Culture: Why Does it Matter?

For those of us from the USA, the word “culture” typically carries a different meaning than for other people groups. In the states, when we use the word culture, it usually implies some sort of status or exposure to fine living that includes the arts, theatre, literature, etc. We also might refer to cultures within the country so as to define a slice of the population and their sub-culture that differs from the general norm in some way. 

However, in other places, culture captures the idea of a set of common beliefs, traditions or practices that really define a people. It is of- ten based in a long, rich history of struggle and triumph that gives its members a meaningful connection to each other and their past. It serves to direct behaviors. “We celebrate this way. We marry like this. We act like this at a birth or like this after a death. This is how we work and this is how we spend our free time.” It is what binds the hearts of the people together, gives them a sense of belonging, of being real, of what is normal. In order to draw people to Jesus, we MUST understand these truths in their lives. We cannot default to using arguments and reasoning just because they make sense to us. We simply cannot teach them the ways of faith, worship, and service that come easily to us, or we strip them of the ability to express their Spirit-given joy in their own spiritual language, between them and God. We must address their realities and make them see how Jesus is just as needed in their lives as ours, even though we are very different. 

Jesus’ own ability to read each situation, weighing priorities, understanding intentions and limitations, and choose a unique approach to pursue growth in a person are what made him different from the very Jews who killed him. They couldn’t handle his openness to meeting people in the life they already had, drawing them to the Father with the gifts they had been given, and the existing flaws as well. They couldn’t fathom a living and saving faith that didn’t follow the letter of the law of Moses, even when God in the flesh stood in front of them and told them to loosen their hold on words and rules and follow the heart of the Lord. They didn’t like that he stretched their understand- ing of what piety looks like. They chose to kill him rather than admit they might not understand God’s whole purpose in the world and how he would and would not allow that to be pursued and lived out. 

We refuse to make that same mistake. We are determined to know these people, value their history, and recognize that God can work however he likes, even if it is awkward for us. It’s hard to step out of a comfort zone, let go of assumptions that come with what is familiar and really seek to let the gospel speak for itself in the hearts of people very different from us, allowing the Spirit to grow Peruvian believers into a Spanish-speaking arm of the body, able to behave in ways that our churches cannot. We must understand what is difficult about faith from a Peruvian perspective, and how to help them overcome their traditions and connections that keep them from Jesus, while honoring their heritage and being humble enough to listen to the lessons they have to teach us. 

It all comes down to the greatest commands as given by Jesus. First, we must love God. In our desire to please and glorify Him, we must seek to spread his kingdom as far and wide as possible. Thereafter follows the second, that we must love our neighbor as ourselves. If we have any hope of loving our neighbors, we have to know them well enough to understand what love looks like to them. We also must recognize their value to God, seeking to see them as he does. Otherwise, we will have failed to follow that which Jesus himself said was of utmost importance.

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
— Paul, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23