-I’ve made a habit of regularly visiting Latin America throughout my adult life. In those travels I’ve learned a LOT about how different people are from one another across the globe.
Just as Americans who live in the rural South are vastly different than Americans who live in Urban Chicago where I am from, so people who live in the East have distinct differences to their culture as people who live in the West, and North Americans are different than Latin Americans.
This is not to say that the essence of humans are different across the globe, not at all; in our spirit we are all humans, created in the image of God. However, culturally speaking, there are vast, noticeable differences, from one culture to the next.
The 19th century Christian missionary to China, Hudson Taylor, realized quite quickly after moving to China, that unless he adapted to certain elements of Eastern Culture, the Chinese people would never take him seriously. One of his first marked changes, was adopting the clothing styles of the Chinese. Sadly, Taylor’s Christian friends back home in Great Britain heavily criticized him for giving up his Western clothing, in their convoluted beliefs, they thought Taylor was somehow forsaking his Christian faith by giving up his British clothing for the styles of 19th century China.
Cultural relevance is not the goal of Christianity, yet cultural relevance is an important component of true discipleship.
The Apostle Paul, understanding this concept of cultural relevance wrote, “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law” [1 Cor. 9:20].
The first century Jews were still living under the Mosaic Covenant and ceremonial laws that required a radical component of particular behaviors and religious observances. Through Christ, Paul had been freed from the law, but in order to properly disciple those whom the Holy Spirit entrusted him, it was imperative that Paul sensitively discern the proper way to act around the Jewish people.
Likewise, Paul said it was important to be sensitive toward fellow Christians who held convictions different than ours regarding types of food to eat, feast days to celebrate, and other contrasting beliefs. In other words, if we are going to interact with a vegan, and our diet involves eating fish, we should not eat fish in the vegan’s presence if we know it would hinder their spirit.
By cultural relevance, I do not merely mean a fake outward appearance in which we attempt to gain popularity or prominence. The Christian walk is not filled with self-conceit or pride. Discipleship that involves cultural relevance means integrating ourselves into the society God has sent us, adopting the necessary language and lifestyle that allows us to spread the gospel and make disciples, without sacrificing our Christian morality or ethics.
Francis Schaeffer, the 20th century Christian apologist and philosopher realized that the Evangelical church of his day was entirely disconnected from the hippie movement. The church was stuck in a type of lifestyle of yesteryear, and throngs of covenant children abandoned the faith in search of philosophical answers away from the church.
A key element in Schaeffer’s ability to connect with the throngs of young adults and hippie’s who came to visit him at L’brie in Switzerland, was his ability to communicate truths about Christianity in a language that the young people could understand. It was often said of Schaeffer, that he was one of the few Evangelical’s of his time who not only knew who bands like Led Zeppelin were, he could quote the lyrics of their songs verbatim. Schaeffer immersed himself in the music, literature, and culture of the young adults of his day, and it was an important component in his ability to communicate the Gospel.
Privately, Schaeffer’s passion was classical music, he could listen to records of Bach and Beethoven for hours on end. Yet, because he had a mission from God to disciple young adults, it was imperative that he be able to converse with them about the music and culture of their day.
Cultural relevance is about being sensitive of those whom God has sent us to disciple. It is about putting our particular whims and fancies aside, and placing the priority of others before our own. Jesus said, “No greater love is this, that a ma lay down his life for a friend”. This type of radical love looks far different than the secular or paganism that has evolved in our day from the likes of men such as Nietzche; the world regards our self and our selfish-happiness as the end all goal for our particular lives. Christianity is an entirely opposite philosophy; our lives have become forfeit before the cross. To live is to live for Christ, and to die is to die for Christ.
Depending where we live in the world; discipleship will take on cultural distinctions of where we live. Discipleship in an indigenous region of Africa will look differently than discipleship in urban Chicago or suburban Dallas. There is no perfect script for discipleship when it comes to cultural distinctions; it is the principles laid out in scripture that should be the foundation for our work of making disciples no matter where we live.
During the time I’ve spent in Latin America, I quickly learned that my interactions with Latin American people was vastly different than than the way I interact with urban Chicago people. In Latin America, people tend to simply “hang out” and congregate in what seemed to my North American lens, odd places; along the side of an expressway, standing on a bridge, and often strangers would simply be sitting on the patio of my private room! Latin American people will hang out for hours, they don’t want to start off a dialogue about a deep esoteric subject, but our conversations would often be like enjoying a fine 7 course meal; the longer I would simply “hang out” with groups of people, the deeper the dialogue would go, and the more meaningful connection.
However, had I simply attempted to bring up some deep philosophical or religious subject in the first hour of conversation, I would likely have lost the interest of the men and women I interacted with; it was important for them to share stories of their lives, their children, their struggles, before I ever had the opportunity to bring up God.
Christians have been called to go into the whole world and make disciples of all men; in order to do this we must reevaluate what discipleship should look like in the particular region or culture God has placed us.
*Stock Image Prashanth Pinha unsplash.com