Gospel meets culture and suddenly a plethora of issues are ejaculated into the stream of debate and conflict, in the excitement of the on-going mission of God and the perpetuation of his Kingdom. What arouses such fervour? God’s mission is the ultimate transmitter of love but what are the implications of Gospel and Culture, which lie within? This essay will closely examine and evaluate issues risen as a result of the confrontation of Gospel and culture.
The relationship between Gospel and culture is an on-going challenge facing the church today, which with urgency and perseverance needs to be intensely addressed. The message of the Gospel is central to the practices and norms of Christianity and its existence. However, in the challenge of outreach, the conflicting issues of correlating and juxtaposing the two concepts in an attempt to relate the message comprehensively and effectively can prove to be a tedious task. To develop a proper understanding of this enthralling matter, a definition of terms is required.
Culture is “the learned, shared behaviour of members of society.’ The concept of culture governs those beliefs, behaviours and values, which are important and seen as necessary for survival to that particular society. The outstanding and important aspects of culture are language, values, norms, roles and status. Without a common language the individuals of a society would not be able to communicate effectively and relationship will be lost. Values are especially important for the “social unity or social solidarity’ because they define those things, which are seen in a particular society, as good and worthwhile. If everyone has the same values then there is less probability of chaos created by clashing of perceptions of what is good and worthwhile. Norms are the way in which the acceptation of these values is acted out.
“Norms guide behaviour in all aspects of social life.’ Roles and statuses subtly command the way a community functions and perpetuates. It is necessary for every individual in a society to carry out roles according to their own status in society. These roles are played out in relation to other roles. For example, if mother and son play their roles properly they know “what to do and how to do it. Knowing each other’s roles they are able to predict and understand what the other is doing.’ Through this the act of parenting and teaching may be accomplished. All of these aspects of culture come together to produce order in society because they establish and maintain links between individuals and groups through the things seen as normal, acceptable and understandable behaviour in that particular context, therefore enabling things to be accomplished.
Aspects of culture vary. In the western world an individual’s position in society may be governed by the wealth which he/she has and huge distinction is made between different classes of people. Society is classed according to wealth. However, in the Muslim culture a person is well reputed because of his generosity. This “ensures that wealth is shared within the Muslim community.’ In one culture it may be acceptable to speak in a certain manner which may be to other cultures offensive or “abnormal,’ even if they may speak the same language. Language is cultural. All of these elements come together significantly to form the essence of culture.
Socialisation is significant in the development and perpetuation of culture because it is the process through which an individual learns the values and norms of the society he/she is living in.
As mentioned above, what Christians call “The Gospel’ is at the core of what they believe. The gospel is what is referred to as “the good news,’ (from the Greek “euangelion’) the message of God to his people. “In the NT it refers to the good news preached by Jesus that the kingdom of God is at hand (Mark 1: 15) and of “¦what god has done on behalf of humanity in Jesus (Romans 1:3- 5).’ Its concept governs the beliefs and practices of the Christian body. God’s message to the world is articulately summed up at the beginning of John’s gospel and Luke 4: 18. That is that the God who was there from the beginning, who created all things, becomes fully man to bear the burden of the sins of humankind, to be a light to the darkness of the world. He becomes fully man assuming the situation of humankind, and being with them, enduring as they endured. However he remained fully God, demonstrating his divine nature in healing and wisdom (i.e. this is termed the “Incarnation’).
All of this transpires because of God’s love for mankind and his longing for mankind to be reconciled to him. The Christian message declares that Jesus is the only way of returning to the father (John 14: 6) from the sinful realm to which Adam and Eve opened mankind in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3). Jesus came to die and suffer once and for all for the sins of mankind, for all those who would accept this sacrifice and his off of eternal life because of his own death and resurrection. At the end of his physical ministry on earth he instructs his disciples to carry on his ministry . These instructions have ongoing significance for ages to come, hence the reference to Jesus’ immanent presence with his followers, till the end of the world (v. 20).
The story of the culture of Israel. The way of life of the people of Israel was according to and almost equivalent to their religious practices. God wanted for himself a set of people set aside from all other nations to reflect in their own lives the very nature of God. Christopher Wright says that their culture was split into two parts; the Theological, sociological and economical angles. Every one of these aspects were governed and grounded by their belief in God who they saw as divine. This is the God they worshipped and made sacrifices to according to his commands (Exodus 34). Their view on everything came from reflected the experience they had had with this God of power. God had rescued them from the hands of Oppression. Their way of life was therefore a consequence of their own beliefs, which formed their values. The practices of the people of Israel were in response to God’s work in their lives. It is into this God- centred culture that Jesus is born.
In this sense Gospel and culture are inseparable because It is like this that the Gospel governs the behaviour of Christians and even some parts of Western culture. For example many Western values of are derived from the Laws of the Christian religion. Haralambos states that “religion acts as a mechanism of social control.’ The value of life is governed by the 7th commandment: “You shall not kill.’ The Gospel’s culture? So the Gospel transpired through the shape of a particular culture because of the nature of the message, i.e. the incarnation. Jesus had to become like the people of the particular culture he was living in; he had to assume their situation. The substance of the incarnation is that God humbles himself and comes alongside the people. Herein lies the essence of the tension between Gospel and culture in evangelism.’ Jesus was carrying a message to mankind but it was being projected through the sybolisms of the Jewish Culture.
The Gospel itself transpires through a culture, which has its routes in the sanctification of God, by whom it was created and developed. The questions this raises are inevitable. Wherein does the true substance of the Gospel lie? Is it that the Christian body is to carry that same message, deduced from the traditions that Jesus followed and enhanced, yet in the context of the particular culture they are in? Or because it is “God’s culture” do we assume the norms exactly? To answer these questions we will examine the state of the Gospel as it is now in a number of different contexts. Perhaps then we can deduce the reality of the gospel as it relates to culture.
However we address some of these enthralling issues, the reality is they allude to the Gospel as a culture of it own. It is a way of life for many who have come to believe and accept it. The Gospel carries values and norms that govern the way that the beliver behaves. These are shared set codes of behaviour and mentality that make them unique from other groups of people. For example Christianity has its emphasis on love (1 Corinthians 13). The way in which Christians act out the acceptation of that value is through care, etc. “Faith without works is dead.’
Paul refers to the function of roles and status as he describes the followers of Jesus as one body (1Cor 12/ 14). Everyone is given a different gift and it is all for the edification of the church. New Christians are like children who need “socialisation.’ (Matt 18: 3) They are taught the values and norms through worship and preaching etc. If the Gospel itself is a culture then the issue of Cross- culture in mission is and has always been inevitable. So Christians have to take it from here.
Biblical implications of Cross- Cultural mission: In Acts 17 Paul was brought face to face with the scholastic culture of the Greeks. He observed and discerned the culture he was in (vs. 16). Then he acted; reasoning with the people in their own contexts; bringing his teaching to them (vs. 17). When the people responded to his openness (v. 18ff) he went along very willingly, being to and embracing of their culture of teaching and philosophy. Paul is given the opportunity, then to share his teaching of the Gospel. He goes about it using the language of reason and persuasion; relating it to what he had observed in the culture (v 22ff). In John 4 Jesus meets and talks with a Samaritan woman. It was very unusual for a Jews to speak to Samaritans. But to Jesus everybody was to be included in the kingdom of God. It is a fulfilment of the prophesy given to Abram (“… and all peoples on the earth will be blessed through [Israel].’) Jesus was the blessing to all peoples, which was projected through Israel. He meets her right at the place she is and engages with her in her own context; i.e. the well.
The well is symbolic of the depth of “unhappiness’ in her life and her fruitless struggles to satisfy her needs from wrong or fallible sources. Jesus discerns her situation and gives her an alternative, pointing at the water in the well he declares that “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again’ (v. 13). Then he offers her the living water with which she will never go thirsty. He speaks the language (i.e. water, thirst, etc) that is relevant to her situation.
This is the essence of the message of Jesus, becoming like the people to whom the gospel is being brought, meeting people where they are, and being relevant to their situations and cultures. But first it is important to be willing to work across cultures for the sake of God’s message to all peoples. Jesus compliments this in his parable of “The Good Samaritan.’ In this Jesus is replying to the question, “who is my neighbour?’ He is connotatively illustrating that the love of God transcends all cultural barriers. And that your neighbour is anyone who is in need. God’s mission is extended to all peoples.
Contemporary implications of Cross- Cultural mission. Today the Gospel has been taken to many countries all over the world where cultures diverge significantly from that of the Jews at that time. Indeed even the culture of the Jews has changed considerably, inevitably because of era and technology development, etc.
Denominational differences. Christian denominations claim to rely fully on Biblical scriptures yet none of them carry exactly the same practices. Some teaching is common but others diverge. “…For four centuries after the reformation one of the chief bones of contention between Catholics and Protestants (and some of the Protestants among themselves) was the interpretation of scripture’ Interpretation of Scripture is a significant issue in the relationship between Gospel and Culture. The Baptists say, “Scripture is exalted to a unique position of authority above tradition.
Their rejection of infant baptism in favour of believer baptism is based on their reading of the New Testament.” In Methodism “[Wesley]…claims that his whole theology comes from the Bible and that if anyone wishes to controvert his teaching, he must bring evidence for his different view from the Bible, or [he] will not give him hearing.” However Wesley believed in infant baptism even if it is not explicitly portrayed in scripture like believer baptism is. And the tradition of infant baptism today is still being carried on by the Methodists.
Regional differences. In Venezuela many male children are named “Jesus.’ To their parents it is a gesture of honour and respect for Jesus. However in a place like England Christian believers may see it as a huge degree of blasphemy, taking the name of God and giving it to human children. This happens through out the Spanish world. The two contexts both mean to honour and respect Jesus but they have a diverging way of doing it. At a conference at Cliff College Rus Parker shared an observation of the fact that people see through their own experiences. So is the interpretation of Scripture conditioned by context/ culture anyway? Let’s compare a typical Methodist church in England to one in Grenada. A Sunday Service in England lasts about one hour and if any longer there may be some unease in the congregation.
The habit is not prevalently to dance though it may be done to a certain extent and the songs are typical of English music both old hymns and, increasingly, contemporary. In Grenada the congregation is free to dance and express their worship mainly this way. It will be two hours before people start looking at their watches. The music is actually old English hymns with seldom inclusion of rhythm and music with a more Caribbean tone. This is obviously a hang over from colonial Christians, who introduced the Gospel to the people of Grenada yet through their own culture.
There was no adaptation of the gospel. The church was becoming to the people an emblem of everything that is indicative of boredom and irrelevance (not “cool’ or “in with the vibes’). It was far away from the real culture of the people. As much as this sheds a light on the diversity of cultural practices within Christianity itself it outlines the significance of putting the message into the context of the culture or giving the message with all the cultural baggage, which built up around it.
Lessons: from Grenada. Things are changing however. People, in recognition of this and in an attempt to address these matters, are modifying hymns; giving them Caribbean rhythms etc. More and More Calypso and Reggae are becoming a part of the worship in the church and people are finding it easier to engage in worship.
So the gospel is projected through one culture, assumes its own, yet as shown above, it can be and has been embodied by differing cultures. It embodies its own culture yet has the ability to be embodied by other cultures.
In faith sharing people must be able to understand what is being conveyed. The expression of the gospel must not be too foreign to what they are used to or it may appear “boring’ and irrelevant. Leslie Newbigin has recognised through his work in India that “The communication of the Gospel, as any message, requires both an understanding of the message and an understanding of the mind of the one with whom we are seeking to communicate. Foreign missionaries have learned the appropriate language and ” if they do it properly ” will realise that in using the language they are implicitly accepting a whole range of assumptions embodied in it.’ Christians “have to find their way between two dangers: by not properly understanding the culture of their hearers they may simply remain incomprehensible; but by seeking to enter deeply into that culture, they may let the message lose its sharp challenge and become too much at home in the culture.’
Paul alludes to the idea that God “views human culture primarily as a vehicle to be used by him and his people for Christian purposes, rather than as an enemy to be combated.’ Christians need to embrace culture. Paul’s speech reasons that the church must be like Jesus in Mission, following his example. But how far [should] our theological and christological interpretation… be conditioned by our contexts?’ Context comes from the Latin, “contextere”, which means to “braid,” “Weave” or “connect”.’ Therefore Christ and Context speaks of an interweaving, a braiding of what is otherwise ” with our usual habit we see as divided. And the question before us is how that interweaving occurs… Cultures are not fixed and self-imposed; they are dynamic and intertwined with others. And yet within this intertwining there is a braiding in which God himself may be present. ‘ Regan well expresses the reality of the issue of Gospel and Culture. His statement is indicative of the state of contemporary Western culture as it relates to Gospel.
Today’s society is a pluralist society; in which many cultures, many beliefs and values co-exist. They dwell with each other, some overlapping and some diverging. One can never escape the other. So the challenge of the church is to be willing to relate to all of these in their own context, following the example of God (Jesus). Society does not thrive on absolutes anymore. There is an antagonism against dogmatism. The church does not have that hold on society as it did in Christendom.
Very significant in the Gospel are the values that it transmits; e.g. love. The cultural contextualisation of the Gospel refers to the methods of acting out of the acceptation of those values (norms). So the value of loving and honouring God in worship exists both in English culture and Grenadian culture but the acts of worship are different. Christians need to recognise that, know and recognise the context in which they find themselves and convey the gospel through that context.
And so the issues progress, some more prevalent than others, but they all culminate in the subduing reality that the matters of Gospel and Culture are inseparable, intertwined concepts which given the right treatment compliment, illuminate and satisfy each other.
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5. Kraft CH, Christianity in Culture- A study in Dynamic Biblical Theologising in Cross- cultural Perspective, (NY, Orbis Books, 1979) 6.
Haralambos M, Sociology, a new approach, (Cornwall, Causeway Press Ltd, 1986) 7. Hilborn D, Picking up the Pieces, Can Evangelists adapt to contemporary culture? (UK, Hodder & Stoughton, 1997), Foreword by Leslie Newbigin 8. Regan H, Christ and Context, (Scotland, T&T Clark Ltd, 1993) 9. The Bible (NIV) 10. Wright CJH, Living as The People of God, (Leicester, IVP, 1983) 1. Wood A, Islam for today, (UK, Oxford University Press, 1998)