What about the gospel and culture?

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Culture matters. It shapes our identity, our society, what we value, what we fear. We can’t detach ourselves from culture, God created us to create culture. But what do we do with those aspects of our cultures that are not compatible with the Bible? As a missionary in a culture that you don’t yet, and may never, fully understand, what is your role when new believers are struggling with these issues?

One of the biggest challenges for a believer in any culture is how to deal with areas of that culture that stand in tension with the Bible. Wherever we live, all of us have either experienced or know of new believers who have gone through the painful process of changing lifestyle choices. It can be especially hard when we have to give up things that shape our identity, or that are expected of us within our families and communities.

So what does this look like for believers coming from a background of African traditional religion? Often, cultural traditions and customs are contrary to the Bible; for instance, making sacrifices to other gods, or honouring their ancestors instead of Christ. Refusing to participate in these rituals can cause animosity with family or community. For several Gabbra Christians who decided to get married in the church instead of following traditional customs, the result was being ostracised by their families for years, and constantly being told by them that they weren’t really married because they hadn’t done it the right way.

Coming from a different culture themselves, missionaries arrive with their own cultural framework and worldview. Values and ways of understanding things will be different, for example serving cross-culturally often means adapting to a collective society when missionaries often are sent by cultures that emphasise the individual. In these contexts it is important not to assume that you fully understand another culture, and to always have a learning attitude. Culture can vary from place to place, even within the same people group, which is another reason why learning language is so important, so you can ask questions and communicate accurately and sensitively.

The key for all of us is to constantly be asking the question, ‘Is Christ at the centre of our traditions?’

What role, then, do missionaries play? Teaching the Bible ensures that people understand and address these issues for themselves. Recognising they don’t understand the culture deeply enough to tell people what to do or not do, Martin Koch, a missionary among the Samburu, says, “Only the Holy Spirit can do that.” Working among the Gabbra, Eddie Andersen’s experience is that, “It takes a lot more thought, but we’ll be in a Bible study and the light will suddenly switch on. They will see and understand why things that are done in their culture are really not honouring to God, and as a group they will decide together for themselves what is good or not.” Local believers need to recognise and identify things that need to change themselves. Ownership of these decisions makes them culturally relevant and sustainable.

Jesus at the centre

The key for all of us is to constantly be asking the question, ‘Is Christ at the centre of our traditions?’ Is it honouring to Christ, or could it be changed to become honouring to Christ? In many African cultures, customs often play very important roles in society. Rites of passage, for instance, provide boundaries and clear communication to children about what what their roles and responsibilities are, where they stand. Churches and believers can decide together to create new traditions that fulfil these social needs, but do so in a way that keeps Christ at the heart of all they do.

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