One of my favorite accounts in the Bible comes from the book of Acts 17 where Paul was at Athens waiting for Silas and Timothy to arrive. Athens was an "educated" society and in today's language we would call them "open-minded." Much of their time was spent in debate over new ideas and "new thinking” which also sounds a lot like today’s society. They had objects of worship scattered throughout the city and as I read and re-read the story I got the impression that they wanted to please everyone and every potential "god" that was out there. Theirs was the "PC" society of the day, much like ours of today - fearful of upsetting anyone's apple cart in any way, shape, or form.
As a missionary, I appreciate Paul's approach to ministering to the Athenians by studying their culture for him to better communicate with the people. This is ministry 101: learn to speak in a way that the audience will understand you. My husband and I have made it our business to become "students of culture" in every country we served in; this required us to learn new languages, dress accordingly, learn cultural cues, and adjust our thinking when and where appropriate. Paul goes on to preach to the Athenians in a way that piques their attention, this is evidenced by their agreeing to "hear more about this from you later" (vs. 32). This is the power of using culture to gain the attention of the audience. Some ended up converting to Christianity, others did not. What I don't see Paul doing as he uses culture to preach the message is compromising the message for the sake of culture. Once Paul got his "in" to preaching to the people of Athens, he challenged them to turn from worshipping every god to worshipping the One True God. This went totally against their culture to worship multiple gods and accept everyone's new ideas.
Relevant? Really? In our day and age of "relevance" I wonder if we would do well if, instead of using culture as an escape to stay in our cultural norms, we use culture as a doorway into the hearts of people. Culture varies from country to country - but the Gospel is the same. It's power transcends culture. God is expressed through each culture individually. In addition to that, each culture acts
as a unique lens through which we can see God and appreciate how wonderfully diverse He is. Having been living and serving cross-culturally, mostly in Africa, for over 35 years, we have learned to replace our Western ideas of worship with African worship. Initially, it was strange, but as we learned culture we saw God's character expressed in a new style of worship. Now, whenever I travel back to the USA, I enjoy singing in my native language of English during worship but sometimes I close my eyes and remember another style of worship that grips my heart: the songs of Africa. Different cultures around the world are all expressions of God and are to be appreciated as such. He made every culture different and there are parts of all cultures that reflect the beauty of our Creator.
What's Common What I've found to be the common thread in every country that I've served in is everyone's need to excuse certain behaviors because "This is the way we do it here in this country." Speaking honestly, as a foreigner in Africa, I’ve often been told "This is the way we do it here, you don't understand because you don't come from here. We are far too busy to do more." Whenever I’ve been in the USA, I hear a similar thing, "This is the way we do it here, you don't understand because you've been away so long. We are far too busy to do more."
The nature of man is the same all around the world. Our lifestyles may occupy us in different ways but everyone is busy. In Africa people are busy farming, harvesting, washing by hand, fetching water, taking care of babies, and the basics of life, people in America are busy with jobs, family, hobbies, and entertainment. Busyness is a common thread worldwide; we cannot escape from its grip! Could it be that our culture itself is what needs to be challenged? Could it be that if we want our outreaches to grow in power we have to adjust the way we do things according to Kingdom culture and not our own cultures? The Cross and Our Culture