“That’s cultural”

This is the standard response when our study of the New Testament deals with first-century church practices that we no longer observe. The usual contenders are direct commands such as “greet one another with a holy kiss” or, paraphrasing, “women must wear head coverings.” The observation is not wrong, per se. These certainly are cultural practices. But putting it that way reveals a key assumption about both the Bible and church practices: that some things are in the category of “not cultural.” We fancy many of our practices are universal and immune to the dangers of “cultural relativism.” This assumption, I suggest, is wrong. “That’s cultural” doesn’t get us very far, because everything is cultural.
If that opinion sets you on edge, well and good. You might explore those emotions in order to empathize with the cross-cultural missionary. To come humbly into a foreign culture seeking to bring the kingdom of God to expression in contextually meaningful ways means experiencing the loss of the pat solutions “That’s cultural” provides. The experience blesses us with the realization of how much of our taken-for-granted way of life as a church community is actually meaningless or confusing in a new context—maybe even meaningless or confusing in our home context, but I digress. And the experience blesses us with the discovery of new ways of representing the good news about Jesus, ways that would not have occurred to us because they are cultural and are, for that reason, the right ways for a particular community in a particular place to say and do the gospel.
Obviously, sorting out the relationship between culture and gospel is a big conversation. Oceans of ink have been spilled to that end. I merely mention these concerns by way of introduction to the analysis of culture under way here in Arequipa. Without indulging in too much self-deprecation, I confess that one of our shortcomings over the last six years has been a failure to engage in significant cultural analysis. I think we knew better but gave other concerns priority. Anyway, I’m glad that the arrival of fresh missionaries affords the opportunity to address that failure. The Arequipeño churches we have planted stand to become significantly more indigenous as we foreigners learn to be more culturally appropriate and help lead the church into the freedom to express itself more naturally. It’s an exciting thought!
This December, with the help of Bill and Holly Richardson, the church will gather for a time of reflection and re-visioning. The foreign missionaries who set many of the church’s current practices in motion will seek critical feedback from our Peruvian brothers and sisters in order to place many of our own assumptions prayerfully under scrutiny. The recent arrivals will bring the fruit of their cultural analysis to bear as questions about the meaning of various cultural practices—religious and otherwise—and about the possibility of adopting new practices that might express the gospel more clearly from and to the Peruvian worldview. We are all so thankful that at this juncture, we share the conversation with godly Peruvian disciples. Please pray for the insightfulness of our research from now to then and for the Spirit-led discernment we will need as a community when it comes time to make new decisions. We ask God for the faithfulness and the innovativeness that service to God’s kingdom requires.