Archive for the ‘cross cultural evangelism’ Tag

Culture of Evangelism   1 comment

This is part of a series. Check it out.

Evangelical Christianity used to mean Christianity that reached out and evangelized the world around the churches.

I believe in evangelism. Evangelism lies at the heart of all missionary activity. Which why it is important that we do evangelism right.

Embedded image permalinkI’m not a professional missionary. I have a life here in Fairbanks and I don’t really want to go somewhere else to live. I don’t think God has called me to full-time professional evangelism or missionary work. I do think God has called all Christians to be ministers for Christ in our world and to obey the Great Commission, which is all about evangelism.

I’ve done some short-term mission trips. I’ve gone to a couple of foreign countries and a lot of Alaskan villages. I know some people who do the short-term mission trips all the time and I know some people who reject the concept altogether.

Evangelism done badly—by the wrong people in the wrong way at the wrong time—can be detrimental, no matter how well-intentioned. Yet, there is absolutely no question that Christians must evangelize and that commission from Jesus may have some of us considering cross-cultural evangelism.

Alaska is the most ethnically diverse state in the United, by the way, so I’ve had opportunity to view multicultural evangelism in many guises. Basically, here we don’t have a language barrier, but there are all sorts of cultural barriers.

Understanding culture is key. The logical presentation of the gospel presented as the “Four Spiritual Laws” works well for conceptual, linear thinkers in the West, but does not necessarily work with intuitional thinkers in the East or concrete relational thinkers in Latin America. In working with the foreign-born in my church I learned that eastern thinkers believe that nothing worth proving can be proved. On a mission trip to Columbia, I learned that my passable Spanish was of less importance than my ability to tell stories to illustrate ideas. Although I do not speak German, a mission trip there showed that my forays into logic were more important than my ability to speak the language, primarily because most Germans speak English better than I speak Spanish. Among Alaskan Natives knowing things like sitting at the corner of a table, not talking for long periods of time, and not looking an elder in the eye have allowed me to share the gospel with folks in the villages. Effective evangelism is contextual evangelism. While the message does not change, (Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord), the methodology of doing evangelism must change from culture to culture. Jesus Christ is still Savior and Lord, but how I communicate that must change depending on who I talk to.

Relationships are built on trust and relationship opens channels of communication. Without relationship and the resultant trust it is difficult to evangelize effectively. Building cross-cultural relationships take time and that’s one of the problems with short-term missions. You can’t build trust with another person until they feel like they have been accepted by you and they feel you value them as human beings. After trust is established, there is a greater likelihood that people will share important information. The relationship between persons defines communication and is, therefore, the most important part of the process.

Which is why I am a supporter of long-term missionaries. Nothing speaks so loudly for Christ as Paul mending tents in the Corinthian marketplace. I couldn’t build any relationships with the people I met in Colombia. I hope I acquitted Christ’s gospel well during my 10-days there, but I doubt that was really a long enough time, so I have to hope the long-term missionaries who were our hosts and the native Christians who were already there could water any seeds I managed to plant. I can go back year after year to a Native village and establish friendships, especially in this age of email where we can stay in touch during the months I’m not there. Maybe the day will come when more missionaries will return to the Alaskan bush to evangelize, but truthfully, if the Alaskan villages are to see a second great awakening, the work will likely need to be done by Native folks who accepted Christ back then and are now finally realizing that it is on them to reach their own culture.

But it is also on americanized Christians to recognize and accept that Native Christianity may not look exactly like American Christianity. It may have a lot more dancing in it … inside the churches (gasp)… and songs might be in Koyokon Athabaskan rather than English and maybe they’ll meeting in living rooms around the woodstove rather than in a red-painted building with a cross. Will we be able to accept that version of Christianity as valid within that cultural context? If Raven takes on an Aslan-like quality in the stories instead of being the Trickster will he have a place in the Native Christian churches?

I don’t know, but I do know that cultural context is critical to Christianity because God deals with Christians as individuals and individuals live within a culture. Just as I bristle when my Wendat cousins try to tell me that I shouldn’t do certain things because I am an Indian and not a white person (I’m both!), I bristle when Christians say I shouldn’t dance the Indian dances because it is not “Christian”. Sometimes, some dances are dishonoring to Christ and I don’t participate. Sometimes it’s telling a story of an ancient hunt that doesn’t invoke pagan gods and I participate. The stories of Turtle can be tricky because Turtle can be viewed as a god or simply as the earth. I am capable of judging what is acceptable to my Savior far more than some white person who doesn’t understand my culture.

On the other hand … sometimes we go too far in wrapping Christianity in culture. Watch for the continuation of this series.


Cultural Dance   16 comments

My discussion of Christmas got me thinking about how Christianity works itself out in a cultural context.

Contextualization is sometimes a controversial topic, but it remains a critical component in communicating the gospel effectively. The New Testament and the history of Christian missions display the need for healthy contextualization.

Contextualization involves an attempt to present the Gospel in a culturally relevant way. For this reason, any discussions about contextualization are connected to discussions about the nature of human culture.

Culture is the common ideas, feelings and values that guide community and personal behavior, that organize and regulate what a group thinks, feels and does about God, the world and humanity. It explains why the Sawi people of Irian Jaya regard betrayal as a virtue, which Americans see it as a vice. …The closest New Testament approximately to culture is kosmos (world), but only when it refers to language-bound, organized human life (I Corinthians 14:10) or the sin-contaminated system of values, traditions, and social structures of which we are a part (John 17:11) – The Evangelical Dictionary of Missions

There is nothing inherently evil about culture. Like most human inventions, it is a composite of good and evil values, customs, beliefs, creations, vocations, and behaviors that characterize a particular people in a particular place. Some cultures are more brutal than others, but might still have redeeming qualities while other cultures are more praiseworthy except for where they are not.

Unfortunately, not all evangelicals understand culture in this manner. Some evangelicals mistakenly believe that Scripture’s warnings against the world, the kosmos, are warnings against culture itself. This isn’t true. All people are fashioned in the image of God and are recipients of common grace. This means that we should expect to find some positive features present in every culture, even non-Christian cultures. At the same time, every person has sinned, and we should expect to find some negative features present in every culture. Instead of shunning culture completely, we should instead engage culture with care and discernment. We should also hit pause for a moment and realize that evangelical American Christians live within the context of their own culture that is also a human-defined construct.

We cannot avoid discussions about culture because all people live in a culture of some sort. There is no neutral position. None of us stand in a cultural vacuum where we can make objective pronouncements on the cultures of others. All people, whether they realize it or not, are shaped by the culture in which they live.

I had a recent discussion with someone on social media about culture. His contention was that we should reject our culture and stand outside of it. He defined culture along the lines of bacteria. I think this fellow does not understand that his rejection of the concept of a culture is itself an influence from his culture. For about 40 years, since the Hippy era, Americans have been told that our culture is banal and worthless and that we will find much more significance in the cultures of other countries. That is a message born in American culture and is therefore a cultural message. Culture shapes everything we do and believe, often without our direct knowledge.

Culture even shapes a person’s reception of the Christian faith. Andrew Walls has written well on this issue:

No one ever meets universal Christianity in itself: we only ever meet Christianity in a local form and that means a historically, culturally conditioned form. We need not fear this; when God became man he became historically, cultural conditioned man in a particular time and place. What he became, we need not fear to be. There is nothing wrong in having local forms of Christianity–provided that we remember that they are local.

Walls does not suggest that the Christian Gospel is merely the product of a particular culture or that it is only “true” in particular cultures. The teachings of Christianity remain objectively true in all times and in all places. Walls merely argues that we receive the truths of Christianity wrapped in the baggage of a particular cultural context. We humans are not eternal, timeless and a-cultural. Some of the ways we worship, how we present eternal truths, and how we live in and relate to society must be considered because we live in a culture.

A failure to understand this point can actually lead to a form of cultural arrogance where a person might begin to believe that his culture’s way of practicing Christianity is the only way to practice Christianity. This attitude would be unhelpful to the gospel because it tries to force a distant culture onto potential converts as if it were the gospel.

The process of contextualization takes these facts about culture into account by presenting the unchanging truths of the gospel within the unique and changing contexts of cultures and worldviews.

Contextualization works as a tool to enable an understanding of what it means that Jesus Christ is authentically experienced in each and every human situation. While the human condition and the gospel remain the same, people have different worldviews which in turn impact how they interpret themselves and the world.

Scripture supports for this concept of contextualization. Jesus lived His earthly life in Palestine as a first-century Jew. He entered the culture of His day and “was so thoroughly a part of His culture that, when being betrayed by Judas, He had to be identified by a kiss. His captors could not tell Him from other Jewish males hanging around in the first century gardens. Jesus’ ministry operated within a specific cultural context.

Paul’s ministry also reveals the need for contextualization. Paul intentionally addressed his Jewish listeners one way but addressed pagan philosophers differently. When he addressed Jews, Paul began with Scripture. When he addressed Gentiles, he began with general revelation. The focus of Paul’s sermons remained the same—the Gospel, but he shifted his presentation of the Gospel to fit the worldviews of his listeners.

Contextualization is simply about sharing the Gospel well. Those who deliberately practice the process of contextualization desire to share the Gospel in ways that is most relevant to the culture they are addressing.

 Watch for the series

Cultural Dance (this article)

Gospel in Obscurity

Context is Critical

How Then Should We Live?

Jerusalem Council

Instructional Letter

Building Bridges

Culture of Evangelism

Look out for Black Ice

 Make a Choice

Recognizing the World

All That is In the World

Illustrated Man

How Do You Know the Difference?




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