Gospel + Culture: Do the missionary thing

Paul Winch | Sep 20th, 2010

How should we as Christians relate to our surrounding culture? Growing up as a missionary kid I was disgusted by some of the local foods, not least because of their preparation method. Despite the health risks, my parents learned to eat such food regularly – with delight!

Besides food, there are many obvious cultural markers, the sorts of things tourists notice: family and community ordering; celebration styles; personal hygiene and dress; social etiquette and customs and so on.

Good missionaries are not tourists; they adjust to their host culture. They also analyse how its markers link to underlying structures (worldviews and beliefs). They think through deeply and review often their relation to culture for the sake of gospel proclamation. Here is the challenge: we need to do the missionary thing in our own culture! Just because we don't have to adjust to our own cultural markers does not mean we are aware of them, nor understand how they work structurally.

Notable cultural markers for us include: our growing awareness of environmental and sustainability issues; our obsession with security; the function of celebrity in society; and an integrated online/offline life. I will explore these last two in some depth in subsequent articles.

Culture Analysis: Social Mobility

Another of our cultural markers is social mobility. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics about a third of adults have moved within the last three years. Workplace turnover is very similar.[1] Geographic 'roots' no longer define our main social networks; or if they do, such relationships are temporary. In the past, community and neighbourhood relationships were the lifeblood of church outreach and ministry. Not so anymore, yet it is not all doom and gloom. The shake up of mobility often leads people to re-evaluate beliefs and behaviour – surely a gospel opening, if it can be realised by intentional Christians.

Social mobility coheres within a structure, though, a value system that normalises the behavior. If the modern era granted many extrinsic freedoms, the postmodern worldview still values personal freedom, although it is now primarily experienced internally, often mediated by consumer choice. In addition, with the rejection of a progressive or 'manifest destiny' meta-narrative of modernism, there has been an embrace of values such as collective tolerance and an appreciation of mystery/awe. The personal autonomy and community flux that results from high social mobility can express all of these deeper structural values of a postmodern worldview.

As mission-minded Christians wanting to passionately follow and proclaim Christ, what do we make of such cultural markers and their underlying structures? I believe three tenets will guide us in this quest.

1. The Mission of God

On a cosmic level, it is vital to reorient our thinking of 'mission' to being first and foremost the work of God in his world. In the book of Acts it was God through his Spirit that took the church forward in his mission. The Great Commission is not a delegation from a busy or absent God, but an invitation into participation with the very purposes of God himself for his world. God continues his mission today, including to our (largely) postmodern society.

2. God's Peculiar People

On a corporate level, the mission of God is seen particularly in God establishing a people belonging to him in and through Christ and yet called to face the world in love and service through the power of the Spirit. This dual orientation, full identity in God yet always serving the world, makes us deeply different from but utterly committed to our surrounds, of which culture is inherent. Often we are not much of either, or we are grossly unbalanced - one without the other.

3. Integral Discipleship

On a personal level, God's people face the world in love and service by following Jesus, the incarnate Son of God and the human par excellence in all aspects of life and being human. The 'total me' of our lives is encompassed by his grace and under his lordship, including our relation to culture. Such a discipleship will of necessity then impact what food we eat; how we relate within our families and communities; why we celebrate and when to do so extravagantly; attitudes to personal hygiene and dress; attention to social etiquette and customs. There are no compartments - it is all integrated!

For those of us who have tasted that the Lord is good, these reinforcing cosmic, corporate, and individual tenets provide biblical weight to 'do the missionary thing' in our own culture in order to keep "your light shining before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (Matt 5:16).

[1] See the report released from the ABS in October 2008 entitled "3240.0 - Residential and Workplace Mobility, and Implications for Travel: NSW and Vic.," available from www.abs.gov.au.

Photo: from Fickr. Used by permission.