How Culture Shapes our Presentation of the Gospel
How does culture tend to shape our presentation of the gospel?
I have already touched on this some: we are much more direct in our communication style than many other cultures in the world, and we tend to think that this is much better . . . because we are used to being direct. But many cultures in the world, including Asian and Latin American cultures, are more indirect in their communication style. Our style is not necessarily better than theirs.
Probably one of the most difficult things for us to understand about our culture is the individualism that permeates the U.S. worldview. We have a difficult time adjusting to people from other cultures that tend to have more collective oriented worldviews. It is so much a part of who we are that it is difficult for us to see it or know how to filter it out when dealing with people from other cultures. I include myself in that statement. I understand that it is a huge part of our culture mostly because I have been told that it is true, not because I can easily identify it. Our individualism taints the way we understand the gospel, and this is one of the criticisms that other parts of the Christian church level against U.S. Christians (and to some extent Christians in other Western cultures). For the vast majority of us, salvation is a very individualistic thing. People from other cultures point to this as the reason why vast sectors of the Christian church in the United States cannot see that the gospel should make a difference in how gospel-believing Christians act in the face of injustices in our society. The problem is that we see the gospel in individualistic terms, but not related to injustices within our society.
It is probably true that some Christian groups have gone so far in rejecting individualism that they have lost what many of us would consider to be the soul of the gospel and become “social gospel” proponents. This conversation gets complicated by accusations of “socialism” or even “communism”, but as the saying goes, we need to be careful not to “throw out the baby with the bath water”. Hebrew society was always very collective, not individualistic. Faith in God had huge implications on how the poor, orphans, widows, and immigrants were treated. In the New Testament there are several examples of whole households (even Gentile households) who came to faith as a collective group. Most of us would point out that there are also many examples of individuals who came to faith without their families joining them, at least not immediately.
One of the areas in U.S. “evangelical” Christianity that merits evaluation in light of this individualism/collectivism difference between cultures is the almost universal belief on the part of U.S. church leaders that in many instances the best way to reach a family within our culture –and from other cultures – is to reach the children with the gospel first. However, numerous studies in Latin American cultures show that the chances of reaching whole families with the gospel increase dramatically if the parents become Christians first. Unfortunately, I do not know where to locate the statics from these studies. Perhaps another person involved in cross-cultural work can provide this information.
I believe that this same individualism/collectivism divide between cultures is at the root of a problem often seen in Latin American churches (where U.S. missionaries have done most of the evangelism/discipleship). Very often pastors will tell young people to disobey their parents if their parents prohibit them to attend church. Pastors do so without seeking to find out first why the parents made this prohibition and seeking solutions to the parents’ underlying reasons. We tend to think in terms of individuals, not in terms of families as a unit. More often than not, working with the parents to discover root causes and working out acceptable solutions will open the parents up to the gospel instead of slamming the door shut by counseling disobedience.
Reader comments would perhaps expand our understanding of other ways our culture shapes how we present the gospel.
This is the fourth article in a series on “Communicating the Gospel Cross-Culturally” by Lloyd Mann, D.Min.
Lloyd Mann has a BA in teaching languages in secondary schools (Spanish and English), an M.Div in theology and a D.Min with a focus in missions mobilization. He served as a missionary in Latin America for 39 years and is the author of two books and multiple articles and materials for use in university student ministry. With his wife, Wilma, he translated many more materials and books into Spanish and some into English.
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