What is the role of culture and culturalism in evangelism?

  • Phillip Jensen
  • 30 May 2018

Christians today are engaged in cross-cultural evangelism. In the past it was only missionaries going overseas to preach the gospel who had to understand cross-cultural evangelism, but today most of us do not have to go that far to encounter other cultures. Most English-speaking countries have the great joy of people from all over the world moving into their neighbourhoods.

But what does a post-Christian multicultural nation involve? Is it any different to evangelizing a Christian monocultural nation—and if so, how?

  • How far can we adapt evangelism to culture, and should we?
  • How far are we seeking to change culture by evangelism, and is that possible or desirable?
  • Is there a Christian culture we should seek to commend or impose upon society?
  • How far can we adapt the presentation of the gospel without compromising the gospel itself?
  • Do we compromise the gospel when we don’t adapt its presentation to culture?

While the Scriptures speak of many different cultures, they address certain universal experiences: creation, sin, judgement and death. They highlight the history of one particular culture, Israel, and yet they proclaim a universal message of salvation through the one and only Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. There are real indications of cultural conflict when the gospel goes beyond Judaism into the nations, but is there a new Christian culture that surmounts the old Jew/Gentile division? Or does Gentile Christianity stand beside Jewish Christianity as a separate way of life? Or does Christianity adopt many forms as people of different cultures embrace the one gospel of salvation?

To address these and similar questions we must first gain a biblical understanding of culture itself, by asking more basic and profound questions:

  • What is a culture?
  • Does God have a purpose in creating cultures?
  • How does culture fit into the plans of God?
  • What function does culture have for humans and societies?
  • Are all cultures of equal worth?
  • Does it matter which culture we embrace—are there some cultures more, or less, acceptable to God?

One universal fact of life is death. All and every culture has to come to terms with human mortality. But what is the Bible’s teaching on death? Adam is told that on the day he eats of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil he will surely die. But did he? Is his life outside the garden really death? Is this what Paul is speaking of when he writes that we are all dead in our sins and trespasses (Eph 2:1)? Are we dead while still alive? Are we simply spiritually dead, or is death something more profound? Are human cultures the ways that dead people understand their lives and mortality? Does rebirth by the gospel mean that the cultures of death no longer have their hold on us?

The rulers of this age did not, and could not, understand the wisdom of God. It was hidden from them, and without God’s revelation they would never know it. How then could Paul preach the gospel to people whose cultural wisdom was so contrary to the gospel? He claimed that in his preaching he knew nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified. They saw his message as foolishness. And yet the Spirit of God opened their hearts to see the glory of God in the face of Jesus. Yet, for some, the god of this world blinded their minds to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel.

Does this mean that the elective purposes of God are such that we do not need to pay any attention to the cultural setting in which we are proclaiming the gospel? Why then did Paul preach differently to the Jews than he did to the pagans in Lystra or the philosophers in Athens?

Some encourage us to think positively about the culture of the people whom we are evangelizing, others think negatively. Are we to become like those with whom we wish to share the gospel, or is our preaching of repentance a denial, if not a denunciation, of their culture? And what about our own culture? Is it any better or even different to other cultures?

Ultimately, how are we going to evangelize multicultural countries?

It’s not a question that is going to disappear any time soon. It is the issue of today, tomorrow and for the foreseeable future. We need to be clear in our understanding and expectation about culture in our communication of the gospel.

This is not a theoretical discussion of theology. It is a conversation with a very practical application.

The forthcoming Queen’s Birthday Conference is part of this important conversation amongst Australian Christians. If you can’t make it, then—wherever you live—download the recordings as you consider how you will be sharing the gospel amongst your neighbours.