On the Issue of Culture
by Erica Hale, VP of The Lulu Tree
Sometimes I feel like I live in two worlds, with one foot in North America and the other in Africa, and there are days when the stretch and pull of it make me feel like my heart might rip in two.
I sit in my house, as the snow drifts down outside, and watch video updates from Uganda. The sound of the teen mamas singing African worship songs — hands clapping and voices raised in joyful praise — fills the room, and I can almost feel the heat of the equatorial sun, taste the tea spiced with ginger and masala, and see the red dirt that stains my feet and marks me. I’ve walked the paths of Africa, and they have claimed a part of me.
And yet it feels a world away.
One of the hardest things about international ministry is that you are separated by an ocean, and the differences between our culture and theirs can seem insurmountable.
How do you bridge the gap? The language, the customs, the different ways we live? How do we not let the ocean divide us?
It’s easy to forget that this isn’t a new problem. In fact, it’s the same problem Paul faced in the earliest days of the church. As the gospel spread, people from cultures vastly different from the one the Jewish apostles knew became Christians. They were hit with an onslaught of sticky questions that they’d never faced before.
What about eating food sacrificed to idols? What about the man who has four wives when he becomes a Christian? What about the family that joyfully finds Christ but lives in a city where they may face death as a consequence?
And then there’s the blending of culture with faith. How many, many times Paul had to write the early churches to correct a false teaching that threatened the purity and power of the gospel! These slivers of idolatry were woven into the fabric of their daily life, and they mingled unnoticed with the new believers’ faith — insidious, quietly chipping away at their understanding of the true identity of Christ and the nature of God.
In the places where the Lulu Tree is planted in Africa, these threats to the early church still exist today. Opportunities for misunderstanding, misguidance, and false teaching are abundant. And the danger is chalking up real threats to cultural differences, especially since we in the West have done so much damage in the past by trying to conform others not only to Christ but to our culture as well.
But the truth is, in the West we’re no less guilty of letting false teachings, idols, and insidious lies make their way into our pursuit and practice of faith. In fact, our materialistic, self-exalting, pleasure-seeking culture presses relentlessly on the North America church, and we must fight this or become blind to the ways it’s distorted the gospel.
What we forget — and what much of the New Testament is actually about — is that none of us are supposed to be defined by culture anymore.
In Christ, there is no cultural divide, and we are no longer from different worlds.
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” –Ephesians 2:19-22
No longer strangers and aliens but members of the household of God! That’s our new identity as Christians, adopted by God and given the right to call him “Abba,” co-heirs with Jesus Christ (Romans 8:14-17). Children born of God (John 1:13), adopted sons and daughters (Galatians 4:5).
As children of God, we are one family with one kingdom culture, and because of this, we should have more in common with the believers in Africa than we do with our own Western lifestyle.
What if we really knew this, if we really looked at our Christian brothers and sisters as family, not as Americans and Africans and Europeans and Asians and Syrians? What if we realized that our shared family culture is what makes us one?
What would happen if we stopped allowing the issue of culture and language and distance and denomination divide us, and focused instead on helping the One Family of Christ be the best it could be — working like leaven in all the places where we live, rising with the Holy Spirit in contagious love for our Abba?
Maybe then we’d realize, it’s not oceans that divide us. We have one foot on earth and one in Heaven, and that’s what pulls our hearts. The dust of our Father’s pathway marks us and claims us as He leads us all to our one true Home.