Bearing the Culturally Relevant Message

By Ryan Shaw

Message bearers are committed to proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom among unreached and unengaged ethnic peoples globally. This may be in our home city, nation or a near or distant country.

We rely on the Holy Spirit to lead. We then focus on a particular sub-culture of that people. Ethnic peoples are obviously diverse. We identify a sub-culture sharing common age, values, interests, experiences and traditions.

A skater community in Yangon, Myanmar; a community of prostitutes in Calcutta, India; a particular caste of an ethnic people in Colombo, Sri Lanka; a certain academic department at a university in Bangkok, Thailand; a Somali community in Toronto, Canada; internet technology workers in Delhi, India; a high rise apartment block in Istanbul, Turkey or many other potential examples.

The Gospel of the Kingdom has the best chance of “running swiftly and being glorified (2 Thess. 3:1)” along focused, relational lines such as these.

Next, we prayerfully consider relevant ways to communicate to the worldview of the ethnic people, particularly the sub-culture. A common mistake is neglecting the worldview, or life perspective, of the people being reached.

Worldview, in its most basic definition, is a particular philosophy of life or conception of the world. A people’s worldview is the way they see and understand the world, especially regarding politics, philosophy and religion.

Worldview is affected by many factors, by a people’s inherited characteristics, background experiences, life situations, values, attitudes, and habits they have developed.

We have generally expected ethnic peoples to understand the message from our particular cultural worldview instead of making it understood from their perspective. We are not true witnesses if failing to communicate in a way the hearer grasps as important and relevant.

This does not mean watering down the Gospel. It refers to understanding how people see the world, finding bridges to the Gospel within their existing perspectives. We want to adapt ourselves, verbalizing the Kingdom message so that it comes as “good news” to all.

This is best accomplished through clothing the message in cultural forms that are most meaningful and appropriate. God has put bridges to the Gospel within every ethnic people and sub-culture. We cooperate with Him by getting into the sub-cultures world, philosophy of life, community.

Muslims are approached differently then Buddhists, while Hindus have a different mindset then Atheists. Each worldview is grasped with Biblical strategies sought from the Holy Spirit of how to bridge the Gospel.

This process is helped by identifying and removing cultural forms of the Gospel belonging to our identity yet making no sense to another. The message is reduced to truth itself, free from cultural hindrances often unknowingly added.

This is difficult as human beings tend to be unaware of how worldview impacts our beliefs. It requires diligence to observe our own culture, identifying the many ways we innately add cultural elements to the message.

The New Testament is full of examples of how Paul and the early Church engaged cultures of their day with the Gospel. One example is Acts 17 where Paul is in Athens.

After preaching to Jews in synagogues, bridging the Gospel with their Fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Paul proceeds to relate with Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in a thoroughly different way.

He uses the bridge of their unknown god to communicate the message in a way they could understand. He then expounds the Gospel from vs. 23-31 without ever referring to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Jewish patriarchs were a Jewish cultural priority yet not an Athenian one.

Talking about them with Jews made perfect sense as doing so appealed to their sense of destiny in God. Yet with the philosophers Jewish patriarchs were not relevant, making no sense to their situation.

Paul and the apostles never required new believers to stop being who they were culturally. It is an impossible expectation that sounds a bit silly. Yet it constantly happens in cross-cultural ministry and is a significant obstacle to multitudes of present Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus coming to faith in Jesus.

They wrongly believe (due to unfortunate examples of believers) becoming a follower of Jesus means giving up their culture. This is too much to ask of anyone and not Jesus’ heart in the least.

This happens partially because in highly religious societies these two areas (religious worldview and culture) overlap significantly. Muslims coming to Jesus possess cultural backgrounds which do not cease.

Jesus created and loves those cultures, wanting to see the Gospel realized in full in and through every cultural expression. We must understand the difference between culture and religion in our outreach, encouraging the expression of the Gospel and faith in Jesus in all cultural forms.

Becoming Jesus’ follower does not mean losing one’s cultural identity or connection with the local community. It is through these very community connections the Spirit wills the Gospel to flow most freely and effortlessly.

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