Integrating the Gospel with Culture Responsibly

I am deeply appreciative of the work that was done by true and genuine missionaries who worked for the good of the Sri Lankan people, above all with a sincere motivation of saving the lost and building God’s kingdom. My appreciation, however, does not stand in the way of highlighting some of the errors they made. This I do, not so much to sit on judgment on them, but to identify barriers resulting from those errors and even at this stage to overcome the barriers so that we could reap a better harvest for God’s kingdom.

When the missionaries, who were raised in the Western cultures, encountered the Sri Lankan culture, they concluded that it was evil and to be avoided. They not only avoided it, they condemned it, and in AD 1711 passed a law that stated, “Christians participating in the ceremonies of heathenism would be liable to a public whipping and imprisonment in irons for one year.”

This brought about a deep alienation of all new Christian converts from their culture and families. The converts, desiring modernization and identification with the colonial rulers, assimilated to the new culture. The Sinhala Buddhist, on the other hand, resented the anglicized lifestyle of the Christians—a resentment born both of class opportunities as well as a difference in culture. The Sinhala literature of the nineteenth century reflects this resentment. The alienation from the local culture took place because of four basic influences:

  1. The missionaries, fearing syncretism, steered Christians away from the local culture.

  2. There was ignorance and a lack of any other model of ministry. When the missionaries concluded that the local culture was evil, they had to preach the gospel in their cultural forms. This influence continues today.
  3. The modern scientific and technological advances of the West impressed the people in the Third World in the early nineteenth century. This prompted them to believe and accept an alien Western culture.
  4. Many key leaders who received theological education in Western seminaries have introduced concepts and practices in sharp contrast with the local cultural norms.

Present-day Battles on Culture and the Gospel
The attempt to use the local culture as a vehicle to communicate the gospel to non-Christians has attracted two opposite reactions from the Christian community.

One group has concluded such an attempt to be a compromise and a betrayal of the trust that has been placed upon the Church. They have further argued that this attempt would lead to syncretism. The 1966 Wheaton Declaration states that syncretism is “the attempt to unite or reconcile biblically revealed Christian truth with diverse or opposing tenets and practices of non-Christian religions or other systems of thought that deny it.”

The second group advocates the use of culture as an imperative for communicating the gospel. They conclude “truth cannot be communicated in a vacuum; it must be couched in a human culture if it is to be understood.” In this context, they say that when we avoid the use of local culture, it automatically results in the use of another cultural form to communicate. They conclude that we have avoided using the local culture because of the fear of syncretism, but have used a foreign culture and cultural forms to communicate truth.

They further conclude that although the gospel has been preached, to the target audience it is still incomprehensible because truth has been couched in cultural and thought forms which are alien to the listener. According to Ranjith de Silva,

“The continual use of foreign forms of church services, evangelism, church architecture and hymns, thirty years after Sri Lanka received independence, has been a hindrance to the non-Christians from even considering the claims of Christ. The foreignness of the Christian message, its mode of presentation couched in the vernacular of Western conceptual thought, has kept the non-Christian away from the church.”1

To be relevant, then, involves contextualization:

“Contextualization is the effort to understand and take seriously the specific context of each human group and person on its own terms and in all its dimensions—cultural, religious, social, political, economic and to discern what the gospel says to people in that context. This requires a profound empirical analysis of the context in place of flip or a priori judgments. Contextualization tries to discover in the scriptures what God is saying to these people. In other words, contextualization takes very seriously the example of Jesus in the sensitive and careful way he offered each person a gospel tailored to his own context.”2

Hence, by adapting the message to the cultural patterns and the worldview of the target audience, the communicator can effectively communicate the gospel. What is actually involved in contextualization is not the altering of the essential content of the biblical message, but the enclosing of the message in culturally relevant verbal and thought forms. According to J. T. Seamands,

“This concept can be further explained in the following illustration: Milk can be delivered in a variety of containers. It may be in a tin can, a glass bottle, a cardboard carton or a plastic bottle. The type of the container is not important, as long as the milk is pure, not watered down. The only condition in which the container might become an important item is when the buyer has a strong personal preference for a particular type of container. He may refuse to buy milk in a tin can, but be most willing to purchase it in a cardboard carton. In the same way, the Christian messenger has no right to water down the content of the gospel—it must be the truth—but we certainly must present it in such a form that will be meaningful to the listener.”3

Since the subject has been a cause for controversy in the Church, it is prudent for us to work toward defining the word “culture.” The Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization has offered the following definition:

“Culture is an integrated system of beliefs (about God or reality or the ultimate meaning); of values (about what is true, good, beautiful and normative); of customs (how to behave, relate to others, talk, pray, work, play, trade, farm, eat, etc.) and institutions which express these beliefs, values and customs (government, law courts, temples, family, schools, hospitals, factories, churches, family, schools, hospitals, shops, unions, clubs, etc.) which binds a society together and gives it a sense of identity, dignity, security and continuity.”4

This means that an accepted culture covers everything in human life. At the center of any culture is a worldview. Charles Kraft defines worldview as:

“Perceptions of reality are patterned by societies into conceptualizations of what reality can or should be, and what is to be regarded as actual, probable and impossible. The conceptualizations form what is termed the worldview of the culture.”5

The worldview, then, according to this model, is the central systematization of conceptions of reality to which the members of society assent (largely unconsciously) and from which stems their value system. The worldview lies at the very heart of a culture, touching, interacting with and strongly influencing every other aspect of the culture. Each society looks at the world in its own way, and that way is encoded in its language and culture; no language is unbiased, no culture theologically neutral.

If culture is so defined, I do not see how any person could avoid contact with it, if he or she is seriously concerned with communicating an important message that must be understood by the receiver.


Each society looks at the world in its own way, and that way is encoded in its language and culture; no language is unbiased, no culture theologically neutral.


In the process of ministry we are involved directly or indirectly in human culture, but many still attempt to stay above the culture line and deal only with matters of the soul. But that effort is hopeless, as is the effort of the social scientist who eliminates God from this world and tries to explain Christianity in cultural terms only.6

The minister of the gospel cannot communicate without concerning him or herself with culture, because communication is inextricable from culture. Just as Christ became flesh and dwelt among humanity, so propositional truth must have cultural incarnations to be meaningful.

Biblical Basis for the Use of Culture in Ministry
No matter how sound our argument may be, it is imperative we seek the scripture and let God’s word guide our thinking. Below are four points to consider.

1. God established human culture and revealed himself. As recorded in Genesis 1:26-31, God created man capable of governing the world. We see God's tender care and love for the well-being of this masterpiece of his workmanship, in creating the world previously to the creation of man. Adam Clarke sums this up well: “[God] prepared everything for his subsistence, convenience and pleasure, before he brought [man] into being; so that, comparing little with great things, the house was built; furnished and amply stored by the time the destined tenant was ready to occupy it.”7

God created humanity, male and female, in his own likeness by gifting them with distinctive human faculties—rational, moral, social, creative and spiritual. He also told them to have children, to fill the earth and to subdue it (Genesis 1:26-28).

These divine commands are the origin of human culture. Having established human culture, God revealed himself to Adam and Eve, to Cain and Abel, to Moses and Abraham. He took the common practices of the then-known human world to communicate his covenant love. During early human civilization, agreement between two people or two groups was sealed with a covenant. God took on this human culture to communicate his love for the people. By making a covenant with Abraham, God promised to bless his descendants and to make them his special people. Abraham, in return, was to remain faithful to God and to serve as a channel through which God’s blessings could flow to the rest of the world (Genesis 12:1-3).

2. Jesus identified with human culture. The Apostle Paul writes in Philippians 2:5-8 that when Jesus took on the form of a human being he (1) identified with humanity, (2) entered human culture and (3) lived and ministered within human culture. Having lived among us, he now commissions us: “Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you’” (John 20:21). This verse simply says, “As I was sent to proclaim the truth of the Most High, and to convert sinners to God, I send you for the very same purpose, clothed with the very same authority and influenced by the very same Spirit.”

Jesus ministered within the confines of a Jewish culture and worldview. A careful analysis of his ministry on earth reveals the depth of his willingness to identify with people, to understand their worldview and to communicate within a cultural context of the audience. The range of his parables and teachings is a good guide to show how he carefully watched people and used his observations to make his teaching relevant. Jesus entered their frame of reference and communicated truth. He used common and daily experiences of life to introduce them to the unknown love and grace of God.


A careful analysis of Jesus' ministry on earth reveals his willingness to identify with people, to understand their worldview and to communicate within a cultural context of the audience.


Tom Houston comments on the question raised by the disciples about Jesus’ use of parables (Matthew 13:10-11) and suggests that “the disciples were learning that Jesus took different approaches to different audiences. His preaching was not an instrument with only one string.”8

If God had not entered into human culture and communicated within the cultural context of humanity, communication would have been almost impossible.

3. The Apostle Paul identified with all people. The principle that Paul espoused in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22 was “mobility in methods, not mobility in morals.” In discussing his self-sacrificing concern in verses 19-23, he mentions three groups of people: the Jews, the Gentiles and the weak. The purpose of his identification with the people is “so that by all possible means I might save some” (9:22).

Paul identified with the culture of the people so that he could relate to them and communicate the gospel in understandable terms. To confirm this, let us explore the communication methods of the apostles.

4. The apostles identified with the culture and based their communication according to their cultures. Peter and Paul’s sermons to the Jews and to the Gentiles highlight their sensitivity to the audience and their willingness to work within the confines of the target audience.

a. Peter's sermons to the Jews. The sermon recorded in Acts 2:14-36 was addressed to the Jews who had a better understanding of God and the Old Testament. Peter, in his sermon, appeals to this knowledge and cites the Old Testament to reinforce his arguments. On a festival day such as Pentecost, a Jew would not break his or her fast until at least 10 a.m. So it was extremely unlikely that a group of people would be drunk at such an early hour. Peter defends the accusation by a logical appeal to the customs and traditions of the Jews.

In a positive manner, Peter then explains the phenomena taking place among the apostles as the fulfillment of Joel's prophecy. In Acts 2:28-32, Peter quotes from Psalm 16:8-11 and Psalm 110:1 in support of what he said about Jesus. Peter argues his point within the cultural context of the Jewish community and constantly refers to the Old Testament to support his arguments.

The Jews were the chosen people who had God's revelation; hence, Peter uses that knowledge to communicate the gospel. He moves from the known to the unknown.

b. Peter's sermon to the Gentiles. Although they knew something about Jesus of Nazareth from living in Palestine, the Gentile audience would require more details of Jesus’ life and work than a Palestinian-Jewish audience would. In this context, Peter begins his sermon recorded in Acts 10:34-48 from John’s baptism and continues to the resurrection of Jesus. Peter’s more lengthy account of Jesus’ ministry here must, therefore, be thought particularly appropriate considering his audience.

c. Paul's sermons to the Jews. Paul’s exhortation in Acts 13:16-41 begins with a resume of Israel’s history that emphasizes the pattern of God’s redemptive activity from Abraham to David. It is an approach in line with Jewish interests and practices. Highlighted in this resume is a four-point confessional summary that, for the Jews, epitomized the essence of their faith:

  1. God is the God of the people of Israel.

  2. He chose the patriarchs for himself.
  3. He redeemed his people from Egypt, leading them through the wilderness.
  4. He gave them the land of Palestine as an inheritance.9

To such a confessional recital, Jews often added God’s choice of David to be king and the promise made to him and his descendants (Psalm 78:67-72, 89:3-4, 19:37). Paul proclaims these great confessional truths of Israel’s faith, which speak of God’s redemptive concern for his people and underline the Christian message.10 Paul refers to the truths held by the Jews and builds a bridge to communicate the gospel to the Jews.

By anchoring Israel’s kerygma (good news) in the Messianically-relevant “Son” passage of 2 Samuel 7, Paul begins to build a textual bridge for the Christian kerygma—a kerygma which he will root in the Messianic “Son” passage of Psalm 2:7. By drawing these two passages together, Israel’s confession and the Church’s confession, he demonstrates both the continuity and the fulfillment of the passages.11

d. Paul's sermon to the Gentiles. In Acts 17:22, Paul does not begin his address by referring to Jewish history or by quoting the Jewish scriptures as he did in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:16-41). He knows that it would be futile to refer to a history no one knew or to argue from the fulfillment of a prophecy no one was interested in. Neither would it help to quote from a book no one had read or accepted as authoritative. It would also be futile to develop his arguments about the God who gives rain and crops in their season and provides food for the stomach and joy for the heart, as he does in Acts 14:15-17. Instead, he looks for points of contact with the council. After he sees in the city the inscription “To an unknown God,” he uses these words to introduce his call to repentance.

The substance of his sermon concerns the nature of God and the responsibility of humanity to God. Contrary to all pantheistic and polytheistic notions, Paul says that God is the one who has created the world and everything in it and that he is also the Lord of heaven and earth.


Paul refers to the truths held by the Jews and builds a bridge to communicate the gospel to the Jews.


Furthermore, Paul supports his teachings guided by two maxims from the Greek poets. The first comes from a quatrain attributed to the poet Epimenides (600 BC); the second comes from the Cilican poet Aratus (315-240 BC). Paul finally reaches the climax of his argument by unfolding the divine message of redemption and calling for repentance.

I am not suggesting that we go to extremes in order to be relevant, but it is imperative to integrate the gospel with culture in a responsible manner. Integration must be done within the context of a community who are mature in their faith and knowledge of the scripture. It must never be the attempt of a lone ranger.

 

Endnotes 

1. De Silva, Ranjith. 1980. Discipling the Cities of Sri Lanka. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Calvary Church Media Department, 88.

2. Tober, Charles R. 1979. Contextualization: Indigenization and /or Transformation in the Gospel and Islam: A 1978 Compendium. ed. Don M. McCurry. Monrovia, California, USA: MARC, 146.

3. Seamands, J. T. 1981. Tell It Well: Communicating the Gospel across Cultures. Kansas City, Kansas, USA: Deacon Hill Press, 130.

4. Lausanne Occasional Paper 2: The Willowbank Report: Consultation on Gospel and Culture. 1978. 

5. Kraft, Charles. 1976. Intercultural Communication and Worldview Change. Pasadena, California, USA: Pasadena School of World Mission, 1.

6. Hesselgrave, David J. 1978. Communicating Christ Cross-culturally. Grand Rapid, Michigan, USA: Zondervan Publishing House, 80.

7. Adam Clarke commentary.

8. Houston, Tom. n.d. The Work of an Evangelist. ed. J. D. Douglas. Minnesota, USA: Worldwide Publication, 89.

9. Wright, G.E. 1952. God Who Acts. London: SCM, 76.

10. Longnecker, Richard N. 1981. “Acts.” The Expositors's Bible Commentary. ed. Frank E. Gaebelein. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Zondervan, 425.

11. Ibid, 475.


Rev. Adrian de Visser is the Lausanne International Deputy Director for South Asia. He is also senior pastor and president of Kithu Sevana Ministries, a church planting ministry in Sri Lanka. De Visser serves as vice president for partnership development for Asian Access, a ministry committed to developing leaders across Asia.