).

14

John Donne, Meditation XVII, from The Works of John Donne, vol III, Henry Alford, ed., http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/meditation17.php (accessed Nov 28, 2011).

BIBLIOGRAPHY Brown, Delwin, Sheila Greeve Davaney, and Kathryn Tanner, editors. Converging on Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Carson, D.A. and John D. Woodbridge, editors. God and Culture. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1993. Cragg, Kenneth. Christianity in World Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968. Elmer, Duane. Cross-Cultural Servanthood. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006 Kraft, Charles. Anthropology for Christian Witness. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997. Lane, Patty. A Beginners Guide to Crossing Cultures. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002. Niebuhr, Richard. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1951. Winter, Ralph and Steven C. Hawthorne, editors. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader, 4th Edition. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2009. ELECTRONIC DOCUMENTS Donne, John. Meditation 17. from The Works of John Donne , Henry Alford, editor. http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/meditation17.php (accessed Nov 28, 2011) Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism. LOP 2: The Willowbank Report: Consultation on Gospel and Culture. http://www.lausanne.org/en/documents/lops/73-lop2.html (accessed on Nov 16, 2011)