“It is our culture.” It is a phrase we hear all the time in East Africa and, depending on the context, it can elicit humor, frustration, confusion, clarity, or some combination thereof. Anyone living in a foreign context, not just missionaries but anyone, whether by choice, calling, or vocation, is inevitably a stranger living in a strange land. Different language, different access, different rules, different climate, different culture. I never really had a conscious understanding of what culture is until I lived in a different one. Merriam-Webster defines culture as “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group.” It is the food, clothing, language, traditions, and customs. It is a way of life. But culture is so much more than these things. Culture goes deep. It shapes our mindset and influences our worldview. I truly believe that culture is in our DNA, as evidenced by my own unwillingness and, at times, inability to “change my ways”.
The vision statement of The Roots Network is “to see lives, communities, and cultures rooted in the love of Christ and transformed by the Gospel.” Since I started following Christ in 2009, and many times since then, I’ve been asked some version of the question “why do you want to change who people are?” in the context of Gospel ministry. In response to our vision statement I have been asked, “why do you want to change African culture?” People see the word transformed and assume that there is an underlying agenda to make the African church look like the American church or to convert people into Jesus followers who are doing just fine without him. Both understandable assumptions, when you look at how poorly the church and “Christians” have done things in the name of Jesus throughout history, but incorrect assumptions in light of what the Bible says about who Jesus is and what his mission is. In the book of Matthew, when asked what is the greatest commandment of Law, Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40) Before his ascension, Jesus commissioned his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20). The Greatest Commandment (love God and others) and the Great Commission (make disciples). The mark and the mission of every believer. Jesus understood what noone else did, that if we truly love God with everything we have, then we would be compelled to love others unconditionally. But Jesus also understood that we are incapable of doing so on our own because of sin. He knew that we, in fact, are not doing just fine without him.
The problem with the world is sin. Poverty is not the problem. Corruption is not the problem. Racism is not the problem. War is not the problem. These are all symptoms and consequences of the bigger, universal problem of sin and brokenness that plagues the human heart. People lie, cheat, steal, withhold, discriminate, manipulate, oppress, and kill because of sin. We will never fund, vote, legislate, protest, or fight our way to a solution. I firmly believe that the only thing that will change, or transform, “lives, communities, and cultures” is a changed heart. And only Jesus can change hearts. (Psalm 51:10, 2 Corinthians 5:17) That is why we need him. That is why he came and went to the cross… to change people’s hearts that they would become imitators of him, taking the love of Christ and the message of his Gospel to all people. One changed heart at a time.
This is why it matters what we mean when we say “it is our culture.” What culture? Rwandan culture? Burundian culture? American culture? My culture? Your culture? Is it some combination thereof? Or is there another culture? What about Kingdom Culture? The culture that Jesus came to usher in. It is a different mindset. A united worldview that transcends our cultures and brings them all together under the banner of the Gospel.
I believe one of the best examples of what Kingdom Culture should look like is seen in John 13. Jesus is taking the Passover Feast with his disciples. He takes off his robe (a symbol of his kingship) and puts on a towel (a symbol of servanthood) and washes the disciples’ feet, a lowly task reserved for non-Jewish slaves. Peter even protests, saying “You shall never wash my feet.” (verse 8) We often laugh at silly, stubborn Peter but this was not a humorous occasion. Jesus’ disciples were horrified and offended that their teacher would dishonor himself by performing such a shameful act. This was highly counter-cultural, and he explains to them “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.” (verses 13-16) Jesus sets an example for his disciples of what it looks like to submit our culture to Kingdom Culture. He goes on in verses 34-35 telling them to “love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus, the embodiment of the love described in the Greatest Commandment, humbly serving his followers in love as an example of how they are to live their lives.
My friend and fellow missionary, Josiah Luttrull, writes in his article titled Doctrines & Decisions: The Connection Between Theology & Practice about a “disconnect between the biblical theology that church leaders profess to know and the practices that they implement” in their lives. He discusses how this is partly due to a “lack of understanding and recognition of when culture is influencing theology instead of theology influencing culture.” It happens everywhere, across all cultures, it just plays out differently depending on the context. Sometimes we are unaware of it, and sometimes we are unwilling/unable to change because, as I said before, culture runs deep. It’s in our DNA. It is crucial that we recognize the aspects of our culture that are good, and beautiful, and healthy, and in line with the Gospel. And we should praise and glorify God for those things. But it is equally crucial that we recognize the aspects of our culture that are at odds with the Gospel, and if we cannot find a way to reconcile and redeem them to glorify God, then we must root them out.
So do we say “it is our culture” to explain why we ushered ourselves to the front of the line at the medical clinic or the lunch buffet at the pastor training conference because our culture says the title of “pastor” makes us important and men are served before women? Or do we say “it is our culture” to explain why we stood at the back of the line or went without food because the session we just sat through on Servant Leadership taught us that Kingdom Culture says we are to “love our neighbors as ourselves” with the sacrificial humility that Christ demonstrated with his life and death? When we live our lives through Kingdom Culture lenses, we live lives that are counter-cultural to the sin and brokenness around us, thus transforming the culture to the glory of God. Sometimes we cannot keep doing things the way they have always been done simply because “it is our culture.” Sometimes we need to dig our heels in. Some things are worth fighting for. Some hills are worth dying on. May God give us the wisdom and discernment to engage culture with the grace, mercy, and hope of the Gospel for our sake and His glory.
“Our lives are not lived for the sake of self, but rather for the good of others to the glory of God... Therefore, all who have been called to belief in the gospel have also been called to ministry. We are all partakers in the mission which is the glory of God accomplished through the means of the gospel... The glory of God should transcend all that we do. Our hope and passion is for Him to receive worship from those who have been drastically and eternally affected by the gospel of His Son. In order for this to happen, we must live with the mission in heart, head and hand." -Pastor Geoff Ashley