Role of culture in gospel communication Essay

Introduction

In the world today, culture has become a window through which most civilizations view their societal dynamics. Just like how a person will see the world as green when he views it thorough green glasses so does culture do. This means that if culture believes in giving or generosity it will discredit acts of selfishness in other cultures. This is because it will see the act of selfishness in the other culture through the eyes of their culture. The same case applies to a culture that does circumcise its males; as in, it will discredit another culture which does not circumcise its males and the same goes on. Assuming that this is a principle in most cultures what does the reader think about the connection between culture and gospel communication?

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Doesn’t the reader think that the role of culture in gospel communication is rather complicated? All these queries will be investigated in this study. In particular, it will cover the following themes: missionary methods, New Directions in Mission and Evangelization, cross-cultural dimensions, new global mission and the trends in translating the gospel message. Essentially, the study aims to explore the role of culture in gospel communication. However, it would be worthwhile to state as follows: even though culture encompasses a people’s total way of life it has got some contingent values as well. Therefore, not every cultural aspect can be useful in instilling gospel values in the society thus making it imperative for the need of the superiority of the Gospel.

Key Words: Contingent Values, Superiority of the Gospel, Re-Evangelization, Missionary Mandate, Gospel Objectivism, Culture Emancipation, Culture Fundamentalism, Mission (s),

Research Question

Q. What is the role of culture in Gospel Communication?

Role of Culture in Common Parlance

This section will look at how people look at culture, how they acquire it, how they use it to live and make life decisions and how it affects them when posed with new ideas and civilization.

In normal circumstances people confine themselves to their cultural values and convictions since it the most suitable way to express their identity. The identity talked about here connotes their identity as individuals and identity in terms of how they relate with one another. [1]Otherwise, the world would be chaotic if people did not have a common identity which is well expressed in culture. To that extent, culture is of significant value in the world and a reality that cannot be eliminated whatsoever, not even the gospel. [2]

Culture is simply acquired through re-generation. This means that children acquire it from their parents and the chain goes on and on. So, it is from the family that children come to learn about their culture. However, after gaining authenticity and through mingling with other social members they get to learn more about their culture. This certainly is the most basic way individuals learn about their culture. Well, other ways would be through observation on the ways a community goes about its business. [3]

Now, once a generation comes to learn about its culture the next thing is to use it to live and make important life decisions as well. For instance, people live in such a manner as to defend their cultural values and implement them. [4]Literally, people may choose to live within the framework of their culture. It was stated earlier that a generous culture would motivate its proponents to live in a generous way, if not always at least in most cases. Culture becomes like their “conscience” to mean their system of values where all their actions draw and return. [5]Culture also affects how people make decisions in life like in the case of marriage. As in, a particular culture may prohibit their communities from inter-marriages, say; they should not get married or marry a person from a particular culture. Other decisions involve education, careers and morality. [6]

That said it can now be seen that culture can have great influence in how people take new ideas and civilization amidst their culture. It would not be easy for a person to accept another cultural value if his own culture does not allow it or recognize it. Going back to the example of male circumcision it is no doubt that a culture that does not circumcise its males will not accommodate such an idea of male circumcision. Again, if a culture believes in burying their dead the following day after the death occurs it will not entertain an idea that suggests they do so after seven days or so. Yes, this is what culture does to society. It blocks every new idea and values from other schools of thought. It is on the same background that culture connects to gospel values and communication. As in, the gospel as a school of thought is integrated into the culture of the people if at all it is to be adopted. This is where this study begins its critical enquiry because it has a problem with the notion that the role of culture should suppress gospel values. However, it does not discredit that culture has got no role to play in gospel communication.

So far it has been shown how culture behaves in common parlance point of view and in fact the main points highlighted in this section will be applicable throughout this study. It would be worthwhile to look at some themes in gospel communication, evangelization et cetera in the next section.

Literature Review

Missionary Methods

This section will explore the various aspects of missionary methods. It will explore the essential elements in the gospel of St. Paul and then compare it with the current trends in the modern church.

Any ordinary Christian very well knows about the achievements of St. Paul. More importantly, they must be aware of the methodology he used to evangelize his subjects. This study believes that St. Paul’s missionary method is a great example to the modern church and to all who aspire to be missionaries as in the case of moving around the world preaching the gospel. As it has been strongly asked, is it St. Paul’s Method or “ours”? [7]Again, this study believes that St. Paul and the modern church share one common denominator in the sense that they proclaim the truth as instructed by the gospel. What makes the two common is the fact that they share in the same divinity and faith. To this extent, it is the hope of this study that it does not matter whether the church follows it own method or St. Paul’s but what matters is that the approaches culminate in Christ, the risen Lord. See the point? The methods may not add much value in the communication of the Gospel so long as they teach the values as commanded by God. In fact, when Christ instructed his disciples to wait for Him at Galilee where they witnessed his ascension he left them with the “Great Commission” as follows: “Go all over the world and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all that I have commanded you”[8]

As can be seen, even before delving into the works of St. Paul it can be seen that Christ had already established a method for his Apostles and in deed, to all Apostles today. This is the benchmark for all missionary method where St. Paul’s is not an exemption.

It is arguably said that methods of St. Paul do not relate with the contemporary western spirit which has been characterized by restlessness and arbitrary self-confidence. In this case the westerns endeavor to make their subjects adapt their own values, laws and spiritual beliefs to the letter. According to St. Paul, he approached the authority with a persuasive tone and went ahead to understand the fundamental principles of different communities in the eyes of faith and as illumined by the Holy Spirit. In this regard, he took the fundamental principles and through them evangelized the communities.[9] It is also evident that St. Paul preached carried out his Missionary work with zeal and enthusiasm. Moreover, he placed himself at strategic points, for instance, it is believed that he did not go to those places where the gospel could not reach the natives; as such he preferred cities and provinces.[10]

The Missionary Impact on Culture

This section will look explore the impact on missions of culture. It is worthwhile to note that it will highlight some examples from specific culture to shed more light.

It is believed that in Black Africa missionary evangelization had to inculcate the cultural values in place with the aspects of the gospel. Notably, the catholic or protestant missionaries used the understanding of the natives, for instance, their name to refer to God to communicate the God of the Bible.[11] According to the missionaries the integration of culture and gospel communication proved to be a useful translating device and brought about far-reaching results that missionaries had not anticipated. They discovered that in most places God of the ancestors was not different from that of the Israelites which they referred to as Yahweh and in the New Testament as God, the Father of the Risen Lord. [12]Therefore, the event that they understood the value of vernacular literacy, all the missionary work pursued other aspects of culture in order to identify other aspects that would be applicable in the evangelization process.[13]

Sanneh cites an example of millions of Xhosa Christians situated in South Africa. According to him the glorious hymn sung by this community was pre-Christian and later on adopted some elements from Christianity. [14]Sanneh goes ahead to state that the new addition was a sign of newness in Xhosa culture. As such, the additional material to this hymn represented their reaction and reception to the gospel message; this creation was purely from the Xhosa people and not from the missionaries.[15]

It is worthwhile to note that God’s salvation mission does not forcibly intend to win the hearts of people. As such, it seeks to convert the hearts of many people in volition and tranquility of their hearts.[16] Today, it can be seen that communities disregard the gospel even after having accepted it. Gospel communication is something that should be inculcated in different cultures in freedom.[17] In most cases, it is not easy to convince a given people to have their scriptures translated into new versions and it is also true that most Bible translators adopt translations that have a majority language translation. [18] It is also believed that Bible translators come out as unfriendly to cultural values.[19] It is however held that the translation of the Bible is a missionary process which should bring of the nature of God.[20]

Transforming Worldviews

This section will explore some of the factors that make people to change their convictions and trends in life. It will be guided by an anthropological understanding for the same.

Worldviews have been defined as the frameworks through which different groups of people use to interpret and understand their situations in life.[21] It is also believed that worldviews shape believes and human behaviors as well.[22] Hiebert argued that behavior and rituals, beliefs and worldview are very fundamental cultural levels that influence the process of conversion to Christ. He argued that conversion to Christ is not an emotional or an intellectual adherence but rather it is a fundamental conversion from one’s direction of life. In this regard, a conversion to Christ starts with a primary conversion followed by a moment when the newly adopted way of life is re-examined. In the event it is discovered that the new way of life is fruitless the person will tend to go back to the old way of life. It is on this background that Heibert emphasizes on the need for a follow up even after the seed of faith has been planted in various communities.[23]

Another important point from Hiebert is that Christians have a choice to live differently by virtue of them being Christians. Furthermore, he notes that their behavior becomes similar to pagan ritual whenever it resorts to traditional beliefs other than those from Christianity. [24] According to Hiebert, conversion can only be achieved through change of beliefs and behavior otherwise such conversion becomes false faith. Moreover, if the transformation is just on beliefs and behaviors and not on the worldview it eventually subverts the gospel and results in what can be termed as “syncretistic Christ-paganism which even if it looks Christian fails to meet the essential elements of Christianity.   [25]

It is believed that the different systems in culture found both in East and West breed diverse worldviews and cognitive processes which bring about multifaceted attitudes, values and beliefs. The indubitable thing about all these is the fact that the various mechanisms people use to understand the world are made so by different cultural groups. [26]

The Impact of Culture on Gospel Communication

This section will explore some of the influences of culture on church planting among communities. The issue of worldview will also be re-visited but in the context of culture.

It is worth noting that church planters should take the issue of Worldviews very seriously since it contains some essential guidelines that can be useful both in the present and long-term scope for the evangelizers. In other words, worldviews presents to the church planters the necessary touch-points that they would use to transform the Christian lives of a given community or culture. It is therefore very important that the content of the gospel message be very independent from the missionaries’ regional or cultural aspects in order to avoid arbitrary bias and prejudice. As can be seen, worldviews have got a greater potential to bring about such bias hence the reason why church planters need to understand them if they are to be successful in communicating the gospel.[27]

If church planters ignore the worldviews then they can be rest assured that their efforts to develop the new church may not succeed in the long-term. It is arguably so that gospel communicated in the context of the respondent’s worldview motivates indigenous leadership and even enable them to develop firm Christian values and institutions.[28]

In most cases a spiritual leader is gauged in terms of his theological achievements or his ability to invoke metaphysical reality; however indigenous leaders gain validity by how they are measured by their congregation. As such, what counts is their ability to address the cultural values and expectations of the respondents. Indigenous leaders are expected to lead the congregation along their own thought and provide them with insights related to their daily lives.[29]

It is believed that separation of the gospel and culture is not an easy thing at all. Moreover, missionaries should be able to differentiate their worldviews from those of the evangelized, in this case the mission, if they are to succeed in understanding the cultural differences between them and the respondents. [30]It can be argued and justifiably so that gospel message that fails to address the daily needs of the people impacts on them only in a superficial way. It is therefore important for church planters to distinguish and at the same time integrate the gospel from the point of view of their culture and that of the respondent’s culture. This is also because worldviews and culture have got similar implications to the evangelized. So, if the missionaries do not get rid of their cultural biases they may risk communicating their culture and not the gospel message.[31]

As can be seen, culture has got some valuable influence on gospel communication to the respondents’ spiritual lives. It has been indicated that cultural dynamics of any given community take precedence and serve as a benchmark for any possible gospel communication. Yes, there is dire need to integrate culture with gospel message in order to reach the evangelized. It was also mentioned that culture is like a window through which communities view other cultural values and ideologies.

Analysis and Discussion

This section forms the critical part of this study since it will review what has been established in the previous sections. As such it will seek to address the research question and also argue in the spirit of the stated thesis. But it will start by giving some clarification on the keywords so that the reader can understand their use and meaning in this section. It is also important for the reader to know that the keywords are principally designed by this study; so their meaning should not be construed as to come from the dictionary or other scholarly documents. This is what makes this study one of its kind since it has gone ahead to build its own system of knowledge and vocabulary as well.

Why not begin by clarifying the position of the thesis statement. Its meaning is as simple as this: that even though culture determines gospel communication or how church planters are to go about their business, the gospel itself is superior to all cultures. There is no culture that can alter the truth in the gospel; neither can it change what has been written and revealed in the gospel, not even a comma. Gospel communication should transform cultures by all means in order to illumine them with blessings of the Risen Lord.

That said this study can now define and clarify the keywords before delving into their use. Contingent values imply those values that can not be applicable to other generations due to their ambiguity, bias, obsoleteness and impracticability. Superiority of the Gospel is simply that gospel message takes precedence and all other cultural ideologies come second. Re-Evangelization implies taking back of the gospel message to those who had been evangelized, for instance, evangelization in Europe which had missionaries come to Africa to bring evangelization. Missionary Mandate is none else but the commissioning of Christ to the Apostles. This still constitutes the missionary mandate for the modern missionaries. The other meaning of it is the commissioning of missionaries by their superiors before setting out to the missions. Mission(s) implies the place where missionaries or church planters go to evangelize, the people and the reasons behind it. Gospel Objectivism implies gospel message without bias or human interference. Culture emancipation is simply freeing oneself from invaluable cultural tenets. Culture fundamentalism is when communities fail to accept other cultures or ideas especially of the gospel message.

It has been shown that there cannot be a culture that is absolutely valid. Therefore all cultures have got contingent values that need to be addressed accordingly. In deed, this is a fundamental role of culture since it should lead its communities in eradicating all invaluable values from their daily lives and accommodate new values disseminated through the gospel message.

This study concurs with the notion that culture gives and unifies identity of a people. This richness can be useful in establishing Christian communities with one identity so to speak. The efforts in gospel communication are so that they might realize a unified and cohesive community where culture seems to be of great help.

It has also shown that culture serves as a window through which the respondents view and gauge other communities. This also applies to other cultural aspects or new ideas introduced where gospel message cannot be an exemption. Whenever a culture fails to free itself from invaluable cultural values and beliefs what has been refereed to as culture emancipation, it also blocks fundamental gospel values that the respondents need for their eschatological perfection. This means that they fail to accept certain gospel message simply because they so believe in what their culture teaches them. This is what has been refereed to as culture fundamentalism which is a negative practice in most of the cases.

This study has also highlighted on the trends in missionary methods especially in the persona of St. Paul. It is very evident that St. Paul did not shy away from the truth only if it belonged to Christ’s teachings. He proclaimed it with boldness and determination; however he was very prudent since he had respect for the authorities and used the values and beliefs of the missions to pass the gospel message. He was very balanced in his evangelical practices since he stroke a balance between the values as commanded by God and the values inherent in the mission’s culture. This is very important and culture has got a role to play in it. By and large, culture has got a duty to integrate its own values and of those of the gospel. If it fails to play this role then its scope of values become pagan and with no significance to the everyday lives of the people no matter how much they think of them as useful.

The commissioning of the twelve at Galilee is a clear proof of the superiority of the gospel inferred in this study. It is also an impetus to gospel objectivism also inferred in this study. Christ himself directed the apostles to stick only to what he commanded. In fact, this study also recalls that he directed that they be the light of the world and the salt of the earth as well. This means that the gospel is not a tool to condemn cultures or place other cultures above other cultures, no; instead it is a way to illumine culture and lead them to the teachings of Christ. Going back to St. Paul it was seen that he first of all persuaded the authorities before he could impose anything on them. This is a great sign of respect for the mission and also a great commitment to gospel objectivism inferred in this study. However, culture has got a role to play in this end. This means that it has a duty to reflect on the commissioning of the twelve and discover Christ’s intention for any gospel message. In this regard, cultures will not go wild when an evangelist stands before them and condemns certain aspects of their cultures due to the fact they do not meet the essential teachings of Christ. Moreover, a culture that recognizes the message implied by Christ at Galilee will take it positively in the event that they are asked to move away from certain cultural values they believe in. This is the famous culture emancipation inferred in this study.

The example cited in this study regarding the missionary experience in Black Africa confirms the role of culture in gospel communication. The fact that the missionaries at that time used the culture of the missions to translate the gospel is quite impressive. As in, translation is essential since it makes the gospel message understood and implemented in the context of the natives. This study would not take it rightly if such translation meant to alter the truth in the gospel. Yes culture should make the gospel message simple and concise. It was shown that they used the missions’ understanding of the God, His name for instance, to translate the teachings of God. This is very impressive and appealing since if culture can have its own system, word by word, on the gospel message then Christianity would find meaning in most generations to come. Today, there is no culture that is without a Bible in its own language due to the translations that have taken place over the centuries. This is one of the concrete achievements of culture and how this study hopes that it extends to all other levels of Christianity. As in, doesn’t the reader think that it would be such a good thing to have theology in all cultural languages? Not necessarily the Theology as taught in universities but Theology of life, say, catechism.

Culture should lead its communities in establishing firm Christian churches and institutions as well as values. In this way, it will play a greater role in helping its communities acquire spiritual nourishment and union with God since culture cannot provide this.

Inasmuch as evangelists and missionaries would like to operate within the framework of the thought process of the missions they should not fear to root out culture fundamentalism that is not in compliance with the gospel values. Culture, all the same, has got a role to play in this. It should work hand in hand with the church planters to eliminate all contingent cultural values that usher in a system of new values that have meaning and foundation in the teaching of Christ, the Risen Lord.

Conclusion

It is no doubt that this study has captured the key features on the role of culture in the gospel. As provided in the research question the aim was to explore the role of culture in gospel communication. Yes, this has been very well covered in this study. Certain aspects of missionary methods have been established guided by the persona of St. Paul and it was established that it does not matter as to the methods as long as they teach what Christ commanded. The study has also explored the theme of culture and its impact on gospel communication. Under the section on transforming worldviews it has been shown the reasons why people surmount to culture fundamentalism or culture emancipation. In the same analysis, the study provided the reader with an anthropological understanding of the same. The study went ahead to re-explore the impact of culture on gospel communication where culture was linked to worldviews. The study has also provided the reader with a critical analysis and discussion section that has put together the main ideas in the literature section so as to give amore succinct judgment on the role of culture on gospel communication and mainly to affirm what was stated in that even though culture encompasses a people’s total way of life it has got some contingent values as well. Therefore, not every cultural aspect can be useful in instilling gospel values in the society thus making it imperative for the need of the superiority of the Gospel.

References

Allen, Roland. (1962). Missionary Methods:  St. Paul’s or Ours? Grand Rapids, MI:

Eerdmans, ISBN: 9780802810014.

Andrew, W. (2002). The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the

Transmission and Appropriation of Faith. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.

Bediako, K. (2000). Jesus in Africa: The Christian Gospel in History and Experience.

Carlisle: Pasternoster

Brown, Rick. (2001). Selecting and Using Scripture Portions Effectively in Frontier

Missions. International Journal of Frontier Missions 18, no.4

Guder, Darrell (2000). The Continuing Conversion of the Church. Grand Rapids, MI:

Eerdmans.

Hiebert, Paul, G. (2008). Transforming Worldviews: An anthropological understanding

of how people change. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, ISBN:

9780801027055, p.15

Hiebert, Paul. (1976). An Introduction to Mission Anthropology: Crucial Dimensions in

World Evangelization. Pasadena: William Carey Library

Justus, J. (2009). Perceptions in Culture. London

Lutz, J. (2010). Culture and Community Building. Journal of Sociology, vol. 13, no. 4

Maguerite, Kraft. (1978). Worldview and the Communication of the Gospel. William

Carey Library

Mason, P. (2009). Value of Culture. Oxford University Press

New American Bible: Mathew 28:16-20

Nisbett, Richard. (2003). The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners think

differently. New York, The Free Press

Sanders, Van. (2010). The Role of Worldviews in Church Planting. Oxford University

Press

Sanneh, Lamin, (1989). Translating the Message:  The Missionary Impact on Culture.

Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis, ISBN:  9780883443613.

[1] Lutz, J. (2010). Culture and Community Building. Journal of Sociology, vol. 13 , no. 4 (p.12-23)
[2] Mason, P. (2009). Value of Culture. Oxford University Press, p. 33
[3] Ibid. 39
[4] Justus, J. (2009). Perceptions in Culture. London, p. 34
[5] Ibid. 40
[6] Ibid.45
[7] Allen, Roland.  (1962). Missionary Methods:  St. Paul’s or Ours? Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. ISBN: 9780802810014.
[8] New American Bible: Mathew 28:16-20
[9] Allen, Roland.  Missionary Methods:  St. Paul’s or Ours? Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1962.  ISBN: 9780802810014, p.25

[10] Ibid. p.29
[11] Sanneh, Lamin, (1989). Translating the Message:  The Missionary Impact on Culture.  Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis, ISBN:  9780883443613.
[12] Bediako, K. (2000). Jesus in Africa: The Christian Gospel in History and Experience. Carlisle: Pasternoster , p.15
[13] Ibid. p. 24
[14] Sanneh, Lamin, (1989). Translating the Message:  The Missionary Impact on Culture.  Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis, ISBN:  9780883443613, p.9
[15] Ibid. p. 12
[16] Bediako, K. (2000). Jesus in Africa: The Christian Gospel in History and Experience. Carlisle: Pasternoster , p.42

[17] Bediako, K. (2000). Jesus in Africa: The Christian Gospel in History and Experience. Carlisle: Pasternoster , p.47
[18] Andrew, W. (2002). The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.
[19] Guder, Darrell (2000). The Continuing Conversion of the Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
[20] Brown, Rick. (2001). Selecting and Using Scripture Portions Effectively in Frontier Missions. International Journal of Frontier Missions 18, no.4
[21] Hiebert, Paul, G. (2008). Transforming Worldviews: An anthropological understanding of how people change. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, ISBN: 9780801027055, p.15
[22] Ibid. p.15
[23] Hiebert, Paul, G. (2008). Transforming Worldviews: An anthropological understanding of how people change. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, ISBN: 9780801027055, p.313
[24] Ibid. 315
[25] Ibid. 315
[26] Nisbett, Richard. (2003). The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners think differently. New York, The Free Press
[27] Sanders, Van. (2010). The Role of Worldviews in Church Planting. Oxford University Press,p.3
[28] Ibid.3
[29] Maguerite, Kraft. (1978). Worldview and the Communication of the Gospel. William Carey Library,p.140
[30]Hiebert, Paul. (1976). An Introduction to Mission Anthropology: Crucial Dimensions in World Evangelization. Pasadena: William Carey Library, p.58
[31] Ibid.57