In our last blog, we began discussing the importance of learning the culture of a people group. Emanate students recently learned lessons from veteran church planters who served among the “P” people of South America. Here are the final three of seven key reasons to study culture…
5. To Apply Cultural Principles
We need to be able to accurately handle the big issues in their culture and speak to those issues so as to bring understanding. For the “P” people, kinship was of much greater importance than we can imagine from our North American perspective. Jesus’ statement, “You belong to your father, the Devil,” (John 8:44) was devastating to them, but the promise of becoming God’s children was absolutely precious to their hearts! The impact of these truths was greater for them because their sense of belonging to their family is one of the most important principles in their culture.
6. To Avoid Cultural Traps
Cultural traps are stories or specific beliefs that impede the understanding of key portions of God’s Word. For instance, the “P” people considered the dove to be the embodiment of an evil spirit. If the missionaries had not known this when they talked about the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove, the people would have been utterly thrown off course! They would have thought that the Holy Spirit was evil and there was therefore an evil spirit right in the middle of the Trinity!
Fortunately, the teachers knew this and were able to talk about the dove and what it represented in Scripture so that the people could be prepared to accept this event with the meaning that God intended. Their understanding of the very character of God was at stake!
7. To Overcome Barriers
Cultures (including our own) often have overarching concepts that can be formidable barriers to understanding and accepting the teaching of the Bible. The “P” people had extreme reverence for their ancestors. They considered them to be worthy of worship and had trouble believing anything that their ancestors had told them could be false.
The missionaries had to invest a lot of time in convincing the people that their ancestors were also fallen and sinful people. They were “in Adam” and “children of Satan” just like those who are living now. They were fallible and believed lies that they passed on to their children. Until the “P” people understood this, they wouldn’t be able to accept any teaching contrary to what their ancestors had passed down.
So why study culture? Because when it comes to reaching people with the truth of God’s Word, learning the culture is just as important as learning the language. If we don’t know the beliefs behind their customs, we will either teach a message that makes no sense, or a message that “makes the wrong sense” – and the result will be syncretism. These illustrations from the “P” people give just a few examples among many of how vital it is to be diligent in studying culture.
Every culture has its own barriers, parallels, traps, and useful gems. A successful cross-cultural messenger of the Gospel will need to invest the time to learn them – and teach accordingly.