It seems that the church throughout its existence has had a struggle with how to interact with culture.1 Jesus is no stranger to this as he was born into the Hebrew culture and lived among many other cultures. As we read of his life and ministry we consider to what extent he embraced versus opposed culture. Did he use culture to proclaim his message? Was this both in a positive and negative way? In John 18: 28-38 Jesus is before Pontius Pilate and is questioned as to his kingdom. In verse 36 he says “My kingdom is not of this world,” “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight, so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” In teaching us to pray in Matthew 6: 10 he says “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” These proclamations can lead to the conclusion that Christ opposes the cultures of the world which need to be invaded with a heavenly culture. The result is that today we have approaches to reaching the lost that span a broad spectrum between strongly opposing culture on the one hand and uncritically accommodating culture on the other.
Jesus knew this was coming and so in John 17 we have the details of a prayer that Jesus prays for his followers. He knows his time on earth is coming to an end and that his followers will remain to carry on the work of God’s kingdom within all the cultures of the world. So he prays for specific challenges they will face and in verses 13 -18 we read these words:
“Now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy completed in them. I have given them your word. The world hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I am not praying that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.” (John 17:13-18)
Jesus makes repeated use of the word “world” and so we need to know what he is referring to. The Greek word is κόσμος (cosmos) which can refer to a number of things such as creation, mankind, or a system of life. In this context it seems to best refer to fallen mankind through which a system has come into being that sets itself up in opposition to God and his kingdom—an unbelieving cosmos that has excluded itself from God.2
It also refers to a commitment or allegiance so that in 1 John we also see the use of this word and here it is in a negative sense: “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” (1 John 2:15) It is portrayed as something that would entice and attract us so that we no longer place our affections solely on God.
It is from these passages that we often speak of a Christian being in the world but not of the world. Christ says that he has sent us into the world but our allegiance and affection must not be towards this world. We have to come to a clear understanding of what this means as we try to reach other cultures with the gospel. Cultures put forth people, products and ideas that call for our allegiance. In sharing the gospel we need to discover how to affect the culture with God’s kingdom rather than have God’s kingdom diluted in our lives as we are affected by the world. Culture is a term that we commonly use to describe the particular world that we live in. Its definition depends on the context in which it is being used. In our context we consider Niebuhr’s proposal that culture “comprises language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organization, inherited artifacts, technical processes, and values.”3 This is a broad definition which is needed in that we are considering the interaction of the gospel with all aspects of culture. Cross-cultural evangelism cannot just touch the surface but must penetrate deep into all the levels of culture so that when a people are saved in any culture it is transforming all aspects of their lives. In order to have this deep penetration of the gospel into a culture, Christian anthropologist Paul Hiebert explains how we can consider Christianity’s interaction with culture in terms of three dimensions:4
1. The Cognitive Dimension
This is the shared knowledge between people in the culture that helps them to communicate. It forms consensus as to what is true and real and provides the wisdom and guidance needed to function in daily life. Traditionally, this has been preserved and distributed through printed materials, but we now live in such a digital world that knowledge comes into a culture in vast amounts that are often unsolicited and unedited. A culture therefore has difficulty preserving its shared knowledge as more and more of its members are exposed to the knowledge from other cultures. A cross-cultural witness has to understand this cognitive level in a particular culture and at the same time think through how to preserve and present a biblical, universal, supra-cultural gospel.
3. The Affective Dimension
This describes the shared feelings and attitudes within a culture, the emotional aspect of life. It is seen in expressions, such as art, music, literature, sports, fashion, housing, cars, etc. It also applies to how people interact with each other and the way they communicate love, hate, excitement, acceptance, rejection, etc. This aspect is a significant challenge for the cross-cultural evangelist in that feelings and attitudes vary from one culture to the next. For example, some cultures are fear based and so the evangelist needs to think about presenting the gospel in a way that addresses this.
3. The Evaluative Dimension
This is the basis by which a culture decides what is right or wrong, true or false, liked or disliked. Hiebert explains that this forms a culture’s moral code that is used to determine what is seen as sinful behavior or righteous behavior.5 The cross-cultural evangelist has to be willing to learn what this looks like in a particular culture and how to then present the gospel in way that is accepted as right and true.
God’s perfect plan is for the church to be in the world, reaching it with the gospel. The church belongs to him and so his ways are above any human/ cultural ways. We discover his ways in the Bible, and out of this understand that there are core principles that are both above all cultures and at the same time applicable to all cultures. The challenge for Christians is to hold on to this principle as they live out the gospel in the cultures of the world.
Harris, Murray J., Andreas J. Köstenberger, and Robert W. Yarbrough. 2015. John. Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic.
Hiebert, Paul. 1985. Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
Niebuhr, H. Richard. 1951. Christ and Cul