Mission and Culture - What is Culture?

In the first article in this series we looked at the term 'mission' and defined it as doing all that God in Christ has sent us as a Church to do in the world. More precisely, we defined it as 'the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world'. I concluded by saying that as we engage in mission we need to pay attention to the contexts in which we operate if we are to maximise our impact for Christ. This leads us on then to a consideration of the concept of "CULTURE".

The word 'culture' is used to describe shared patterns of BEHAVING and THINKING which manifest themselves in a particular society. These patterns cover matters such as language, dress, food, manners, social customs and organisation, art, archi-tecture, music, law, morality and religion.

Cultural anthropologists sometimes distinguish between the observable forms in which a culture manifests itself, the immediate reasons or motives which give these forms their specific functions, and the underlying world-view or mentality of a society which informs these functions.

To take an example from Africa: when a Maasai tribesman in Kenya or Tanzania steals a cow (an observable 'form') from a member of a different tribe, he may be asserting the claim of his tribe to be the real owner of the cow (the 'function' of his action), a claim for which he finds support in Maasai mythology (part of their underlying 'world-view') that in the beginning all the cattle in the world belonged to the Maasai and therefore any cow which belongs to anyone else must have been stolen from them at some point in the past. As we can see from this example, it is not enough, when assessing culture, to look at observable behaviour alone. One has to penetrate beneath the surface to the hidden motives which engender certain types of behaviour.

Culture is an inevitable part of human life. It is an aspect of our createdness. When Jesus came, he necessarily adopted elements of the Jewish culture in which, as a human being, he was reared. Likewise the Church cannot exist in a cultural vacuum. It necessarily has to live in the society of which it is a part and express its life through the medium of various cultural forms. A cultureless christianity is an illusion.

Knowledge of one's own culture is acquired through social interaction almost unconsciously from the moment of birth onwards and is a powerful force in shaping the way we behave. Most human beings naturally crave the affirmation of others and conformity to certain social norms is usually a prerequisite for attaining this goal. Such conformity gives us a sense of identity, security and continuity with the past. However, cultures are not fixed or monolithic. Cultures are susceptible to change, even if the process is slow. Moreover, within a general culture there may be sub-cultures, and even sub-cultures within sub-cultures, all of which share their own distinctive beliefs and practices. Again, in many parts of the world there are people who belong to different cultures living side-by-side, and there are many people who adopt different elements from the different cultures with which they come into contact in differing degrees of integration.

As has long been recognised, we are living at a time in history when the world is increasingly becoming a 'global village', and the cultural map of the world has become considerably more complex than it was a hundred years ago.

What has all this got to do with MISSION? As I have said, our mission in the world is likely to have greater impact if we first have an understanding of the culture of the people among whom we are seeking to work, and I shall say more about that in forthcoming articles. For now, however, the preliminary point needs to be made that, from a christian point of view, culture is an ambiguous phenomenon. No single culture can be commended as wholly good, nor can any be condemned as wholly evil. Even as individual human beings are a mixture of the good, the bad and the indifferent

  • GOOD in so far as we reflect the image of God in which we have been made
  • BAD in so far as we depart from or deface that image
  • so also human society is a moral mixture, and this mixture is reflected in our cultural beliefs and practices.

To take a further example from AFRICA: in many parts of Africa, female circumcision is practiced as a rite of initiation for girls into adulthood. It is so deeply rooted in some parts that no amount of education seems to be able to eradicate it, yet most of the rest of the world would regard this practice as unnecessary, degrading, and potentially harmful. On the other hand, there are also the positive points about African culture. In Africa there is generally a tremendous degree of family solidarity.

Even fairly distant relatives feel a deep bond with one another and will support one another in time of need - surely a wholly admirable characteristic. By contrast, Western society is currently marked by a high degree of individualism, fragmentation and the breakdown of family life - a negative cultural trait; but on the other hand it has (at least by African Standards) commendable standards of efficiency, justice, accountability, and democratic governance. At the same time we need to recognise that much in culture is morally neutral. Whether a country decided that vehicles should drive on the right side of the road or the left, for example, is a matter of moral indifference, as are many matters relating to styles of dress, art, music and the like.

In this situation of ambiguity, christians should seek, in the light of the teaching of scripture, to discriminate between the good, the bad and the indifferent both in their own cultures and in the cultures of those among whom they work. We need to 'test everything' and 'hold fast what is good': (1 Thess. 5.21), Welcoming all that is good in all the cultures of the world, but at the same time seeking to purify them at those points at which they fail to reflect God's will for his creation. While the Church is inevitably called to live in the world, it is not to be of the world, (John 17.11-19) or conformed to the world (Romans. 12.2). It is rather called to transform it from within.

Next time we shall explore in greater detail how we should go about this task.