Relationship Between Mission and Culture

In the first article in this series we defined 'mission' as all that God in Christ has sent us to do, and we understood this to mean 'the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world'. In the second article we examined the phenomenon of culture as an aspect of the world to which we are sent, and saw that it comprises shared patterns of behaving and thinking which manifest themselves in a particular society. We also saw that culture is an ambiguous phenomenon - a mixture of the good, the bad and the indifferent - and that as Christians we need to adopt a discriminating attitude towards the cultures of the world, including our own. We need to 'test all things' and 'hold fast to what is good' (1 Thess 5:21). The time has now come to explore more fully the relationship between 'mission' and 'culture', and to see how a proper appreciation of the phenomenon of culture will affect the way in which we engage in mission.

Missiologists have generally identified three approaches to mission which have been followed by different Christians at different times and places during the course of church history, and which are distinguished by their differing attitudes towards the culture of those among whom they are seeking to work for Christ. The first is now widely recognised to be mistaken and outmoded, the second to be inadequate and superficial, and the third to be scriptural and appropriate. It will be helpful to describe these three approaches as a means of clarifying the issues involved. As we do so we need to remember that what is said here applies to those who belong to the secular culture of post-Christian Britain just as much as to anyone else.

The first approach is that of cultural imperialism. Those who adopt this approach make the mistake of identifying the Christian faith with their own particular cultural expression of it, with the result that in their mission they seek to impose that cultural expression on those who belong to other cultures. For such people, conversion involves not only the acceptance of the Lordship of Christ, but also the converts' renunciation of their own culture and the adoption of the culture of those who have evangelised them. Examples of this approach in church history are legion, not least the case of an earlier generation of missionaries from the West during the colonial period who saw the spread of western civilisation as an integral part of the christianisation of the peoples of the world. It is easy for us now to condemn this approach, but we should not forget that many of the early missionaries lived lives of heroic self-sacrifice; that they rightly saw the need for a radical change in the lifestyles of many of those whom they sought to win for Christ; and that many of those who came to Christ through them positively wanted to be westernised. Nevertheless, insofar as this approach fails to distinguish between Christianity and its various cultural expressions, and insofar as it fails to appreciate what is good in other cultures, it should rightly be regarded as mistaken.

The second approach is that of cultural accommodation. This pays greater attention to the culture of others and recognises some good in them, but allows this recognition to affect the way mission is conducted only at a superficial level. Those who follow this approach adapt their presentation of the gospel so as to make it more attractive to those of the receptor culture, for example in matters of dress or music or art form, but tend to do so as a concession without really appreciating the value of alternative cultural expressions of the faith as valid in their own right, and without allowing for a true dialogue between the gospel and the deeper aspects of culture. It concentrates on the outward forms of other cultures only, while dismissing the functions which those forms fulfil in their original context and the underlying world-view which informs those functions. This approach, therefore, is commonly seen as good as far as it goes, but inadequate as a response to the problems raised by the interaction between gospel and culture.

The third approach is that of inculturation. This approach seeks to engage in dialogue with other cultures at a deeper level than merely that of outward forms, and recognises that this dialogue is best carried out by those who belong to the receptor culture itself. In the process of 'inculturation' (or 'contextualisation' as it is sometimes called) the attempt is made to integrate the gospel with the receptor culture as a whole, and to re-express the gospel in terms that are wholly appropriate to that culture. This is not the same as syncretism. Inculturation adopts and enriches all that is compatible with the gospel in a culture, but at the same time rejects or refines all that is inconsistent with it. It maintains the discriminating attitude already advocated in this series of articles. This approach has appropriately been called 'incarnational'. Just as Jesus in his incarnate state lived as a Jew and was thoroughly immersed in his Jewish culture, yet criticised and corrected that culture from within, laying the foundations for its transformation, so we are called to identify ourselves culturally with others so far as the gospel itself permits. We are to 'become all things to all people' as St Paul did (1 Cor 9:22 NRSV) so that we might be agents both in the process of their conversion and also in the transformation of their culture.

Inculturation, therefore, is to be our aim. The worldwide church is called to be a multicultural community which accepts and celebrates its own rich, God-given cultural diversity while at the same time living in obedience to the same Lord, under the authority of the same Bible, and 'maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace' (Eph 4:3).

These principles apply to every expression of mission. Yet the relationship between mission and culture becomes particularly critical at the level of religion, which is one of the most fundamental elements of culture. It is therefore to the specific issue of inter-faith dialogue that we will turn in the fourth and final article of this series.

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